Have you ever visited a garden or place, expecting to see or do a particular thing, only to have an experience that takes you by complete surprise?
On a recent visit to Dunster Castle, a garden in West Somerset, I was pleasantly surprised to bump into some colleagues I used to work closely with. It was a late Saturday afternoon and as it transpired, they were busy setting up for the annual sell-out Castle Ghost Tours.
My visit was mainly an opportunity to enjoy a family stroll around some pleasant gardens. However, as is the way with garden visiting, there is always the secondary benefit of enjoying one long plant ident!
Although this isn’t a typical plant focused article, one particular group of plants, Pineapple Lilies as commonly known, did speak to me, yet intriguingly it wasn’t their visual appearance that caught me eye. Neither I have to say, was it their grandeur as, being the end of the growing season their prior glory had faded somewhat.
Instead, it was a train of thought that was released, and a pleasant one at that. I was taken back to a period of time not too long ago when, as part of the National Trust system, each garden was supported by a regional garden advisor. It was a system I admired and valued hugely as it connected a relatively remote property in the region with a national network of properties and support. It also gave a relative newcomer to garden management a much needed ‘big picture’ thought process.
Those advisory visits were key meetings in the year for me and gave significant opportunity to discuss many topics with a knowing person. Horticultural challenges, aesthetic issues or garden team development; anything and everything could be raised for discussion. Another benefit was the connection they made with central NT discussions which might be relevant to ‘my’ garden specifically. It is easy to see therefore, that a meeting with your garden advisor was one not to be wasted!
Back in 2004/5, after promotion to the role of head gardener at Dunster, I had the privilege to work more regularly with a certain advisor named Bill Malecki, then the guy responsible for the South West region amongst others. As we looked to the future of developing Dunster in partnership, albeit at a distance, little did we know that our connection would soon be cut woefully short, for in 2006, Bill was to pass away prematurely at the age of 45.
Now, I’m sure it wasn’t just the power of the humble lily that triggered my memory, it was equally being in that evocative place where we would have walked and talked. My memory had returned to when those lilies were initially planted, remembering Bill’s initial reaction to them, and his encouragement to continue the theme – such a small detail, but noticed, and commented on. Naturally, I hasten to add, his involvement and professional support went much further than lilies!
Many people will have their own special and more personal memories of Bill, and for them, I hope this post triggers happy thoughts. Sadly for us all, our time with Bill was cut short, however, at this point more than ten years on, his presence and teaching lives vividly on and unaltered by time.
If ever I challenged Bill with a question it was clear that in his pause to respond, he was actually sifting through his considerable gardening experience before giving a well-considered opinion. His answers and responses often opened my thoughts to a wider world of gardening and thoughtfulness, and I think he knew this; he was very aware that the gardener, and not just the garden, needed nurturing and professional development.
As you can imagine, it was a special time for me, both personally and professionally.
Moving back to the present, I came away from Dunster not only with thoughts of a great family walk, but with reawakened memories of an inspirational character from my past. I’m certainly not one to hero-worship, but in a lineup of all those people I worked with at the National Trust; Bill Malecki would certainly rank highly amongst them.
There are many of course who continue to work and develop those gardens at Dunster, and best wishes to them all. In a small way however, I hope this article will stand as my tribute to a special person, who helped to guide me and build confidence along the way – I still carry his measured, thoughtful processes with me as I see and work gardens to this day.
And so, from a simple day out and reacquaintance with a not-so rare plant, to a host of reawakened memories of special times, and of a special person indeed.
Does a garden space or particular plant trigger a memory for you at all? If so, I’d love to hear about it!
Link for an Independent article about Bill Malecki