Recently on a cool, rain threatened autumnal day, I met with some colleagues at a local arboretum; a venue chosen specially for being away from our own regular haunts and much trodden garden workplaces. The group was essentially made up of gardens, parks and tree managers, who all held the simple aim of meeting, reconnecting and talking.
There’s nothing quite like a trip out to compare and contrast, and so for this gathering, there were plenty of visual treats to prompt discussion. Incredible foliage colours, new tree varieties to discover, unusual growth forms and fungi to puzzle over. We also made time, naturally, to test the recently refurbished café – why ever would we not?!
Placed in the fading days of autumn, the subdued light on that particularly overcast day set a calm, mellow tone that seemed perfect for an end-of-a-very-long-year stroll. Furthermore, being the last productive day of the week, there was an additional need for the day to be topped and tailed with emails and business as usual. Some were noticeably responding to issues back at base throughout the day.
At the foot of the day though, any melancholic moods were quickly swept away. Firstly as my lift arrived and we jumped straight into a much needed business catchup. Secondly, as we bumped into another colleague on arriving in the car park; the giggles started in earnest at that point. Then lastly, as the three of us were warmly greeted by the others already gathered around two tables in the cosy café.
Now, as casual as these gatherings might appear, something that always grips me is the blend and makeup of the individual folks within the group. All present had pretty much devoted their working lives to the horticultural world, as have I, but all are so completely different, working as they do in unique situations. There are some traits though that common to all, if existing in varying degrees: a love for plants; conservation minded; creative thinkers; entrepreneurial, heritage focused, nature protective and so on. They’re also, I must add: leaders of people, motivators, critical thinkers, strategists and much more.
I could easily expand those lists, but if further recognition is needed I can also confirm that between them, they hold some of the most prestigious horticultural positions in public heritage gardens, across three south midlands counties. Indeed, should we have to pay for the combined gardens management experience around that table, we wouldn’t get much change out of 250 years for the several who were present.
Needless to say, there was plenty to talk about. Nevertheless, whilst the conversation flowed across and around the table, I couldn’t help but picture each of their garden plots; knowing them very well having visited privately and professionally for more years than I dare remember. To that end, being conscious of not wanting to merely write this as minutes from an informal meeting, I thought it might be interesting to verbally paint their gardens for you; so do brace yourself for a swift garden time travelling experience!
Amongst the venues then, are those where their original development spanned the entire eighteenth century, with one particularly fine example fixed, as it were, in the formal early years of the period where refined formality and rigid geometry won the day. The tightest of tending and most careful preening greets me when I visit there but set amongst bee-pitted clay walls, smooth bowling lawns and flowery wilderness walks, it feels entirely appropriate and correct. We can stroll along gravelled walkways, touch real citrus fruits grown in a real orangery, focus on individual flowers in their rich glory, and even bowl on a green just like the historical sketches – tricorns optional of course.
Other plots from that same pivotal gardening century and represented in our gathering offer, both historically and now, a beautiful contradiction to that early century playground. These feature large serpentine lakes, wilderness walks for strolling amongst berries and shrubberies overhung with exotic trees. These garden plots, with at least two classic venues represented at our gathering, are altogether more discreet in their make up, and vast too, with blurred boundaries that leave people debating where the garden ends and its park begins; God bless the ha-ha.
But then, with those Georgian masterpieces often taking top billing, I bring balance, with two gardens represented whose glow from either side of the glorious eighteenth century try valiantly to steal the limelight. Between them, medieval stew ponds, time served topiary and extravagant terraces are juxtaposed with flowing flower borders, hidden corners and woodland walks. Rockeries, kitchen gardens, evocative sculptures, bog gardens and mirror pools are also perfectly posed between lime mortared walls speckled with time served vine eyes.
These gardens, even with their vast parklands and countryside views where an imagination can wander, are intimate, protective, and atmospheric. Whilst their houses generally hold a moment in time, their gardens are positively alive and kicking, their borders continue growing, and their nature broadens. They offer countless places to pause, be it to sit in peace and let worries float away, to lean on a wall and breathe fresh air, or to simply stick your nose amongst the flowers. These gardens are much loved too.
Another garden, I have to say, challenges the very idea of a garden. That place offers long walks, and then some. There are vast lakes with islands, grottoes, ever-growing shrubberies and carefully composed vistas. Temples placed here and there, almost everywhere, hold hidden meanings. Many structures are still in active use, giving purpose and a destination to each garden spaces, whilst some are merely shells, each with a hauntingly beautiful character.
That place I have to say is vast, immense and hard to comprehend. It does though, despite its grandeur and obvious place in another time, hold something for the now. Like the others, it can transport you to a specific date in the past or the set of a period drama, but it’s also perfectly ready for the now. Whether for exercise or inspiration, for room to spread your wings, or to find one of countless spaces for reflection, this venue holds these in horse-drawn cart loads.
But there’s one more garden, the last I’ll mention for now, which holds all of those gardening periods in its grasp. If you were to peer through a time focussed virtual reality headset, if it were to exist, you would see Edwardian, Victorian, Georgian and Elizabethan layers woven tightly together. But importantly you would see striking interventions, modern designs if you will, that confidently land this garden in the twenty first century too.
This last garden has seen some hard times, I think it’s fair to say, but has been held together by care, devotion and continued focus. Some of its trees and land forms stretch back over four hundred years to a time when the river-side plot would hardly be considered a garden at all. Formality arrived in a huge way at one stage with raised walkways, fish ponds and pavilions which vied for space with farmed animals and flower pots. This of course, was largely swept away though and fashionably tamed for a while, in an attempt to restore a more natural setting. But, as is the way, that garden endured much change again when the flower favouring gardeners arrived and swished their brushes.
To think all of the gardens mentioned above represent but a small slice of the larger gardens cake available, and regardless of what triggers every visit, what is not lost to everyone involved in our gathering, is that all these places offer somewhere safe to connect, to engage, to be nurtured. What is not lost to me also, is that for each garden mentioned above there’s an incredible person who as well as being an expert in their field, is connected, engaged, and nurturing too.
I have and will always have a huge respect for the knowledge and experience that people like this hold. They’re managers and leaders, yes, but they are care-takers too, of places, heritage, the environment and of people. To them, every fingerprinted brick, carved walling stone, and every verdigris garden door hinge matters. Every garden apprentice who offers new hope and a safer future, matters. Every trained gardener interested to learn more, matters, and every volunteer and visitor, matters.
For me then, that day when we walked and talked amongst the trees, laughed and learnt amongst the yellowing leaves, was a delight. To be with these influential people and listen as they put an incredibly challenging year into perspective, was an education.
Whatever each of those folks took away from the gathering I dare not assume, but connecting, throwing ideas around, sharing experiences, was for me worth every minute – even the machinery chat! So whilst the rain threatened, it never actually fell, and whilst the year slowly rolls to a close, these gardening types are busy planning; not just for next year, but genuinely planning for the future generations who will visit and work in the places they hold so close.
To summarise our autumnal gathering, I’ll close by saying that whether it was over coffee, whilst strolling around the arboretum and especially during lunch, we talked. We chewed the fat, put it out there and aired some linen as we walked. Then, when all was said and done, we took away some seasonal nuggets of wisdom, and a renewed sense of belonging; or maybe that was just me…