Celebrating Our Founders
George Plumptre, Chief Executive of the NGS, salutes the loyal band of gardens which opened for the NGS in the first year and are opening again in 2012 to mark the Scheme’s 85th anniversary
When The National Gardens Scheme was first launched in 1927, 609 gardens opened and together they raised some £8,000. In a remarkable exhibition of longevity I am thrilled to be able to announce that 120 of those original founders are opening for us again in 2012 to celebrate the 85th anniversary. Some were due to open anyway and, as we shall see, a distinguished few have opened continuously; others have generously agreed to rejoin the ranks for this year only to mark the occasion. We are truly grateful to them all.
The fact that such a high proportion of the original group are not only in excellent shape but willing and able to open says a lot for the love of gardens which, from the outset, ensured the success of The National Gardens Scheme and which has sustained us ever since. Even before the Scheme had got to the end of its first month in 1927, its future had been assured, as confirmed in one of the regular bulletins which appeared in The Times:
‘The scheme under which many beautiful gardens throughout the British Isles are being thrown open to the public at a small charge for the benefit of the National Memorial to Queen Alexandra is proving a great success… Suggestions have been made from many quarters that the scheme should be made an annual one, and after consideration it has now been decided to make a permanent use of the organisation created for this purpose by preparing a rota of gardens year by year which might, by the permission of their owners, be open to the public for the purpose of benefitting the national work of the Queen’s Institute for District Nursing.’
Only a year previously, the idea had been first put forward of approaching people to open their gardens as a way to contribute to the fundraising efforts for the memorial fund that had just been launched in memory of Queen Alexandra (the much loved patron of the Nursing Institute, who had died In 1925). And now, with the initial popularity and fundraising achievement of the scheme assured, plans for the future were actively being put together.
The names that opened in the first year read like a roll-call of the great gardens of Britain, headed by Sandringham whose royal owner King George V was keen to support the scheme in memory of his mother. Sandringham’s loyalty to the NGS has been exemplary and the garden has opened ever since; so too has the garden of the late Queen Mother’s family home in Hertfordshire, St Paul’s Walden Bury.
Inevitably, enormous changes have taken place at virtually all of the gardens still opening, especially as outlined to me by one owner in response to the invitation to open again for the 85th anniversary; having confirmed enthusiasm to take part he added, “However, I should draw your attention to the fact that the days when Henley had eight full-time gardeners are long gone…With just one gardener we have converted many of the formal beds to less labour-intensive ones.”
In many cases successive generations of the same family have made their own contributions to the garden, as recounted by Lord Ashbrook. In 1927 his grandparents first opened the gardens of the family home, Arley Hall in Cheshire – famous for the oldest double herbaceous borders in England.
They were succeeded after the war by his parents who, in the 1960s, pioneered opening the garden commercially for one day a week on Saturdays but continued to support the NGS. He and his wife took over during the 1970s and further enhanced the garden, notably with the addition of a large area of woodland planting and they have recently moved out of the Hall to make way for their son and daughter-in-law, so continuing the relationship with the NGS to a fourth generation.
It would be hard not to mention those families who have opened not one but two gardens for the NGS since 1927, the Marquesses of Salisbury (three generations) with Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and Cranborne Manor in Dorset, and the Berkeley family (three generations) with Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire and Spetchley Park in Worcestershire.
In contrast there is a distinguished group of gardens still opening which have passed at some stage during the 85 years from being privately owned to belonging to the National Trust. It is an intriguing thought that in the late-1920s the National Trust was in its infancy and had not begun the opening of houses and gardens to the public. From the late-1940s on it has enjoyed a relationship of mutual support with The National Gardens Scheme. A number of these National Trust founders have undergone major restorations since their acquisitions, including Erdigg in North Wales, Ham House in London and Westbury Court in Gloucestershire.
Elsewhere our founders show spectacular evidence of new life being breathed into the long-established surroundings of their gardens: the Walled Garden at Scampston Hall in Yorkshire, redesigned and planted by Piet Oudolf; Holkham Hall where major restoration of the 18th Century walled gardens is continuing; and the Manor House, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, where new owners are rejuvenating one of the most celebrated gardens of the 1920s when it was the home of the fashionable garden designer, Norah Lindsay; to name just three.
And it is this sense of energetic continuity which accounts not only for the remarkable survival rate of our founders from so long ago, but also for wider growth and development of The National Gardens Scheme.
Today the gardens around great houses, which predominated in our first years, sit happily alongside those belonging to village cottages and urban terraced houses, to schools and allotment groups. In evergrowing confirmation of community activity, groups of gardening neighbours all over the country club together to open together and offer visitors a feast of different places to visit in one day.
And our charitable purpose behind the openings, the primary support for nursing and caring which has grown from 600 raising £8,000 to 3800 giving away £2.6 million, remains constant and has never been more important. As the year of our foundation took place during a period of great hardship and economic instability, so today similar uncertainty and challenges are evident and make the work of all our garden owners following in the footsteps of our illustrious founders increasingly applauded and appreciated.
For a full list of 1927 Gardens opening for The National Gardens Scheme in 2012 click here.