Set in fifty acres of gardens in the Wye Valley, Holme Lacy is one of Herefordshire's treasures and a hotspot for visitors all year round. Garden supervisor, Mike West has spent a generation steering the gardens to their award-winning status. Greg Rhodes reports.
Warner Leisure runs fourteen widely differing destinations, from modern coastal resorts dotted along the south and east coasts to centuries-old architecturally important properties once graced by royalty.
Offering year-round entertainment indoors and out for mainly forty plus somethings (Warner's TV advertising is clear on its `only adults` policy), the operator runs a bustling programme of musical acts and comedians - stars of their day and major draws currently.
Set in stunning countryside, the heritage properties themselves sit in stately gardens Warner has raised to the former grandeur of earlier times as it bids to present guests with the complete `staycation experience.
The Grade 1 listed mansion was completed in 1674 and reportedly visited by Charles II and by Prime Minister William Pitt, who held cabinet meetings in the gardens.
Holme Lacy has attracted a diverse spread of owners since its birth. The Scudamore-Stanhope family who made Holme Lacy their home in the 1820s, transformed the gardens' looks and layout, introducing Monkey Puzzle trees from Chile and Californian Sequoias, along with rhododendron varieties that include the "dreaded" Ponticum, the late-flowering purple peril that can prove so invasive, whilst impressive magnolia grandiflora specimens thrive in the orangery.
The estate passed to Australian entrepreneur Lucas Tooth, before the Wills cigarette family acquired it in the 1920s, who bequeathed it to Herefordshire council. It also saw duty as a recuperation hospital for the war wounded and a mental institution.
Today, Holme Lacy regales guests with archery, crossbows, tennis, bowls and croquet amid both formal and landscaped settings that Mike and the four-strong grounds team tend.
After his apprenticeship in horticulture and commercial experience in a large nursery, Herefordshire born and raised Mike West (63) moved to the county council's parks department before spotting an advertisement for the head gardener's position at Holme Lacy.
"That was in 1994, when the Rank Organisation owned the property, one of the most important 17th century houses in the county, before selling it to Warner in the early 2000s," Mike recalls.
"I started in September 1995, as a £6.5m construction programme began on the house and gardens, including upgrading the existing pool, creating a leisure club with gym, Jacuzzi, steam room and restoring the orangery."
Six years later, Mike set up the gardening team at the then newly acquired Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire, another of Warner's heritage sites. "Each property has differing acreages, with differing demands," he explains. "The grounds teams meet twice a year to discuss their plans for the year and to swap ideas - time well spent I think."
Mike saw his own team disperse over time and, in 2013, he moved to a supervisor's post at Holme Lacy.
In looking after allocation of resources across the estate, Mike reports to maintenance and grounds manager Simon Farley-Higgs, who will pass proposals for new machinery and equipment and other capex projects valued over a certain threshhold to Warner's Hemel Hempstead head office.
"The basic structure of the gardens was still in place when I came here. The grounds include nearly a mile of yew hedging, between 200 and 300 years old, mentioned in horticultural books as unique in the country. Lawns and paths were overgrown. As the gardens are Grade 2 listed, we have to be extremely cautious and careful about managing them and the fertilisers and chemicals we apply."
The sandstone and loamy soil is ideal for working down and preparing beds but it can lose moisture quickly, Mike notes. "The huge quantity of leaves, clippings and cuttings we generate is composted to be applied leaf mould and manure across the gardens, parterre boxes and hedges. The expansive root system of the yew hedging sucks up nutrients phenomenally so keeping it fed is a priority."
The outlook for guests gazing out from the south side of the mansion has been further improved recently, Mike explains. "The grounds of Holme Lacy horticultural college border ours. They are keen to maintain and improve their own environment and improve wildlife diversity, so have restored their parkland to its 17th century origins, when lime, oak, fir and beech predominated. Their work has opened up the views to the lake and beyond dramatically."
Speaking of the lake, the 2.5 acre expanse is home to some prize-winning carp - guests have landed specimens weighing up to 18lb, Mike reports - as well as perch and tench but "where there are fish, you'll find herons".
Team member Martin Williams, 34, arrived from Kenchester Water Gardens two and half years ago. "His company renovated our formal ponds in 1995, we had a strong connection with the company," Mike explains.
"It was clear at the interview that Martin was keen and willing to learn, so since taking up the post he's been training up on machinery maintenance, planning and ordering the season's plantings. I suppose you could say I've taken him under my wing until the time comes for me to retire."
Old copies of Country Life magazine dating back to the 1860s record Holme Lacy's collection of pear trees - still lusty and fruiting today. Their care is in the capable hands of team member Louise Hodgkinson, who joined last autumn and works on site three days a week.
"Having gained experience with a fruit growing enterprise in the region, Louise can put her pruning skills into practice, to keep this nationally important collection in prime condition, carefully training the trees against our walled garden."
She's actively involved in the planting process too, selecting plants for the orangery and house and choosing the ranges of bedding plants the team grows on in their two greenhouses and polytunnels before planting out at the end of May to early June.
"Dahlias and canna lilies are the summer showpieces," Mike says, "but we try to spread colour throughout the year as Holme Lacy is always open for guests. Palmatums (Dogwoods) and Japanese maples create a splash of colour for them to enjoy."
Louise brings "a different thought dimension" to the team, Mike adds. "She's forward-thinking and adds a fresh perspective, is very hands-one - mows and strims - and has introduced an effective plant-labelling system."
Andrew Dodwell returned to Holme Lacy five years ago to work outside, following his earlier spell indoors, focusing on house maintenance. "He's adept at mending machinery," says Mike, "and does a fair bit of tractor mowing and hedge trimming. The trimming programme usually runs from the end of September to early November, but this winter has been so mild, we were still on the case until early March."
The yew hedges are particularly challenging for the team. "Some of them are high so we have to bring in a couple of specialised cherry-pickers then move to scaffolding to complete the job.
For a public site attracting many thousands of guests annually, health and safety is "massive", Mike states. "We erect plenty of signage and warning tape to alert guests to non-accessible areas. Time management is critical for us and we are keen to complete a huge task as quickly and efficiently as we can. But you have to remember that guests are on holiday and they like to ask questions about what we do, so you have to be friendly and approachable. We encourage guests to give feedback about their experience with us. They'll report favourably on a helpful grounds team."
In this guest-rich environment, Mike is conscious of the interest the turfcare machinery and equipment generates. "Feedback tells us that guests like to know about the kit and to see it in action," he says. "Each Warner garden selects its own kit. Most of our major pieces are John Deere. The local dealer is in regular contact and the back-up and parts service is good and reliable."
"Our 2653 triple mower is the workhorse - it's eleven years old but still going strong. Both our compact tractors have mid-mounted decks - 2036 was new last year and backs up the 2025 we bought ten years ago.
The team aren't tripling all year round though and work round periods of heavy guest traffic in the gardens. "We bring out the 2653 around mid-March and cut down to two or three inches on the large grassed areas and give a higher clearance in winter. Backlapping we do in-house and avoid regrinding as far as possible to trim costs. In any case, the 2653 is only used about 100 hours a season. The Dennis FT 551 walkbehinds, "with all the accessories", keep the grassed areas controlled in the formal gardens."
The 18-hole putting green, Mike's brainchild, along with the croquet lawn, is the most intensively used sports facility on site. "It's a suntrap on the south side and attracts up to fifty guests daily round the year, so it can become heavily compacted and encourage moss. The Verticutter and Sarel spiking roller come in handy then. They can be changed over in a couple of minutes. The Groundsman Aerator hollow cores the surfaces too.
Moss has proved an issue and Mike brought in contractors to apply selective herbicide and prepare and reseed the surfaces.
Top of the shop is the 30in Atco Royal. "The machine's 23 years old now and working well, with new bottom blade. Some guests recognise it and want to know how we keep it in such great condition."
The Honda HRH Pro mower with roller is also used regularly across the sports surfaces as are the two hydrostatic units. "Bought in 2001, regular servicing and replacement of filter plugs and blades keeps them fully functioning."
"Before fertilising, we bring out our SISIS spiker roller and the chisel slitter over winter. We've introduced iron to control moss in selected areas. We buy in one tonne bags of topdressing to apply across the sports areas, but limit overseeding on the putting greens because grass cannot establish itself due to heavy footfall."
Although turf machinery is diesel-based, hand tools such as Holme Lacy's Stihl strimmers and hedgecutters are increasing electrically powered. "We're moving over to batteries as that's more environmentally friendly - no fumes and quieter."
Under the continuing programme to upgrade the formal areas surrounding the main house, the team are renovating the two formal ponds. "The butyl liners laid by Kenchester in the mid '90s to replace the cracked concrete bases are remaining in place," says Mike. "Although they have a 20-year lifetime, they are costly to replace so we'll soldier on with them for now as they are still in good condition."
Gravel pathways criss-crossing the grounds need constant attention, if only to ensure the safety of guests. Spot spraying with Roundup herbicide does the job, says Mike. "Martin's just finished that task for the time being. Wherever possible, it's important to limit application of chemicals, but you can't avoid using them to some extent."
Formal gardens and parterre surrounding the main house have been restored to their original design by improving and landscaping existing lawns, planting fresh beds and 800 yews and 2,500 box shrubs - opening up views of the mansion from the lake.
The team's sterling work has not gone unnoticed. Last year, it won the coveted RHS and Heart of England in Bloom Gold Award. "Yes, we're thrilled to have been awarded that," says Mike, "but we'll be hoping for more, of course, as we never stop trying to excel in what we do."
"With Martin and Louise taking their chainsaw certifications, the team continues to broaden its skills base and health and safety is particularly important, for guests and for us."
"Warner is hot on using PPE and we are trained to be alert to danger at all times, as guests can suddenly appear from nowhere whilst you're working. The company's health and safety officer visits regularly to check on trip hazards."
The large signature trees peppering the grounds have to be health checked periodically and necessary remedial work undertaken. "This is Simon's area. He brings in a local tree surgeon to look over the big limes, yews, coastal redwoods and oaks. One old copper beech, going back to the 1800s, needed priority work to remove dead material. Trees are scanned to create a pictograph that shows up the state of the tree inside."
As hawks wheel overhead and the treecreepers and nuthatches scurry along the tree trunks, overdubbed with the seasonal rapping of woodpeckers in the distance, Holme Lacy offers a wildlife haven for those here to soak up history, horticultural prowess and some gentle sporting pursuit.
Many may seldom, if ever, realise the unending process of groundcare underway through the seasons to ensure this remains one of Warner Leisure's most hypnotic destinations.
As Mike sums up: "When the frost and snow descend, it can all look quite magical."
LIFE AT NIDD HALL
At characterful Nidd Hall, it's a tale of two homecomings for head gardener Harvey Parnaby and his boss, maintenance manager Gary Taylor.
Positioned in picturesque North Yorkshire country between Harrogate and Ripon, the 18th century pile was built by a wealthy Bradford wool merchant. Sporting a `pot pourri of architectural styles`, the country seat is rumoured to have been the place where Edward VIII in waiting met Wallis Simpson.
"I first worked here twenty-three years ago," says Gary, "leaving as Head Gardener, then returning two and half years ago after moving into maintenance."
Harvey and his team of four report to Gary, who has the say on how the 45 acres of award-winning gardens shape up. "At our weekly meetings, we walk the grounds and Harvey tells me his ideas and the money he wants to put them in practice. I don't always give him what he wants though," Gary smiles.
The gardens present a mix of the formal and informal, including a three-acre wood and two-acre lake, replete with fish for guests to try their hand at catching.
Sporting facilities include double tarmac tennis courts and outdoor synthetic turf bowling green, one of very few Warner sites boasting one.
"We have a small beach in the grounds too," Gary reveals. Harrogate-by-Sea? No but plenty of sand and deck chairs. It's fenced off to prevent animals doing their worst."
Among a fine selection of trees are numbered specimen oaks and some old sweet chestnuts, as well as mixed conifers. Gary has just committed funds to an assessment of Nidd's arboricultural needs. "A tree surgeon is arriving soon to check what needs doing, particularly overhanging branches and dead wood. As a public site, everything is done on a risk basis, with buildings, pathways and car park the priority areas."
The gardens go back a century, a time when the Edwardians loved nothing better than taking their constitutionals among bracing North Yorkshire country air among manicured borders and beds, exotic trees and shrubs from around the world, brought here by pioneering plantsmen.
Going back twenty years or more, the once grand layout had fallen into disrepair and neglect, but the years since have seen a dedicated team restoring them to their former glory.
"When I first came to Nidd Hall, the gardens they in a sorry state," Gary reflects. We were haymaking the grassed areas they were so wild. It's been a twenty-year-plus project to restore them."
All that hard work has paid off - Nidd Hall lifting the Yorkshire in Bloom Gold Award for the last three years.
The terrace, parterre and formal beds clustered around the hotel are the jewels in the crown, with prime roses and colourful bedding plants a delight on the eye, Gary explains.
"The `Bloom` awards are judged partly on developments planned. "In our case, these involve overhauling the parterre and revitalising the old box hedging."
"Harvey conducts hour-long tours twice a week for guests, taking in the Japanese garden, another draw for visitors," Gary says. "The gardens are key to our offer. We strive to entertain guests outdoors as much as we can, with archery and rifle shooting as well as the sporting elements. They are all part of the mission to retain guests on site."
After leaving the destination to take up maintenance projects, Harvey, 50, returned refreshed five years ago in pursuit of excellence once again.
In what is a deeply rural setting, Harvey focuses on creating conditions for wildlife to thrive. "The grounds team have built plenty of bug hotels and hedgehog homes to encourage the right environment for them," he explains. Surrounded by a private estate, as Nidd Hall is, brings its own rewards, he adds.
"The owner releases pheasants for shooting and some of the cannier ones skoot over into Nidd Hall to escape the gun, and we benefit."
Large stretches of lawn set off the woodland areas, however the team is not too precious about the cultivar mix. "As we pursue green practices wherever possible, we don't mind a few weeds in the sward," Harvey says.
"We tend to keep application of chemicals to a minimum," Harvey says, "as this goes against our wildlife policy. The Husqvarna rideons do the job, while Hayter Harriers are nimble enough to handle the finer, smaller areas between beds."
After heavy workload over winter, spring arrives in a rainbow of rhododendron and azalea colours. "All the team are qualified to use knapsack spraying and chainsaws, so it's all hands on deck to keep paths weed-free and trim back shrubs and any unwanted growth."
Nidd Hall's own apprenticeship scheme is running well, Harvey explains. "Luke Kay is training up with us at the moment. He's a grand lad and works as hard as any of us at keeping up the high standards here."
Other Warner gems:
Littlecote House, Hungerford, Berkshire
Grade 1 listed Tudor manor house built in the mid-1500s.
Henry V111 courted Jane Seymour here and the D-Day landings were planned within the house, which contains the only surviving Cromwellian chapel in private hands.
Magnificent 17th and 18th century walled gardens - with extensive lawns and herbaceous borders - which contain an ornate Roman mosaic floor and settlement remains.