From time to time on this blog we have a guest blogger from amongst the garden staff here at Chartwell and I’m pleased to say that this week our esteemed Gardens & Estate Manager Giles Palmer is stepping up to the plate! Giles, together with Chartwell Exhibition Officer Jon Primmer, recently paid a visit to Alhambra & Generalife in Spain to research ways in which they deal with the effects of large numbers of visitors on the gardens there. This was made possible by a bursary from the Martin McLaren European Gardens Scholarship scheme which was set up in 1991 by Nancy McLaren in memory of her late husband, Martin. These scholarships make it possible for Trust gardeners to extend their skills and knowledge in topics ranging from conservation and plantsmanship in historic gardens to interpretation, public involvement and the impact of climate change on gardens. As National Trust Head of Gardens Mike Calnan rightly says, “We are immensely grateful to Mrs McLaren for her generosity and for her confidence in the trust’s ability to carry on the scheme in her husband’s name.” Over to you Giles…
Like many NT gardens, in recent years Chartwell has significantly changed its opening times in line with visitor desires. In the last 5 years we have steadily made changes away from the classic 5 days a week; March-end October and now offer visitor access to the gardens 363 days per year from 10am onwards.
Whilst this is clearly positive from a visitor perspective, it does create additional challenges within garden management. These challenges can broadly be divided into two main categories: conservation and visitor enjoyment. We have a great proactive team of gardeners at Chartwell, and though I’m confident that we will implement our own solutions to these challenges, it would be ignorant not to seek advice from properties already leading the way.
Tracing its origins back to at least 9th Century, most people think of Alhambra for its Arab – Islamic architecture and later Christian influences. We were there to observe the methods that allow them to welcome 3 million visitors a year whilst maintaining high horticultural standards. We were met by Fernando Martinez Avila, Head of Visitor Services and Ignacio Garcia, Landscape Architect. He explained that the plants, particularly formal hedging, suffer significant damage from visitor interaction. This isn’t deliberate vandalism, its innocent running of the hands along the top of the hedges, gently brushing the soft foliage. Very tempting even to me but when you multiply this by 3 million people you can see their point. Signage has been used to get this message across but the gardeners also play a role in politely advising the visitors not to touch.
Over the last few years, a NT gardener’s role has changed dramatically and it is now quite common for a gardener to dedicate large proportions of their working day assisting with running events or specific engagement activities. I’m keen to learn what role the gardeners play at a garden that receives over 3 million visitors each year. Ignacio explains that the team of 40 paid garden staff are employed to…..garden. Yes they are expected to do this with a smile upon their face, be approachable and responsive to visitor questions, but this should go in hand with practical gardening and not start to impact on the working day. Events are run by separate events staff.
We pass a gardener using a strimmer. They’ve been using battery equipment at Alhmabra for about 5 years, primarily as a way of reducing noise pollution though the reduction in emissions is equally valid. Use of battery machinery is quite common in NT gardens, the two favourite manufacturers being Stihl and Pellenc; we use battery hedge trimmers and strimmers at Chartwell. I ask about larger garden tasks, are these done outside opening hours or alongside visitors. ‘We try and get as much as possible done during the normal day but for bigger tasks we will close off entire sections of garden for up to a month’.
Fernando kindly offered to show us the workings of their historic water system. This was a great privilege and we spent the next hour in awe as to how this system was possible. Water from the Darro River travels via the Sultans Canal and aqueduct into the Alhambra. Here it is stored in open and underground reservoirs above the gardens waiting to be released via gravity. There is a network of channels that run throughout the gardens and even through the Palaces. Wooden and slate plugs are used to direct water flow from one channel to another and a network of pipes allow for irrigation of the flower beds. The perimeter of each bed has been earthed up by approx. 20 cm. Every morning the water is directed to each bed and covers the soil by about 2cm before being diverted elsewhere. It’s incredibly effective and a delight to observe.
Back at Chartwell Jon and I discuss our key findings from the trip and I think these can be summarised into 3 key points:
Conservation: Improved access for visitors is a positive thing and this should be done hand in hand with conservation.
Technology: We must embrace the use of technology and explore how it can be beneficial to our gardens. The audio technology I saw at the Alhambra would work really well in small intimate gardens. If the group is larger than 8 in number, a microphone system must be used. Each group member has an ear piece and the guide has a small microphone attached to their ear. The result is incredibly impressive; the tour guide does not need to raise their voice and the group members can explore plantings and take in views whilst still listening to every word. This prevents congestion and best of all; other visitors remain unaffected by the tour taking place. I think of Lady Churchill’s rose garden, where we struggle to fit more than 20 people in at a time. With this technology I could stand on the old croquet lawn as the tour group walked freely around the rose garden, answering questions and pointing out plants of interest – I’m itching to try it out!
Pride: During our trip to Alhambra, Ignacio was amazed at the number of garden volunteers we have at Chartwell; 45 to their zero. He queried how it was possible and though it was tempting to explain it was down to my excellent management skills and leadership, the truth is that it was down to the reputation and draw of the National Trust. For all my positive comments and wonderment towards the Alhambra, our colleagues over there feel exactly the same way when they talk of the National Trust. It was a handy reminder of just how privileged I am to be running the gardens at Chartwell.
That was just a small taste of Giles’ final report of his scholarship trip to Spain. He raises many important points that are of interest to gardeners and visitors alike. For more information have a look at the video that he and Jon produced whilst there, which can be seen by pointing and clicking right here. It goes without saying that we would like to express our sincere gratitude towards the Martin McLaren Scholarship and in particular to Mrs Nancy McLaren, without whom these inspiring trips would be unavailable to us.
Until next time, adios amigos…