For the past 13 years I have been at Stourhead as the Head Gardener and Estate Manager. My role covers all aspects of the management of the garden and the wider estate and I love the diversity within my role. Some days can see me sourcing a rare plant to go into the landscape and other days I can be studying an old map of the estate to establish where we might re-plant trees on the wider landscape. It delights me to think that the work I lead and implement will be here for generations to come, just as it was 300 years ago when the Hoare Family came to lie here. I love what I do and love that people can enjoy the efforts I make and the efforts the gardeners that I work with make, not just at Stourhead but all over.
Stourhead is one of the finest landscape gardens in Europe, and I would argue, in the world. Wrapped in and protected by the rolling hills of the ancient landscapes of Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset, Stourhead has evolved over the last 300 years around a valley originally called ‘Paradise’. Before this period the land was occupied by the Stourton family from 1448 until the early 18th Century. Human settlements have been recorded here since before the Iron Age. Lived in, admired, journeyed to, shared and recorded by millions of people during the centuries Stourhead deserves the fame and importance it receives. Folk travelled across Europe and from America to admire Stourhead in the early days. Its fame and talk of its beauty spread fast and within 15 years of its conception, before it was fully complete, it had gained national and international recognition from the experts at the time.
I was born in Cork on the south coast Ireland and grew up just outside the city. As a youngster I always enjoyed being outside much more so than the indoor option. Once old enough I was put to work in the garden at home by my mother, I went quite willingly, she is a very keen gardener and also a world class flower arranger, even won the world flower show representing Ireland in Canada a few years ago. I suppose my mother introduced me to the world of gardening and my father gave me the interest in working closely with people through his line of business and that was where my journey started.
Our family moved house when I was around 14 years old, supposedly for a bigger home but once I saw the bigger garden the reasons behind the move became more apparent! My real practical input into the garden started here. I did much of the hard graft to move and divide many of the plants that were loved by my mother. Once in the new house I assisted in the placing and arranging of the plants in beds, constructed the pond in the garden and helped with some of the hard landscaping. I still really did not realise that this could be a profession, I had always seen it as a hobby of my mothers.
Off to the UK at the age of 18 to study Horticulture at Writtle University College for 3 years, then on the restoration of a Garden/Arboretum in Essex called Marks Hall while I studied Arboriculture through Merrist Wood in Guildford. I climbed as a Tree surgeon in the UK and Ireland for a period but was always a little dissatisfied inside and missed gardens and gardening and a close connection with plants and their associated history. The perfect job came about as Gardener/Arborist at Stourhead; garden history, a beautiful place with superb trees and shrubs- my wishes were granted. This was 1996. Soon after I was promoted to be the Assistant Head Gardener and this gave me more horticultural input and I developed an understanding of the management needs of the garden.
After over 21 years working in and now managing the garden and estate at Stourhead my love and commitment to the place grows every day. Often referred to as a pleasure ground in the past the garden at Stourhead has far exceeded the original ambition of the owner Henry Hoare in the Early 18th Century. Not only is it a pleasure to gaze upon at all times of the year but it is also a wonder to explore and experience with close friends, family and loved ones. It’s an experience to be shared, talked about, treasured and passed on. This is one part of the work I do that really moves me, when I witness the heart felt way in which the beauty of Stourhead can take one over I am genuinely emotional. I feel proud of the work we do and achieve at Stourhead.
Conservation is said to be the careful management of change, it’s about sharing and revealing the significance of places and ensuring their special qualities are enhanced, understood and protected for present and future generations. I feel that statement sums up my job description and it thrills me that I have ended up in a position in life where the work I do can really make a difference to the lives of others. Stourhead is one of the busiest gardens in the National Trust and we receive up to 400,000 visitors on the property every year, these people visit for many different reasons. Some come to study the deep history of the place, some come for the wonderful collections in the house but others come through a sense of need and to escape from their day to day. Many have established a family tradition of visiting Stourhead that has existed for generations, I meet others that are here as a result of a childhood memory and they want to recapture that moment before it’s too late. People step further and further from their cars, they lose signal on their phones, lose sight of modernity in the landscape and then they have escaped for their moment; they are lost in the beauty of the place, silenced by the spectacle before them.
Stourhead is a living work of art, a landscape garden overlaid with trees and shrubs from many corners of the planet, punctuated with splendid architectural features all positioned around a 15 acre lake. It’s a work to wonder at, come and see it someday.