Brodsworth Hall, virtually unchanged since the 1860s, is one of the most complete surviving examples of a Victorian country house in England. Located in Brodsworth and close to Doncaster, this Grade 1 listed building is often referred to as English Heritage's flagship property in the North. Unable to visit due to Covid-19 closure, David Mears was invited to return recently and spent some time with Senior Gardener, Edward Watchorn
My visit was arranged to coincide with the reopening of the grounds to the general public following the Coronavirus lock-down period. Fortunately, it was a warm, sunny day when I arrived at the gardens maintenance facility and met Senior Gardener Edward Watchorn. We stayed outside, sitting either side of a huge table to maintain social distancing and chatted briefly before embarking on a tour of the grounds on foot. Before setting off, Edward explained the two main objectives at Brodsworth Hall: Firstly, conservation of the property and contents rather than restoration. "Curators and conservators realised that the best and most historically sympathetic approach was to preserve and conserve as much as possible of the house and its contents, whilst staying true to the history of the hall", says their publicity. Secondly, return the gardens to their earlier formality. Naturally, it is this second objective that is the subject of my visit and the mantra the team work too.
Work on the gardens, as we see them today, was first carried out in the 1860s and, most unusually for that time, were designed by the then owner Charles Thellusson himself along with his head gardener Samuel Taylor. As Edward remarks: "They certainly deserve credit for such splendid and innovative gardens!" Certainly, lavish funds were spent as, in 1863, it has been recorded, £100,000 was spent on the gardens compared with just £20,000 in the previous year. It has been interesting for me to see this long-term project evolve over the years and the dedication of the gardening team.
Senior Gardener Edward Watchorn
Grounds and Facilities Tour
As we entered the public area of the grounds, a few people were to be seen walking through. Edward explained that, because of the Coronavirus requirements, all visits now had to be pre-booked for a particular time, with social distancing being maintained and with limited numbers. There were hand sanitising points, a one-way system around the grounds with discreet signage and a number of stewards strategically placed throughout to provide advice. Some parts were understandably cordoned off, such as Game Larder, Summer House and Target House, which remain closed but otherwise all seemed relatively normal; an impressive arrangement to meet the latest regulations and not as off-putting as one would have envisaged!
We started in the Rose Garden where I noticed a different look (Brodsworth is close to where I live, so frequent visits are made here). Edward showed me the new beehives hidden in one corner. It seems all is working well and the plan is to produce Brodsworth Hall honey! Much had been done in this area, it was plain to see and a good transformation (see project work later).
We moved on to the Target House (see projects) and Range. Where the area leading to the target area at the far end had been lawn in the main previously, it now features new beds, tastefully planted with a wide variety of flowers; the Canterbury Bells were in full bloom as we passed.
The reworked rose arch and new box hedging / The Fern Dell
From there, we moved into the Fern Dell and one of my favourite areas, with over one hundred fern species, a trickling waterfall and ivy-covered chain swags between iron posts around the upper surrounding paths. This and the previous area were originally a disused quarry and incorporated into the garden design in the 1860s. From here, we climbed stone steps and walked to the laburnum arch where volunteers and gardeners were planting. We took this opportunity to take the team photo! We moved on to the edge of the gardens and stopped at an ornate pedestrian gate in an old iron fence which opens onto a pasture. Edward wanted to point something out here that I knew absolutely nothing about. He pointed to an area a few yards in front of the gate and asked if I could see the depression in the ground. Yes, it was there but didn't seem to have any significance. Edward said that this area, in the times the house was built, would be full of water in winter and would freeze. The gate was there for staff to access the area to enable them to break the ice and carry it to the nearby ice-house which we saw next and situated under the elevated summer house; amazing! Just yards from this structure is a quiet area of grass shaded by large, well established trees and this is the pets' cemetery. There are proper miniature headstones each engraved with a particular pet's name. Favourite family dogs and a parrot lay here!
Rear of rose garden where dog kennels were originally / Pets' Cemetery
We returned to climb the steps up to the Summer House to take in the view of the formal flower garden and, of course, the house. We then came down to get closer for a photograph of the wonderful planting. I must confess that I was (and probably hundreds more were) disappointed at being unable to visit when the magnificent spring flower beds were at their best; so much beauty and effort and passed unseen! Not to be undaunted however, the gardening team and volunteers were out there planting up new displays. The main feature flower garden, fortunately, had been completed and looked splendid, certainly worthy of photographs. Edward was proud to tell me that he had designed this and that a staggering 24,000 plants had been used; Brodsworth is certainly bouncing back!
We walked through the flower beds to the house and turned to take in the two wonderfully manicured croquet lawns. These two lawns are special as they are an SSSI site due to the presence of Brodsworth Thyme in the grass! They are treated with great care and the mowing, as you'll see from the photograph, is to a high standard. A very strict maintenance regime is necessary and there are restrictions on the use of fertilisers, etc. There is an active croquet club at Brodsworth and a visit when they are playing helps to convey the quintessentially English feel. During summer Sundays (in normal non-Covid times), brass bands play on the terrace and folk sit on their picnic chairs or rugs on the croquet lawns to enjoy the music.
The newly planted Flower Garden / The wonderfully manicured croquet lawns
We moved round to the front of the house and took in some of the ten, Grade II listed, marble statues that are placed around the grounds. We saw too the Game Larder and the Privy (the sole toilet in the gardens in the early days). We passed wild flowers growing in unmown areas and caught a glimpse of Brodsworth church before returning the maintenance facility.
Edward's career path
Edward tells me a little more about himself and the job at Brodsworth.
Now thirty-one, Edward went to Myerscough College near Preston at the age of sixteen and studied arboriculture for four years, which included a year in Canada! "Why Canada?" I asked. "Well," he said, "they speak English, have mountains and plenty of trees!" Edward wanted to be a gardener when growing up. Then, having taken up rock climbing too, thought it seemed sensible to try a job with adventure. He found his own placement with a large tree care company and the college approved. "The trees out there are on a totally different scale to here, I can tell you!" said Edward. "I was so lucky as I was well looked after by my new boss Bruce Larson. I was eighteen years old at the time and needed to sort out a visa and accommodation. Bruce helped me with both and even put me up for a time. I worked hard and must have made an impression as I was promoted and had my own team!"
Back from tree surgery in Canada and returning to college, Edward completed his studies, gaining a triple distinction in Arboriculture. He then went self-employed and included some garden maintenance too. This helped him to be able to care for his dad who was suffering from M.S. During this time, Edward was an explorer scout leader (14-18-year olds) and was able to arrange annual three-week trips to Europe for them along with other UK trips throughout the year.
The immaculate gardens at Brodsworth
In 2010, Edward took up a job with Anderson Tree Care in Sheffield as foreman and stayed for eight years. Work included domestic council work and emergency 24-hour call-outs. Clients included the National Trust, English Heritage and the Environment Agency. In 2018, and probably wanting to answer his original desires, Edward secured a place on the Historic and Botanic Gardens Training Programme (HBGTP) operated by English Heritage and "luck was with me again" as he said. "I was posted to Chatsworth!" Here he spent a year gaining extensive gardening experience in an historic setting. "I was truly amazed that I got this opportunity as I had a great fondness for Chatsworth and horticulture". Whilst at Chatsworth, academic work was essential too and he had to produce three projects: 1) Conditioning Survey, 2) Career Development (all about the industry) and 3) Rose Garden. "I presented all these and then was asked to give a public talk at Sheffield Botanical Gardens on a career in horticulture. It was well attended and received, I'm pleased to say!"
In September 2019, a well-timed job opportunity came along. "At the end of my one-year placement with Chatsworth on the HBGTP, a Gardener position at Brodsworth was advertised. I was thankfully successful in my application and started a week after finishing at Chatsworth. After six months of working here, an opportunity came to apply for the Senior Gardener position. After a lot of preparation and an in-depth interview process, I was successful in gaining the position".
I asked who had inspired him; "Mick Brown, the Horticultural technician at Chatsworth, was my main inspiration. His help and guidance convinced me that horticulture was the right choice!"
The Team. left to right Daniel Hale Head Gardener, Edward Watchorn Senior Gardener, Joel Dibb & Mick Grundy Gardeners. (Not on photo Georgina Yates Gardens Supervisor)
Meet the team
Dan Hale, 33, has been at Brodsworth for five years and came from Wentworth Castle. He's been in the industry for fifteen years and gained his qualifications at Askham Bryan College. Before applying for the job, he visited Brodsworth; he likes the formality.
Joel Dibb, 26, went straight from school as an apprentice at Alnwick and gained his qualifications whilst there. Returned to Yorkshire and has been at Brodsworth for nine months this time; he had a spell here previously.
Mick Grundy, 41, spent twenty-four years in the Army and became a volunteer at Brodsworth. Now four months into the full-time job.
Georgina Yates (unfortunately absent on the day of my visit) has been at Brodsworth for four years.
To assist the gardening team, Brodsworth can boast forty-five active and keen volunteers at present; This could be one of the largest volunteer bases in the country! Their help is invaluable; I saw quite a few of them out in the gardens, planting in the main, during my visit.
Budgets are set for the whole department, which Head Gardener Dan Hale administers. Alongside the regular budget funding, the department has C.I.P. (Capital Investment Projects). "We need to put up our case and apply and this is not guaranteed. Each year, we've received the funding requested, so we must be getting it right!" said Edward.
View towards the Target House with spring flowers / Looking down the replanted Target Range
About the site
The whole site is on a limestone ridge, so there's always stones in the soil. Compost is produced on site and a tractor PTO driven Seko SAM 5 composting machine is used throughout the site.
Edward responded to the question about additional equipment and lighting: "We don't have or need any additional equipment for regular use, but the Enchanted Garden event every winter sees the whole garden subtly illuminated to give a real fairy-tale experience!" This is an event that is seen by hundreds of people and one not to be missed. The lighting is very sophisticated with 1000s of LEDs, including fairy lights leading you along pathways, plus uplighters and floodlights add to the ambience; a truly magical event ... but will it happen this year?
The whole site covers twenty acres, if the parking areas are included. It is one, rather large, Victorian garden with names allocated to different areas; Flower Garden, Rose Garden, Fern Dell, etc. There are seldom problems with natural occurrences and, as the property is on a hill, flooding is not an issue. High winds can be experienced but regular surveys (some trees are quite large!) ensures that the likelihood of damage is prevented.
Entrance to Ice House / The Privy / The Game Larder
More often than not, maintenance regimes revolve around visitors. For example, because the grassed areas are so popular with picnickers, the team mow early each day before visitors arrive; usually two hours each day. "We use Hayter rotary mowers (we have three) as there is no cylinder mowing now. Time and manpower!" says Edward. "We also have a ride-on triple Kubota and a Kubota flail mower."
As far as who does what, Edward explained: "We can all carry out the range of jobs and each day I usually hand out the jobs involving machinery and George (Georgina) allocates volunteer tasks." Presentation is ranked very high at Brodsworth. "We maintain a high standard, so to retain the authentic experience needs much care and attention." says Edward. "The right plant has to be in the right place. We need to remember we are offering a visitor experience."
Renovations are not really affected by events. Vintage car rallies are held, as too are brass band concerts for example, but there is plenty of huge lawned space for these and the ground suffers little.
Changing weather patterns seems to have raised irrigation as a growing issue and a badly timed frost can cause problems. Sprinklers have been installed in the flower garden and fern dell to help watering, but the huge urns still need hand watering which is labour intensive. Soaker hoses are used in the herbaceous borders. Ferns in the dell are carefully wrapped in winter and need even more careful unwrapping when spring comes! Delicate species, such as bananas are brought into the greenhouse during winter and dahlias are lifted and brought in too.
Busy planting below the Laburnum Arch / A few of the hundreds of plastic pots and trays for recycling
"What are you working on at the moment?" I asked. "The Rose Garden has been quite a project it seems". Timing was good, as the current rose garden project had just been completed. The object was to restore it to its original layout and with two hundred period-correct roses! The old ironwork of the arch needed work too and there was also a major issue with the box hedging to remedy. Box Blight was the problem and so all was removed along with the soil. The reason, Edward told me, was that the disease comes from the soil and rain splashes transfer this to the box hedging. So, all new disease-resistant box hedging plants were planted in new soil but, this time, with a top mulch to prevent splashing should the disease return.
I'd heard about dog kennels in this area, so Edward explained: "The old dog kennels we're situated behind the Rose Garden, near to where the herbaceous bed is now positioned and not far from the stables. Dogs were an important part of the family, as can be seen from the pet cemetery positioned within the garden, and were both companions and used in game shooting. The kennels fell into disrepair around the 1960s and were later demolished. When English Heritage (EH) took on the site in 1990, the design for the new herbaceous bed, and the yew hedge behind, took influence from the old building which once stood there. This was done by partitioning the bed into sections, using the yew hedge to replicate the kennels. The yew hedge has now matured and thickened up and provides a neatly cut backdrop to the billowing herbaceous bed in front." This project certainly has been carried out very well and the team are pleased with the authentic look.
The upcoming project is the restoration of the Target House situated at the end of the rose arch and with a long view down the range. The Target House, originally turned into a Swiss Chalet appearance by Thellusson, was where the family would take tea. This is where, subsequently, the highly fashionable sport of archery took place in the 19th century and the necessary equipment was stored inside. In recent times, it has been used for a small exhibition about the garden. It has shown signs of deterioration and is closed awaiting the upcoming project.
Project work over the past years has been ongoing and driven by the main objective: to return the gardens to their earlier formality! Main project work is carried out during the closed period in the main. Landscaping and groundworks are carried out in-house but work on structures, all listed, require the services of specialist contractors.
Training, education and Health & Safety
As would be expected, all staff are suitably qualified and hold appropriate certification, and for all machinery used. Edward commented, "We have a very good training budget here. If there is a cost benefit to English Heritage of us doing, and being trained, for a job instead of using contractors, it's done! We are looking into bringing in apprentices for next year."
Brodsworth has a regionally based H&S officer and everyone on the gardening team has the appropriate skills and training for first aid.
ClearWater washpad recycling system
Machinery and equipment
Machinery is sourced, usually locally from either PTE in Doncaster for small kit, or Marr based Farmstar for the bigger kit. "They are so helpful" Edward tells me "and literally just up the road; so convenient and handy for any breakdowns!"
New pieces of kit that have made the job better have been the new Hayter mowers. "The grass collection is far superior to the previous model" says Edward. "The motorised tillers are a great asset too; very handy between shrubs, cutting down on hand weeding!"
One big piece of kit that has made a real difference to the composting at Brodsworth is the SEKO SAM 5 PTO compost maker, purchased in 2013. This towable unit, PTO driven from a tractor, will chop and shred twigs, small branches, leaves, grass, etc. and discharge from a conveyer for composting.
Servicing of machinery is carried out by the two local dealers or in-house if possible. "What's on the wish list?" I ask. "Two things" is the response. "Our own mini digger please and a drip system for watering!"
Pests and diseases
There does not seem to be any real problems with animals, birds, etc. but there have been disease issues with Aucuba Blight. I saw evidence of this in the yard (see photo) where removed bushes with foliage blackened by the blight had been brought to be destroyed. I learned that Aucuba (Spotted Laurel; no, I didn't know either!) is recommended for its robustness and ability to grow in dry, shaded sites. However, despite this reputation, Aucuba can become stressed such as when its roots become waterlogged during cold, wet winters and, as a result, the leaves and shoot tips turn black. The storms and persistent rain earlier in the year probably were the cause.
Beehives behind rose garden / Aucuba blight
Ecology and Environment
Local fauna and flora is most important to Brodsworth and the team take great care to encourage both. As Edward commented; "We leave certain grass areas long to encourage wild flowers. We have a number of orchid species here and there are a number of butterfly species too". Something else he mentioned, that I found interesting, was that there is Yellow Rattle in meadow areas; "Yellow Rattle weakens some of the dominant grass varieties and this allows more wild flowers to spread across meadow areas," Edward informed me. A number of wildflower areas have been created and the beehives are making a contribution to the environment; I'm looking forward to the Brodsworth Honey!
English Heritage are keen to be compliant with current environmental legislation., particularly from the pollution prevention and environmental protection standpoint. This is exemplified at Brodsworth by the installation of a ClearWater washpad water recycling system, some years ago. The system prevents pollution of the groundwater but also saves thousands of litres of water by recycling. The system, used to wash all the garden machinery, is regularly serviced by The ClearWater division of Acumen Waste Services Ltd.
Brodsworth have also updated their fuel and oil tanks in recent years by installing fully compliant bunded tanks. To further demonstrate the recycling programme at Brodsworth, I was shown just a small portion of the thousands of plastic plant pots and trays that are recycled each year.
An Environmental Policy is in place and produced by English Heritage Head Office. The team has access to their own environmental consultants who can liaise with the Environment Agency if required.
A new inclusion in my questions was: How has Coronavirus affected you, your job and your business? Edward said that over ninety percent of English Heritage staff were furloughed and choices were given, based on personal circumstances and skills. This meant saving the business as loss of revenue was huge. Management were in regular contact though and Edward found this helped. He was certainly impressed by the way all was handled throughout this difficult period.
Gardeners were the first back to work from the furlough scheme as this was seen as so important! "After all, the gardens are what folk come to see!" Edward emphasised.
One thing that did change was the mowing regime because of the lack of resources. Some areas have remained un-mowed, including the sides of the grassed banks around the house. This has been commented on favourably, so some areas may stay that way! Extra work has been necessary to produce signage and mark out a one-way system around the grounds, close certain areas and completely refurbish the toilet facilities; how timely for visitors during this period of Covid-19 precautions!. An outside seating area only is catered for by a reduced catering facility. Volunteers are assisting to provide the extra stewards required throughout the route.
About the industry
Edward was armed with some interesting facts concerning the state of our industry:
• Ornamental horticulture contributed £12.6 billion to GDP in 2018
• £1.35 billion worth of plants produced and sold in the UK in 2017
• £1.2 billion were imported
• £1 in every £100 of household spending is on horticulture goods
Edward suggested; "Maybe we should produce more in the UK. Surely its's better for bio-security and the economy?"
Incidentally, there is an All-Party Parliamentary Gardening and Horticulture Group (APPGHG) which was established almost two decades ago to promote and facilitate communication and understanding between representatives of the world of gardening and horticulture and Members of both Houses of Parliament. Perhaps greater communication and promotion can be achieved between this group and the industry?
Asked if he felt undervalued Edward's response said much: "in 2014, fifty percent of under twenty-fives saw horticulture as an unskilled career!" He thought that TV was helping to raise the industry's profile. There's certainly a proliferation of programmes now!
The team attends the interesting 'open to all gardeners' annual English Heritage conference which includes garden visits, seminars, etc.
Edward's concluding comments after such an interesting and informative visit were: "I just love horticulture because you never stop learning. There are so many avenues for specialisation. Demonstrating how to look after our heritage will hopefully inspire others to care for our future!"
What's in the shed?
Kubota B2200 tractor
Kubota B3030 tractor with front loader
Kubota MK5000 tractor with front loader
Kubota trailers x4
Water bowser and pump
Ferrari 340 (2-wheeled tractor) x 2
Flail & sync mower attachments
BCS Tracmaster 710 rotavator
Manitou 626MLT telescopic loader
Niftylift 170HE MEWP
Timberwolf 150DHB chipper
Seko SAM5 PTO composter
Bogballe S-line grit spreader
Kubota G23 48" deck
Kubota F3680 60" out-front deck
Hayter Harrier Pro 56 x 3
Allen 446 hover mower
Atco 24E cylinder mower
Stihl HS B1TC hedge trimmers x 4
Stihl HSA 86 battery hedge trimmers x 3
Stihl HLA 85 battery extendable hedge trimmer
Husqvarna H25 combi x 3
Stihl MS650 chainsaw
Stihl MS 261 chainsaw
Stihl MS 260 chainsaw
Stihl MS 200T chainsaw
Stihl BG 86C blowers x 4
Stihl BR 600 blowers x 3
Stihl FS 55 strimmers x 5
Husqvarna combi lawn edgers
Mantis tillers x 2
Brodsworth Hall - A Brief History
Brodsworth Hall was built between 1861 and 1863 for Charles Sabine Thellusson who inherited the estate in 1859. The house replaced the huge Georgian house, previously rebuilt, which was demolished in 1861. The new property, now a Grade 1 listed building, was built further uphill, away from the church and village and to meet the Thelluson's requirements; a house and estate suited to family life and entertaining their social set. It was to be more efficiently planned and set in private gardens overlooking newly opened up parkland.
Philip Wilkinson, then twenty six years old and a little known London architect, was commissioned by Thellusson, to build the Italianate mansion at great speed between 1861 and 1863. Lapworths, a London firm, furnished it in the conventional taste of the day. It had a subsidiary wing for the servants to live and work in, with a separate laundry and gas works.
By the end of the 1860s, the Thelluson's remodelling of Brodsworth was complete. The gardens had been fully laid out and the estate improved, with woods to provide good shooting and well-designed new farm buildings and cottages.
Brodsworth Hall survives as a mid-Victorian vision of a comfortable country house, with many of its original furnishings and the formal gardens laid out around it. However, Brodsworth had fallen into disrepair by 1990 when it was given to English Heritage. Since then, its fragile interiors have been gently conserved, whilst the gardens have been returned to their earlier formality.
For a more detailed history, please visit https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/brodsworth-hall-and-gardens/history/