Interview: Annabel Downs, chairman, Society of Garden Designers

The past few months have had a distinctly tumultuous feel, as the world's banking system collapsed in a crisis that has left thousands of people jobless in the UK alone.

However, reports of ex-financial workers retraining in horticulture have already hit the news headlines.

And the Society of Garden Designers (SGD) appears to be benefiting from this influx, with a nine per cent increase in membership in the past year.

New SGD chairman Annabel Downs - who officially took over the reins from Peter Thomas on 14 January - will be steering the body through what could prove to be lively times ahead.

"It is quite a challenging year, but there are opportunities so I want to spend time reflecting," explains Downs.

"Times are tight so it is a good moment for research and development," she explains. "I'm not saying we are going to come up with a new, speedy, sports-car version of the SGD, but I think we will become stronger.

"For a lot of people, garden design is their second or third profession, so with the fallout from so many banks, it wouldn't surprise me if our figures rose further this year. That is one of the really rich things about the SGD."

The skills brought in from other professions add to the tapestry of the SGD's membership, believes Downs.

A trained landscape architect herself, with experience of working in nurseries, parks departments and as a design consultant, Downs is keen for members to be as knowledgeable as possible.

"Many landscape architects now don't know about plants, which I think is a very interesting and sad shift," says Downs, who lives in south London with landscape architect husband Crispin.

"However, that is a huge opportunity for members who are better-educated in plants," she adds.

A lifelong passion for the outdoors stemmed from Downs' childhood, when she spent time exploring south-east London's bomb sites, as well as helping her parents in their garden.

"My parents were keen gardeners, but in completely opposite ways," she says. "My dad had a front garden with a beautiful bowling green lawn, which no one was allowed on, while my mum had the back garden, which was full of fruit and rambling borders."

Having attended a talk that highlighted landscape architecture as a potential career path for geography graduates, Downs decided to explore further. "I went to visit landscape architecture practice Brian Clouston & Partners in The Strand," she says.

"The office was in an amazing Dickensian building, and there were beautiful drawings and a potted plant on the desk. I thought 'This is it' and applied to the course at the University of Edinburgh."

But Downs was told she needed to get some experience before she stood a chance of being accepted.

"It was another recession and it was really hard," she explains. "There was no work in landscape and the firms wouldn't even take you on for unpaid work experience."

After landing a job at the Lewisham parks department, Downs was able to start her course, which included regular teaching sessions at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Since then her work has included historic restoration projects, work on housing estates and developing schemes for school grounds.

"I have done a lot of work with Wendy Titman Associates and we do these planting parties where we never know who is going to turn up," adds Downs.

"It is all about fun and enjoyment. Getting contact back with nature is a really important point.

"There is lots of scope for looking at the importance of gardens connected with schools and health organisations," she points out.

Raising the profile of the society is a major goal for Downs this year and she hopes to encourage existing members to move up the ranks to become professional members.

"I am quite concerned about keeping up the standards of previous chairmen," admits the keen art collector. "It is a big responsibility but it is also a privilege to be in this position."

While there may be challenges to come Downs' way through her new role at the SGD, she is also likely to face upheaval through her relationship with the Landscape Institute (LI).

Appointed as the LI's archivist in 1995, Downs now faces redundancy as part of a £600,000 cost-cutting measure, which also includes transferring its library and archive to another institution. "It will no longer be a professional, intellectual body if that really happens," she warns. "It will have no heart and no soul.

"The only good thing about (the proposed cuts) is that the plans for the archive have re-engaged people with the LI," she points out.

"It has made all sorts of people talk to each other who have not been in touch for a long time".

No doubt, whatever the outcome of the LI's proposals, Downs' enthusiasm will continue with vigour at the SGD.

CV

1977: Completes BA Hons in geography, University of Hull

1980: Completes MPhil in landscape architecture, University of Edinburgh

1981: Joins Shepheard Epstein Hunter as assistant landscape architect

1992: Becomes chartered member of the Landscape Institute

1995: Appointed as archivist of the drawings collection at the Landscape Institute

1996: Sets up landscape design consultancy

2004: Becomes member of the council for the Society of Garden Designers

2009: Appointed chairman of the Society of Garden Designers


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