Interview - Steve Lannin, head gardener, Lowther Castle

Former Sudeley Castle head gardener Steve Lannin is to take a similar post at Lowther Castle in Cumbria after a £9m project to reopen the gardens and part of the house as a cafe and visitor centre. He will be the first gardener in the role at the castle for 70 years as, abandoned since the 1930s, it reaches the point where the public will again be admitted.

Steve Lannin, head gardener, Lowther Castle - image: Lowther Castle
Steve Lannin, head gardener, Lowther Castle - image: Lowther Castle
Q: What is your remit at Lowther Castle?

 

A: One of the nice things about the project is just how flexible it is. There is to some degree a set masterplan but there is a huge amount of freedom about what I want to develop and what to make the focus in the early days. It's going to be a process taking years and years.

Q: What was the appeal of the job at Lowther?

A: To some extent it was the scope, but it was more to do with the feel of the place. I didn't ever intend to leave my last job - I've not been to any gardens that felt as good. But this one felt better.

Q: Why do you think that it made such an impression?

A: It just had such a feeling of magic and potential and the challenge of keeping the magic while having it as an attended garden as well. It is an exciting challenge.

Q: What have you done in the nine weeks since you started?

A: I have recruited a couple of staff and bought some machinery - two Kubotas, two STV 32 tractors, two Tomlin trailers and a Timberwolf chipper, mostly from Lloyds of Penrith. We advertised for staff in Horticulture Week and received more than 200 replies. I also got my job through HW.

Q: Had you been on a visit to Lowther before?

A: Never - I had not even been to the Lake District before I came for the interview. I'm from Cheltenham, where I spent my working life until this job. We've just sold our house in Tewkesbury.

Q: What was it like to work at Sudeley?

A: The original castle dated from the 1440s. It changed hands a few times and was destroyed in the Civil War. The Dent Brothers, who were glove makers, restored it in the 1860s and built a lot of the gardens, which featured roses and topiary. We built a herb garden for Lady Ashcombe and she liked it so much she asked for five more. We replanted the rose garden before I left too, with help from David Austin's Michael Marriott.

Q: How did you manage visitor numbers?

A: It was a major disappointment when entry to the house was restricted. Most people who came to the gardens really enjoyed them - the only negative feedback was that the house was not more accessible. Visitor numbers are up to 60,000. When the castle was fully open it was 80,000-100,000 but dropped to 45,000. People became a lot more aware of what they could and could not see. Initially there was some confusion, which might have put people off.

Q: What was Liz Hurley's wedding at Sudeley like?

A: It was externally organised. We just had to make sure that the gardens were in tip-top condition. Liz Hurley got married in my first week there. It was just immense, with a huge number of marquees over everything. None of us were allowed to know anything. The guests weren't incredibly kind to the hedges and left some holes, but it wasn't as bad as you might imagine.

Q: What was it like having a lord as your boss?

A: It's different here but the family is still involved, especially Jim Lowther. At Sudeley, it was essentially working for a private house. You get more indication of what they want to achieve. I have much greater freedom to have creative input here.

Q: When does Lowther Castle open officially?

A: We plan to open on 5 May. We had a daffodil weekend in March but with ongoing works it was better to wait. Last year, we had a soft opening and had 12,000 visitors from Easter to December for tree felling and stump clearance.

Q: Would you describe what you are doing as a restoration?

A: We define it as a rejuvenation because it is not a straight restoration. However, we are looking after the historical elements by overlaying them with our own modern interpretation. I'm very excited to see how the rock garden develops this year because we had groups of community service workers digging them out. And I'm looking forward to seeing the lawns green up - they used to be chicken sheds and concrete. The transformation is staggering. That will bring it back to looking like a garden again. We're in the transition between the site being landscaped and the site being gardened again.

CV
2004-06: Nurseryman, Dundry Nurseries & Garden Centre, Cheltenham
2006-08: Gardener, Sudeley Castle, and part-time study at Hartpury
College
2008-12: Head gardener, Sudeley Castle
2012 to date: Head gardener, Lowther Castle


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