Hamilton's gardening legacy lives on
Hannah Stephenson visits Barnsdale, a collection of 38 gardens created by BBC Gardeners' World iconic presenter Geoff Hamilton, and talks to his son Nick about his late father's legacy
For the last 15 years, Nick Hamilton, son of the late Geoff Hamilton, has been busy following in his father's green-fingered footsteps.
Just wandering around some of the 38 small gardens created for TV at Barnsdale in Leicester, you can feel Geoff Hamilton's ever-practical presence, as areas are teeming with a huge variety of plants along with practical substitutes for expensive accessories (including a circular finial made from a toilet ballcock - but you'd never know - sitting on top of a pretty, home-made obelisk).
These are all testament to Geoff Hamilton's money-saving principles, his attitude of having a go himself at making something before shelling out on an expensive equivalent, ever aware of his audience, many of whom would have been cost-conscious.
Nick, who took over the business after his father's death in 1996, shows me the old copper immersion heater transformed into a rose water feature in the quirky Reclaimed Garden, a typical example of his father's ideas of economy.
"My father wanted Barnsdale to be representative of what people have at home. Achievability was all-important. He set the springboard from which we've dived."
The TV garden all started in the 1970s, when Geoff moved into a house on the Barnsdale Hall estate and was renting some land at the top of the hill. He was asked to do a guest appearance on Gardeners' World from what is now known as 'The Original Barnsdale'.
In 1979 he joined the team permanently, but soon found that there was little room to experiment and in 1983 he found Barnsdale as it is today, a mile away, a Victorian farmhouse with more than five acres of land.
He created the gardens between 1983-96 but it wasn't until 1997 that they were opened to the public.
"My father always said that a garden is a work in progress, so we continue to carry that on," says Nick.
The beautiful Artisan Cottage Garden, Allotment, Woodland Walk and Artificial Rock Garden are just a few of the concepts which have been developed and continue to offer ideas to gardeners today.
Nick acknowledges that times have changed since his father's TV heyday.
"Everybody's lives have changed. Retired people are doing more now than they ever did, as are people in work. But it's making people realise that within their busy lives there's still time for gardening and vegetable growing."
In the last decade there has been more emphasis on less time-consuming gardening, with demand for easy-maintenance plants, plants which don't need staking and less lawn. But Nick has reservations about this attitude.
"We have one or two gardens here which are lower maintenance than others," he says.
"And yes, you can go out and buy a £300 tree which will have an instant effect. But that's not gardening.
"Gardening is all about patience and nurturing, getting out there and getting your hands dirty. Low-maintenance gardening in a way isn't gardening."
He believes that were his father alive today, he would be over the moon at the way Barnsdale has developed. But he doesn't believe the TV cameras could ever return on a regular basis.
"Our tagline is 'The People's Garden' and that's what it is - a garden for the people. I wouldn't now want to stop people seeing the garden, even for one day a week."
He says that BBC Gardeners' World today is far removed from his father's programmes.
"They're still searching for the magic formula to recreate the way the programme was when it was here.
"They've lost their way with what they think people want from the programme. People need to be shown in the right way and the right style to inspire them to get out there.
"What I'm hearing from visitors is that 20 years ago everything they did on Friday revolved around making sure they were in front of the television at 8.30pm to watch Gardeners' World.
"Now, if they're in and there's nothing better on, they'll watch it. I think that's really sad."
Despite encouragement from Plant Heritage, Nick has so far not held a National Collection at Barnsdale.
"I don't have the time at the moment to do it. I love my plants and I'm predominantly a nurseryman. I really like penstemon, but there are lots of plants I love. The problem is finding a National Collection which really inspires you."
With a full-time staff of 13, Nick says the garden won't further expand because land is not for sale around the site.
But there is room for a 39th garden, a work in progress.
"The 39th garden will be a garden for people with limited mobility - not a disabled person's garden. It won't only be raised beds - we will use tools to cope with the lower levels."
And it is clear that Barnsdale is moving with the times.
"I keep toying with the idea of artificial grass as well," he confides. I wonder what his father would make of that.
:: Barnsdale Gardens, The Avenue, Exton, Oakham, Rutland. For more information, visit www.barnsdalegardens.co.uk or call 01572 813 200.
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