Interview - Amanda Thackeray, head gardener, Wordsworth House

The National Trust's Wordsworth's House & Garden in Cockermouth, Cumbria, was hit by floods in 2009. Almost three years on, the garden of the 18th century poet's childhood home has been brought back to replicate a Georgian family garden.

Amanda Thackeray, head gardener, Wordsworth House - image: HW
Amanda Thackeray, head gardener, Wordsworth House - image: HW

The trust opened the house to the public in 1939 and in the 1980s the garden took on a heritage look with box hedges and legacy plants before £1m was spent developing the property as an attraction. Head gardener Amanda Thackeray has been there for eight years.

Q: How damaging were the floods in 2009?

A: It was total devastation. But twoand-a-half years later we're quite pleased where we are. We lost most of the plants but one week after the flood volunteers were scrubbing leaves and taking off things like wool clinging to the box. The silt left on the plants had to be hand scrubbed three times. Plants are ephemeral so you can't insure them. We had to find funding from donations from the public, which was fantastic. The walls date from 1690 and are grade I listed so had to be rebuilt the same.

Q: Are you worried that you will be flooded again?

A: If we get a little bit of water in the garden that's okay because it's alluvial soil. But the walls have stood since 1690 so it was just extraordinary circumstances that we couldn't do much about. If you garden here you learn to live with the water. I had said I wanted gaps for new plants and I certainly got my wish.

Q: How long did it take before you could reopen?

A: The flood happened in the closed season and we reopened in March 2010 as we had originally planned. People were allowed in certain areas but not near the walls. A lot of people found the work interesting to see and said they would come back in a year or two. We're nearly there once I have moved the last few herbaceous plants from the vegetable plots where they were being stored.

Q: What new elements did you introduce?

A: We built the hen house in October 2010 with split oak palisade fences We came third in the Bovril competition, which paid for new cold frames and a Georgian-style summerhouse. It would have cost £24,000 to replace the plants but luckily a lot were saved by volunteers. We lost a big beech and lime that were the focus of the garden so we put in a summerhouse instead.

Q: Where have the new plants come from?

A: We have a suppliers list but they have to be peat-free and heritage varieties - as pure as possible. We also grow masses of herbs because they would have used them in the kitchen. We use Thomas Etty and Chiltern Seeds. Authenticity is very important. We want to grow things that would have been available to a family living here in the 1770s.

Q: How would you describe the garden's style?

A: Heritage vegetables and edible flowers potage-style, with all the vegetables, herbs and flowers grown together. We use them in the cafe and grow fresh flowers for the house. Gilbert White at Selbourne - that's our period. You find what is right.

Q: Do you have a team or do you work alone?

A: We have eight garden volunteers who do garden guiding as well as gardening. The garden is nearly an acre. It's 21 hours of work a week but that varies by season. People can relate to a small walled garden. You get very fond of it as though it's your own garden.

Q: How many visitors do you get each year?

A: Our numbers increase every year. We had 33,000 in 2011. The house, shop, cafe and garden work together - we're a team. I've even covered costume interpretation. People go away with ideas for herbs, hens and beefriendly gardens. We're organic because I want families to be involved and to crush herbs in their hands.

Q: What do you do about pests and weeds?

A: We pick pests off and do lots of hand weeding. As we are a walled garden we got to the point where it was easy, but post-floods we have nettle, dock and Himalayan balsam seeds. I use Nemaslug on the vegetable plot and the hens eat them, and I buy a commercial soap spray for aphids. We have volunteers so have time to make it look tidy. But I don't think it has to look pristine because it is a Georgian family garden.

Q: What are your plans for the garden?

A: To link the garden with the house is the big push, using money raised from the National Trust raffle to make the cellar a food and drink store. I'd like a Georgian glasshouse in the small walled garden to grow pelargoniums and cut flowers for the house. I'm already thinking of the next thing - a bumble bee and edible plant trail. You always have plans.


1990s-2000s: Newton Rigg College, Cumbria - then private gardener, Perth

2003: Gardener, Rowallane Garden, Northern Ireland

2004 to date: Head gardener, Wordsworth House & Garden, Cockermouth

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