Heritage Park of the Year award hat-trick

By Bridget Osborne

September 2018

Chiswick House & Gardens Trust has been awarded Heritage Park of the Year award in the London in Bloom competition for the third year running. It also won the award for the best Walled Garden and a clutch of other awards for its volunteers. Geraldine King has been the head gardener for four and a half years. That the park has suddenly seen such tremendous success at winning awards on her watch is no coincidence. Bridget Osborne asks what is it that she and her team do exactly that ticks all the right boxes?

The gardens of Chiswick House are lovely at any time of year. That’s a given. Whether the ground is dusted with snow and the crocuses and camellias are out or the lake is wreathed in autumn mist and the trees on fire with colour, it’s a lovely place to wander and that’s easy to take for granted. Although it appears to be completely natural there’s a lot going on to keep it at just the right balance of formal and wild, with seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth landscapes looking as they should, as befits the home of the great Dukes of Devonshire and at the same time habitats where stag beetles, herons and the local dog population feel right at home.

Geraldine King has a small team of paid staff who work with her, including horticulturalists from Gavin Jones Grounds Maintenance company, but also a much larger team of volunteers – some 150 in all – who give their time and work under her direction to do weeding, pruning, mulching, whatever is required.

Photographs above by Jon Perry, apart from the one with the rainbow, by Marianne Mahaffey

London in Bloom is a regional participant of Britain in Bloom, organised by the Royal Horticultural Society, so naturally horticulture plays a large part in the judging. The upkeep of the collection of heritage camellias and the fact that Geraldine’s team grow a lot of plants from cuttings and all the vegetables and herbs in the kitchen garden are grown from seed would have earned them a few marks. Conservation and the interpretation of a historic site, maintaining the park as somewhere its antecedents would recognise is also important, as are environmental factors such as making ‘dead hedges’ to provide a habitat for insects and to allow lower vegetation to grow, recording the number of birds on the lake and encouraging bats. But where Chiswick House and Gardens Trust scores major brownie points is in its relationship with the community.

The RHS gave a special award to the Kitchen Garden volunteers and another to the ‘Goosefoot’ volunteers. This takes a little explaining. At first I thought Geraldine was talking about some bizarre affliction along lines of athletes foot or foot and mouth disease, but no, a ‘Goosefoot’ volunteer is a quaint and historic name for those who spend their time working in the gardens of the estate, coined from the landscape itself. If you stand with your back to the house and walk towards the bridge you come to a choice of paths leading to the classic bridge, the false wall and Napoleon’s bust, which fan out much like the imprint of a goose’s foot. The ‘Goosefooters’ maintain the lake, keeping it clear of weed, coppice the hazel, weed the Italian gardens and the conservatory beds and help maintain the camellias. The Kitchen Garden volunteers nurture their plants from seed which they then sell to the public in twice weekly produce sales (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1.30 – 3.30pm). Five star Chiswick restaurant La Trompette is among their customers.

Photographs above courtesy of Chiswick House & Gardens Trust, taken in the summer when London in Bloom is judged. Geraldine is the one on the tractor.

There are also the Little Forest Folk. Again, I thought she’d been at the poteen, maybe a little still round the back of the potato beds. But no, they’re an outdoor nursery offering childcare for two to five year olds in a tent, all year round, who cultivate their own little patch in the Kitchen Garden. They also have children from Queens Mill special school, eight to twelve years olds with a range of disabilities who are able to get out into the fresh air and take on a variety of tasks. And there are the ‘Future Gardeners’ sponsored by the Worshipful Company of Gardeners to do an eight week course, and the Glaxo Smith Kline workforce, allowed out for a bit of corporate social responsibility. Worthy of special mention are Rosemary Fraser, who clocked up an amazing 650 hours of voluntary work over the year, Marion Scrine, (483 hours), Yuko Susai (nearly 400) and Nancie Crick (320).

Geraldine includes all the staff at Chiswick House and Gardens Trust in the honours. The fact that you don’t see any litter or graffiti is important, that the bushes are cut back and there’s colour at all times of the year, but so is the fact that they host events like the Chinese Lantern Festival and have 100,000 people traipsing through the grounds, or the Dog Show with hundreds of dogs, and that it’s a popular venue for weddings. It is of course a huge team effort, but it is also a matter of leadership. Geraldine has managed West Ham Park for the City of London, has been Assistant Manger at Hyde Park and is herself a judge of Britain In Bloom. She has a pretty shrewd idea how to run a park.

Photographs below by Jon Perry, Barbara Chandler and Rosie Leyden