Interview - Michael Walker, gardens manager, Trentham Gardens

When HW last interviewed Michael Walker (HW, 22 April 2004), he was about to take charge of the gardens at the 295ha Trentham Gardens in Staffordshire after a landmark £100m restoration with perennial planting from Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf. Eight years on, Walker is back in his hard hat as owner St Modwen Estates embarks on restoring 48ha of woodland on the estate. We ask him how successful the project has been.

Michael Walker, gardens manager, Trentham Gardens - image: Trentham Gardens
Michael Walker, gardens manager, Trentham Gardens - image: Trentham Gardens

Q: In 2004, you said you hoped for visitor numbers of 500,000 - have you got there?

A: In the first few years, the project side went really well, developing the garden with Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf, but there was little to see other than the structure. It was 18 months before Stuart-Smith's Italian garden was planted and two more years before Piet Oudolf's work for us was done. We had 100,000-120,000 visitors then - nothing very exciting. Then, more through the recession than anything, we made big changes to the direction we were going. Some areas were quite disparate so one of the most fundamental decisions four years ago was to reunite the lakeside area with the garden. It was not a very popular move locally - the lakeside had previously been free. But it gave the visitors a stronger offer with the best walks around the lake and Italian garden as well. As a result, visitor numbers have grown. In 2011-12, we had 400,000 visitors plus 120,000 at various events, so we have met our aspiration. We have had 90,000 visitors from 1 December 2011 to 23 March, plus 25,000 to the ice rink.

Q: How do you try to encourage repeat visits?

A: The season ticket is key (adult £47, family £99.50). There's not a lot of local competition and the area is very beautiful and very safe. It feels like a National Trust or English Heritage property but the offer is very broad. We have the shopping village and the garden centre at the main entrance. Then we have the monkey forest and aerial extreme. Trentham is a visitor destination but the garden is pulling its weight and over the past three or four years has taken off. We have the largest perennial display in Europe.

Q: How have you created family interest?

A Families are well catered for. There's the barefoot walk through the woods with a plunge pool, which is a 30-foot bath of mud. That's different. Then there's bushcraft, environmental programmes aimed at engaging families with the outdoors. And we have 16 show gardens from RHS shows - most look fresh and new. Our strapline is "please stay on the grass". We have fun and push the boundaries. But financially we have to work as a business.

Q: What was the estate like when you started in 2004?

A: It was in an appalling condition. Half the fountain bases and sculptures had been stolen. The Lombard RAC rally went through the Italian Garden where the Oudolf scheme is today. The place was not treated with any respect.

Q: Have Oudolf and Stuart-Smith been back?

A: They do return but they have not been commissioned to come back. One of our gardeners has worked with Oudolf in the Netherlands and I'd be keen to see them both coming back professionally to reassess how their schemes can push forward. But the main thing for us has been getting their schemes established.

Q: What new developments do you have planned?

A: St Modwen chief executive Bill Oliver suggested a woodland and we have a plan to restore 48ha in the north-west corner of the estate put forward by Elizabeth Banks Associates and Dominic Cole of Land Use Consultants in 2003 as part of their landscape management plans. We're removing 20ha of conifer forestry and renewing, working around the birdnesting season. Although it makes no financial sense because they are free to enter, it's the big picture that's important. It will take five years to complete but there will be significant improvements within the first 18 months. There will be 10,000 new sessile oaks, which are best for the shallow soil. We're also sourcing plants from Manor Farm, Orchard Dene and Crocus.

Q: What do you see coming next for you in your career?

A: It's nice to get a project where you feel there's more to do and there's a lot still to be done at Trentham. I'd like to think that what we're doing here long-term is considered to be worthy. In 2010, it was satisfying to win a European Garden Historical Network major award. But we've only scratched the surface.

Q: How influential do you think Trentham has been?

A: I'm not sure it has been that influential, but what I think it has successfully demonstrated is that gardens can't stand still. If a garden is going to work in this day and age it has to stand on its own feet. I think that we've found the balance between the historic and the new.

CV

1978 Trainee nurseryman, Coleman's, Belfast

1979-80 NCH, Greenmount College

1980-82 National Trust trainee, Mount Stewart

1983 Gardener, Powys Castle and Birmingham Botanic Garden

1984-86 National Trust craft gardener, Castle Drogo

1986-92 Head gardener, Beninbrough

1992-95 Gardens manager, Harewood House

1995-2004 Gardens manager, Waddesdon Manor

2004 to date Manager, Trentham Gardens


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