UK gardens hope for a flourishing year

The effects of a weakened economy look set to boost visitor numbers in 2009, says Matthew Appleby.

Buckingham Palace has sold out its new garden tours for the next three years, while the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is expecting record visitor numbers for its 250th anniversary year. These two gardens are the headline-grabbing stars of what could be a record-breaking year for British garden attractions.

Last year, HW reported (18 September) that visitor numbers at gardens had held up well in the credit crunch as cash-strapped Britons took fewer foreign holidays and instead looked for leisure opportunities closer to home. The weak pound kept Brits in the UK and attracted foreign visitors to quintessentially British gardens such as Kew, Hidcote and Cliveden.

National Trust gardens have seen rises of more than 10 per cent, while Kew noted 15 per cent more visitors over the summer in 2008. Kew, which attracts 1.4 million visitors a year, says its new Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway helped bring in crowds. The 250th anniversary celebrations should help further this year.

Kew representative Catherine Owen will not make predictions for 2009 but explains: "It is new attractions such as the walkway that have been pulling in the people."

National Trust representative Alison Dalby says: "For our members, it is a great benefit to have a year's entry for such a reasonable cost and so they will return again and again, especially to gardens local to them." She adds: "Our properties are offering increased numbers of events such as guided walks and nature trails. Produce from kitchen gardens, and other plants, are often on sale too."

Buckingham Palace is set to attract a select 3,500 visitors on garden tours but could have sold 100 times that number of tickets for the first organised tours of the 16ha garden, of which Mark Lane is head gardener.

Lane fights shy of publicity - because the garden has sold out without any. He says: "With the little bit of publicity we got when we announced the opening last October we sold out straightaway."

He added that the tours will be run only in April, May and June, and only when the Queen is not in residence. Numbers will be limited to 25 fee-paying visitors at a time.

Association of Leisure Visitor Attractions director Robin Broke, who counts Eden, Kew and the National Trust among its members, says UK gardens can do well this year, with Buckingham Palace and Kew leading the way.

He believes that this winter's figures are down, but the feedback he has received suggests members have been visiting much more than non-members. In fact, membership organisations report that in a recession more people are flocking to leisure grounds that they are members of already, possibly with the rationale that the cheapest way to entertain a family is to go to an attraction that seems practically "free of charge" as it is already paid for through their membership. So the National Trust with two million members and the RHS with 360,000 could prosper.

Feedback suggests secondary spend is down but "gardens will benefit from the strong euro and dollar", says Broke. "People will still want a holiday but not abroad - it's likely they will stay in Britain, and gardens are a good-value option. And after two bad summers in a row, the forecasts I've seen this year are better."

Examples of newcomers to the garden visitor attraction sector include Pentillie in Cornwall, which featured on Channel 4's Country House Rescue on 13 January. The programme consistently emphasised the importance of gardens in attracting visitors to country houses. Pentillie opens to the public for the first time this year on 15 March and 13 April. The £25m 800ha Cornwall garden is one of a constant stream of such sites around the country that are being restored and opened to the public.

The Lowther Castle ruin in Cumbria has won £9m - £7m from the Northwest Regional Development Agency and £2m from the European Regional Development Fund - and has applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a further £6m to help landscape and garden designer Dan Pearson transform the garden into a visitor attraction.

So new or restored gardens in historic places seem to do well but greenfield sites present a mixed picture. The £43m lottery-funded National Botanic Garden of Wales has struggled to attract enough visitors to keep going since its opening in 2000, while Alnwick, on a historic site, has been successful, filling a gap in the North East for a botanic garden.

Eden has prospered, but planned Eden-style gardens in the UK are also on the back-burner because of the poor state of the economy. And Rainforest Ventures has shelved plans for rainforest Eden-style projects in Blackpool and South Wales (see p8).

With lottery grants for new gardens slowing down, refurbs and events in existing gardens are the way ahead for those that are open to the public.

Eden events such as an Oasis gig, skating and a marathon have been so successful there that the concept branches out to overseas.

But in the UK, garden curators are concentrating on what they have already planned - and on attracting 2009's stay-at-home visitors.

KEW DIARY

Kew looks set to be the big success story of the year. A free open day on 1 January attracted 25,000 visitors.

February/March Tropical Extravaganza festival for jungle plants/orchids, and Darwin Now exhibition in the Nash Conservatory (both are from 7 February to 8 March). See www. greatplanthunt.org.

March Spring celebration of over five million bulbs - the biggest display of seasonal spring colour in the country. Shirley Sherwood Gallery, the first gallery in the world dedicated to botanical art, opens.

April Huge willow sculptures of seeds will form a new Seed Walk at the Main Gate, with an exhibition about Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership in the Nash Conservatory. The Seed Walk and Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Exhibition run from 4 April to September.

May A new garden will emerge at Victoria Gate and a world map on display will reflect Kew's international conservation work. The Garden Photographer of the Year 2009 exhibition will display the winners' and all of the finalists' entries over the next months.

October Marianne North Gallery is due to reopen.


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