All that business? by Bella D’Arcy Reed

June 16, 2016

in Articles, General Interest

A post about access to gardens for people on wheels. I have to acknowledge regretfully that Veddw is not wheelchair accessible. The slopes are too steep and our bathroom very small and up a step. But clearly it is important that gardens should do better than that wherever possible.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

Anne Wareham






QEF Garden for Joy , RHS Hampton Court 2013, rebuilt at QEF residential home for disabled young people, Designed by Heather Appleton and Bella. Photo credit: QEF

QEF Garden for Joy , RHS Hampton Court 2013, rebuilt at QEF residential home for disabled young people, Designed by Heather Appleton and Bella. Photo credit: QEF

Bella D’Arcy Reed: From a disabled garden designer:

Those of us who cannot go to Chelsea because of limited mobility rely on the BBC to convey to us the excitement, the colour, the plants, the designs. But this year it was marred by the comment by Joe Swift when he was talking to Chris Beardshaw about his rooftop garden for the parents of children at Great Ormond Street Hospital:  ‘it doesn’t have to be accessible, wheelchair-friendly and all that business’. What? A semi-public garden? Are parents all able-bodied then?

This thoughtless comment, sadly, conveyed contempt not only for people with disabilities but for the whole ethos of making gardens accessible: to people with disabilities, to elderly people – to people with push chairs come to that. Sadly, because Swift has been involved many community projects and indeed interviewed me on the accessible garden I co-designed with Heather Appleton at 2013 Hampton Court that has since been rebuilt at a residential home for disabled young people.

The opening QEF Garden for Joy , RHS Hampton Court 2013, rebuilt at QEF residential home for disabled young people, Designed by Heather Appleton and Bella. Photo credit: QEF

The opening QEF Garden for Joy , RHS Hampton Court 2013, rebuilt at QEF residential home for disabled young people, Designed by Heather Appleton and Bella. Photo credit: QEF

And it was made during a programme that featured wheelchair-bound garden designer Mark Lane.

It was as if ‘all that business’ got in the way of good design, as if it was irksome to have to consider it. Many of the show gardens seemed to be inaccessible to people-on-wheels. Fine. They aren’t open to the public. They are pieces of art, meant to be looked at from the sides, perfectly crafted, the catwalk models which are, hopefully, to be admired. To show the designer-as-artist at the top of her/his game.

The Italian Garden, Red House, Essex. Maintained by people with disabilities. Designer: Bella D’Arcy Reed Photo credit: Author

The Italian Garden, Red House, Essex. Maintained by people with disabilities. Designer: Bella D’Arcy Reed Photo credit: Author

It’s quite another matter for gardens open to the public. Yes I know historic gardens have places where people-on-wheels cannot go, and we accept that. New gardens should always be accessible – with pathways and viewing points – and audio-description days for the visually-impaired. New public buildings have to be accessible by law, why not gardens? In an earlier programme, Monty Don emphasised the health-giving properties of gardens and gardening, so even more important, then, that gardens should be accessible.

It is easy for the able-bodied to ignore the half-inch step that stops a mobility scooter in its tracks, or causes a wheelchair to be turned round (if there is a companion to do it), they just step over it. The able-bodied don’t think about it, as I didn’t until I got involved in gardens for people with disabilities, residential homes, public pocket parks, and then became a scooter-user myself. So I know it is a question of education, and thought. Garden designers think: we plan, we make lists of requirements, we have restrictions like trees that can’t be moved or awkward corners. So you would imagine that providing good access is part of the thinking, something on which we advise clients just as we advise on drainage, on suitable plantings, hard landscaping.

Hard landscaping – ah yes! Long paths, gravel:  it’s cheap, I know. But unmotorised wheelchairs can’t hack it – even with a friend – try hauling a sixteen stone person in a chair – you’ll get about a metre. Gravel isn’t all that good if you’re visually-impaired either. Scooters can cope – just – but the embarrassment of making such a noise in a quiet place is very off-putting. It is easy to provide wheelchair-width paths, but if you don’t provide a wider turning place at the end, we will fall into a flower bed, and not be able get out: not only is embarrassing but damaging for the plants. I recently visited a website for a new-built garden with a large conservatory containing delicious things which tells you that it is not suitable for wheelchairs because the paths are of gravel. I felt (unreasonably?) offended.  I had wanted to see those delicious things.  Couldn’t they have thought about an accessible path to that conservatory and costed it in (and increase their foot – ahem! -wheel-fall?)


Abbotsbury, Dorset. Nicely signed, wide paths, just needs brushing to get rid of large stones. Photo credit: author

Is it so hard to design a way round the garden that is easy for wheels? (It helps with heavy wheel-barrows too).  Is it so hard to find and ask a person-on-wheels to accompany you around an existing garden or park to make comments and suggestions about changes that could be made? The hedge that overshadows the path which can be brushed past by upright people, but slaps people-on-wheels in the face?  The ramp up to the tea room which ends in a half-inch threshold? The disabled toilet with a heavy door which can’t be held open on one’s own, and the one behind a door marked ‘please mind the step’? (Yep, true!) Many parks, sad to say, don’t have blue badge parking next to them. Mini-buses have to unload everyone at once and block the entrance.

Boleyn Park, Chelmsford. Wide paths to seat either side of sculpture, with space either side of seat, designed by Bella

Boleyn Park, Chelmsford. Wide paths to seat either side of sculpture, with space either side of seat, designed by Bella

Accessibility should be part of the thinking of a designer as obvious as drainage and planting. It isn’t a ‘right’ that people with mobility problems should be able to access gardens, it’s a question of humanity. Some can walk some can’t, so what? It doesn’t make us alien, it doesn’t make us invisible, it shouldn’t make us ignorable. Is it in the garden design curricula, the syllabuses for diplomas? If not, it should be.

Don’t bar us from gardens for lack of thought. Beautifully designed gardens are not just about the atmosphere, the careful plantings, the sound of water, they are about being able to see them, hear them, breathe them, travelling through them whether on foot or on wheels.

Bella D’Arcy Reed.


bella in rome 2015 (2)

Bella D’Arcy Reed is a garden designer, writer and teacher who advises gardens open to the public about accessibility. She has written two books on Italian renaissance and Edwardian gardens. She runs short garden design courses, has recently gained an MA (OU – Art History) and is currently writing a novel. E-mail:

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

Denise Schreiber June 21, 2016 at 10:25 pm

When friends and I visited Barnsley many years ago, we were walking the garden with Mrs. Verey and her son Charles. One of the walkways under the arbor was designed by her late husband with flat smooth river stones turned on their sides and embedded in the ground. She said the point was to make people to take their time walking and enjoying the garden not to miss anything. We immediately thought it was also a bit dangerous for anyone with a problem of balance or wheelchairs. As one with bad knees, I always dread the gardens that have tons of steps.

Charles Hawes June 17, 2016 at 6:00 pm

The question that I am left with after reading this is, understandably, I hope, what has this got to do with me? Yes, we open our garden to the public quite often and we have coach parties and all sorts of groups booking to come to see the garden. I suppose in this context it is, at least, important to make clear what our accessibility limitations are. And these are quite significant, with steep slopes, steps, thresholds considerably more than half and inch and gravel paths. In fact more and more gravel paths as we had got concerned about how slippery the (more mud than) grass paths had become.

So a step (or wheel) backwards as far as the thrust of this piece is concerned. But the cost differences between gravel paths and laid stone are enormous. We have always made the garden according to what we can afford. But also what our priorities are for ourselves. Because although we do open the garden we have always taken the view that this remains a private garden which we want to have visited. So we are unlikely to want to compromise between concerns about a general accessibility and our own needs until such time as we find that it is a problem for the two of us (or one of us). Those are, in effect, our terms for those that want to visit.

In my experience, visitors are self-regulating as far as whether he garden is cope able with. And this is how I would want it. If a potential visitor with a mobility concern wants to come I would want them to take responsibility for finding out if it will be OK for them. Sometimes we get a specific enquiry about mobility and we would never say that the garden is wheelchair-friendly. And we admit that it is challenging for those who are still on their feet but relatively frail. We offer to run people back up the lane if people can’t manage the walk back out of the garden. Its not much, I know, but it allows a few more people to come who might not have otherwise.

I probably think that it is reasonable to expect more from public gardens or those that receive public funding. But even there I think that there has to be some compromise between cost and aesthetics. Between the needs of the majority and those of the minority. Maybe we need to be as concerned to improve the design of wheelchairs if they can’t manage to get over a half and inch bump as we might be about changing how gardens are designed?

Katherine Crouch June 17, 2016 at 12:12 pm

Good points well made. I am able bodied but felt particularly disabled when I had a baby in a pushchair, a dog on a lead and a grizzling 3 year old in tow. With that in mind I have designed barrow / wheelchair ramps wherever there is space in a garden, with generous paths and routes.

However I felt that much of the proportions of the gardens at Wisley, particularly the Penelope Hobhouse garden, were spoilt by the dictat that every path must be wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass. 4 foot wide borders with 8 foot wide paths did not make for an beautiful garden.
I did think that the occasional short single width path with passing places and turning points would have made for a better garden without making access awkward.

It will be interesting to see how access for all is accommodated in the remade Wisley garden and the new RHS Garden Bridgewater. First you will have to get to the gardens – the people of Bridgwater in Somerset are bracing themselves for an influx of the geographically confused in 2019

Shirley Sills June 17, 2016 at 11:44 am

We open our garden for the ngs a few times each year and, until I read this article, I hadn’t thought beyond the garden itself being accessible to wheelchairs. It is a flat site with mainly grass paths and we have a reserved area for disabled people to park near to the entrance. However, I have just considered that the loo is up 2 steps, and with no hand-rails by them, and the teas down 4. There is little I can do about it so I will now designate the garden as unsuitable for wheelchairs.
Thank you for opening my eyes to the problems wheelchair users face in my garden.

Diana Studer June 16, 2016 at 10:53 pm

Even our cats, loathed the gravel paths we had for 7 years.
Our present garden has a few steps – not accessible.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: