I’m five feet three, just over seven a half stone, walk around 7km a day as part of my job and can dig all day long. Oh and I love what I do for a living. Its undoubtedly a truism but, in my books, being able to spend my days out in the open air, nurturing plants, leaving my mark on the landscape and being paid as well definitely makes me one of the lucky few.
I can’t say that I was always this passionate about gardening, having spent the earlier part of my career in business consultancy but strangely, I do remember the garden I now work in from my childhood. As a four year old I often visited Torre Abbey Gardens with my aunt and uncle whilst staying by the seaside. Back then the gardens were full of bedding plants, bright and breezy, and the cavernous glasshouse seemed just like a jungle, perfect to explore. For many years I was convinced that there was a tiger hiding there somewhere – I’m still secretly hoping even now.
If these early visits inspired me, such inspiration remained determinedly dormant until my thirties. I lived and worked in cities – Bath, Bristol and Paris – and only started what became a life changing obsession by growing organic vegetables on an allotment as a sort of political protest. Once I’d harvested my own carrots though I was hooked big time. A couple of college courses later and I set off into the world of horticulture full time, working my way from the bottom up to become head gardener here around eight years ago. I still think that the challenge of vegetable growing is the best possible horticultural training, requiring diligence and enthusiasm in equal measure and despite the rigours of the day job, I can always find the time to pootle around in my veg patch. It keeps me sane.
When it comes to my working life there is a little more pressure, although the gardens really are a tranquil oasis so I can’t really complain. Despite being surrounded by the noise and bustle of a busy seaside town there is an air of peace and wellbeing and a feeling of timelessness that is often remarked upon by visitors. Not surprising when you think of the centuries that have passed by since someone first put spade to soil here.
Of course this means I have a wealth of history to draw inspiration from. Torre Abbey itself is over eight hundred years old and officially designated as an Ancient Scheduled Monument. It was founded in 1196 on what was then a lonely stretch of shoreline by a small French religious order and thrived right up to the Dissolution, its inhabitants working in the community as well as successfully selling cider from its seaside orchards.
For the next four hundred years or so it became a family home, hosting naval balls and dinners with guests that included Nelson, until in 1930 it was bought by the local council.
Over the last decade Torre Abbey has received a substantial sum of money from the Heritage Lottery fund to restore the ancient buildings and better display its collection of paintings and museum pieces to a modern audience. So too we have enjoyed support from the Arts Council to put on major exhibitions of art, something the area has lacked being so far removed from any urban centre. The Spanish Barn, for example, has been the setting for works by Anthony Gormley and Damien Hirst and this summer the collection will be augmented by a series of portraits from some of the best known young British artists around today in a major exhibition entitled Face2Face- Three hundred years of the Selfie.
As to the gardens themselves? They too have their history. Starting life as a 12th century vineyard before a combination of wide scale medieval famine and the arrival of the Black Death made burial space a priority, the area has also been a kitchen garden, an Edwardian gentleman’s pet project, home to Torbay’s gold medal winning Chelsea entries (back in the day when 3D sculptures using plants were the height of horticultural fashion), a botanical collection and a training space for students with disabilities.
My role since officially arriving in 2008 (my early visits as a child don’t really count, career wise) has been to rebuild and reinterpret this garden for the modern visitor. I am fortunate, despite the exalted status of the site to have the freedom to design, plant and maintain the gardens as I see fit, with the proviso that I don’t dig too deep without an archaeologist present!
I have kept elements from the past, such as the 70 foot long heated glasshouse, now restocked with tropical palms and plants from around the world including gingers, frangipane, bananas and coffee. It smells delicious, still inspires children to become jungle explorers and makes a wonderful space to have a winter’s picnic. We also have a rather splendid cactus and succulent collection, some of which are nearly a hundred years old and slowly, very slowly, trying to make their way out through the roof.
Elsewhere I have added elements that reference the past – knot gardens and a modern interpretation of a medieval garden, shaped in a cross with plants that were crucially important during that period – but I have also tried to bring a more playful element to the garden experience where I can. My insect eating plants are very popular with all ages, as are the sensitive plants that react to being touched, the hot chocolate tree and the rather saucy furry ball plants. Top of my fun list, albeit with a sinister side, is my collection of poisonous plants inspired by the works of Agatha Christie, who was born in Torquay.
It all makes a great setting for a range of cultural adventures, from music festivals and open air cinema to Shakespeare played in the ruined church. Great for me as I get to see it all for free but more importantly, a unique set of experiences for our audience. Hopefully my tiger’s enjoying it too!