A proud history of head gardeners

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The wait is over – we have a new head gardener. After an 18-month search the coveted horticultural role goes to John Rippin (right), who joins us here on January 19. John was previously head gardener at the National Trust’s Castle Drogo, in Devon.

Our quest began with the departure of Troy Smith a year-and-a-half ago, who left to take the lead at another of the National Trust’s most prestigious sites, Sissinghurst in Kent.

Why has the recruitment taken so long? William Greenwood, our property manager, says: “It has taken some time, but we were determined to find the right person for this very special job. We have met some outstanding candidates along the way but at last we have found our head gardener.”

Troy Scott Smith, Head Gardener at Bodnant Garden, Conwy, Wales

Bodnant Garden ranks among the finest in Britain and attracts around 180,000 visitors from all over the world, each year. Taking the helm of this national treasure is no mean feat. When Troy (seen left) arrived in 2006 he stepped into an illustrious role dominated by three generations of one family, The Puddles – head gardeners who famously helped shape the garden throughout much of the 20th century alongside the McLaren donor family.

But the story didn’t start there…the Puddles themselves built on the (literally) ground-breaking work of others.

3The garden as we know it today really began when Victorian entrepreneur Henry Davis Pochin (seen right) bought Bodnant Estate in 1874, which then included a Georgian mansion house and parkland of native trees laid out in the late 1700s. Pochin was a self made man – the son of a farmer who became a chemist, industialist, businessman, landowner, MP, JP – a man of enormous energy and vision. Not content with remodelling the house, he enlisted landscape designer Edward Milner, apprentice to Joseph Paxton, to resculpt the hillside around Bodnant Hall.

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Above, the Italianate house and parkland bought by Pochin and his remodelled version – with sloping lawn where now are terraces

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Putting Milner’s grand plans (seen left) into effect were George Ellis and his team of gardeners. A native of Suffolk, Ellis had risen in the ranks to become head gardener at Kirkby Mallory in Leicestershire, the home of Lady Byron, estranged wife of the notorious lord. Taking on the Bodnant job in the mid 1870s, he settled in the nearby village of Eglwysbach with his wife Ellen and young family. Sadly Ellen died in 1881 aged only 45 and it appears Mr Ellis moved on, or moved away from the area, but not before a decade or so of work which truly shaped the garden.

Ellis would have been involved in the early development of the pinetum in The Dell and in planting the Asian and American conifers being newly discovered by plant hunters, in the laying out of paths throughout the valley, in the rockworks to re-enforce the banks of the River Hiraethlyn, in the establishment of new watercourses and sculpting of the pools and falls which define the lower garden.

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He would also have overseen the planting of the famous Laburnum Arch in 1880 (above, with yew hedges now replaced by azaleas) and the construction of The Poem mausoeum, in 1883 (below).

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In the early to mid 1800s a new head gardener appears in the Bodnant records. Joseph Saunderson previously worked at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, designed by Paxton and Milner…famous for it’s glasshouse (perhaps he is among the Victorian gardeners pictured here at Chatsworth?)

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Saunderson certainly knew his onions, in fact all manner of fruit and veg and plenty about greenhouse growing. He arrived when Pochin was constructing the fernery and glasshouses; the fernery remains, attached to the house, but sadly the glasshouses, sited on the south wall which is now the Range border, were demolished in the 1980s. It is believed there was also a kitchen garden within the walls where the garden centre now stands, as this picture gives a tantalising glimpse:

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Newspaper articles from the 1880s and 1890s record the success of Bodnant’s kitchen garden, with many awards for fruit, even grapes. The Manchester Courier reported in 1888 that “at the Chester Conference an account was given of the great success in the cultivation of pears and apples achieved by Mr Pochin of Bodnant Hall, Conway Valley…and opions were expressed that there was no reason such success could not be achieved on many a sunny slope in Cheshire.” That showed them.

58Saunderson would also have been involved in work on the Italianate Terraces under Pochin’s daughter Laura and grandson Henry McLaren (Lord Aberconway) which began in 1904, and also the introduction to the garden, and Britain, of the first Chinese magnolias, camellias and other exotic plants.

Left, a young magnolia planted against a terrace wall

He had married wife Florence in Derbyshire in 1881 before moving to Eglwysbach. On his retirement in 1911 Joseph was awarded a silver teapot by Lord and Lady Aberconway for thirty years service. He and his family remained living in the area and son Eric also became a gardener – sadly Eric died aged 23, killed in France during the First World War along with 24 other young men from the village, including fellow garden and estate workers.

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The mantle of head gardener was next taken on by George Gurney, originally from Hertfordshire, who held the role for almost a decade through these difficult years of World War One. It was a challenging time; in addition to those working men who left to fight and did not return, Bodnant mourned Francis McLaren, Henry’s younger brother, who was killed in 1917.

Gurney took over the massive building project of the Terraces (seen above), which was completed in 1914 with finishing touches in 1918. He died in 1920 at the age of 56…perhaps those sad times had taken their toll. An obituary in the Gardener’s Chronicle reported: “He was an enthusiastic and successful gardener, and passionately fond of flowers. Mr Gurney took an active part in War-Savings Associations, and the church and social events in the neighbourhood…a true patriot, loved and respected by all who knew him.”

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Mr Gurney’s successor was Frederick Puddle (left) – and so began the most famous period in the garden’s history. For the next eight and a half decades the development of the garden was very much a family affair, a partnership between three generations of the McLarens – Henry, Charles and Michael (the current garden manager) – and three generations of Puddles – Fredrick (1920-1947) Charles (1947-1982) and Martin (1982-2005).

Frederick Puddle worked closely with Henry McLaren during a dynamic phase of the garden’s development. Through the 1920s and 1930s Henry sponsored expeditions by plant hunters such as George Forrest, Harold Comber and Frank Kingdon-Ward who brought back new plants from Asia and America to Bodnant. Most significantly, Forest introduced great quantities of rhododendrons to the garden. Frederick famously doubted whether these would thrive in North Wales…and was happily proved wrong. Not only did they thrive but he and Henry went on to breed new specimens, forming a collection of Bodnant hybrids.

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 The Canal Terrace before the Pin Mill

On another occasion Mr Puddle’s judgement was clearly spot on. Frederick oversaw the erection of the now iconic Pin Mill on the Canal Terrace, an 18th century building brought from Gloucestershire brick by brick in 1938. Legend has it that he persuaded Lord Aberconway not to site it in the middle of the terrace where it would spoil the mountain view – for which we can be forever thankful!

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Frederick’s son Charles followed in his footsteps to become head gardener in 1947 and he was at the helm two years later when Henry McLaren, president of the Royal Horticultural Society, persuaded the National Trust to accept gardens on their own merit, handing over Bodnant to the care of the Trust – the second garden to be accepted after Hidcote.

So began another chapter of Bodnant Garden as a National Trust visitor attraction, but the continuity remained in the links between the Puddle family as head gardeners and the McLarens, as garden managers. Charles and Martin Puddle (seen above) steered Bodnant through this new era, during which time it became one of Wales’ and Britain’s most famous gardens. The family link was sadly broken when Martin died unexpectedly in 2005. This was a huge loss to the garden and to staff, many of whom are still at Bodnant today and remember him with pride and great fondness.

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 Troy and the team launching the new Winter Garden in 2012

On his arrival in 2007 Troy Smith drove forward a number of innovations at the garden; the renovation of the two rose terraces, the redesign and replanting of herbaceous beds and borders and the construction of our new winter garden. He also championed the introduction of volunteers to the team.

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Since Troy left, the ship has been steered by acting head gardener Adam Salvin, who has been at Bodnant man and boy since coming here as a student for work experience. Adam has charted staff and volunteers through an incredibly busy 18 months which has seen the opening of new areas such as the Yew Dell and the Prim Path (above left) ongoing work to open The Far End this spring, the introduction of new picnic areas, family events, dog walking and winter garden openings.

John Rippin will be following in firm footsteps (no pressure there then) but brings a wide range of experience to Bodnant, from his career at Hilliers, Hidcote and laterlly Castle Drogo. He is relocating to North Wales along with his family and menagerie of animals…and there are some Bodnant parallels to make him feel at home. His former Devon domain is a National Trust property with a formal garden noted for its rhododendrons, magnolias, rose garden and even a croquet lawn. Here’s to another new era!

For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/BodnantGardenNT

 

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One thought on “A proud history of head gardeners

  1. rethoryke says:

    Reblogged this on Rethorykal Questions and commented:
    Congrats to the new Head Gardener! I hope Word and I can someday take a stroll through this section of Wales…

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