Interview - Barry Smith, head gardener, Stowe School

A £9m visitor centre, shop and restaurant at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, one of the National Trust's finest landscapes, will be opened by Alan Titchmarsh on 23 March.

Barry Smith, head gardener, Stowe School - image: HW
Barry Smith, head gardener, Stowe School - image: HW

Head gardener Barry Smith, who has worked there for 30 years, says the opening up of the landscape will substantially increase interest in the 17th century gardens put together by names such as Charles Bridgeman, William Kent and Capability Brown.

Q. What is the background to the New Inn visitor centre?

A. We knew we needed first-class visitor facilities. You should get a sense of splendour as you approach from Buckingham but the old visitor centre is on the other side of the garden and coming in the back door the landscape didn't unveil itself. You don't start to understand until you find the paths network where you get the views. At first you don't see too much and then it's: "Wow - look at that vista." When the National Trust bought the New Inn six years ago, it was Buckinghamshire's most at-risk building. The visitor centre is going to be fantastic. To have this facility is worth waiting for. We're only 60 per cent through the restoration. There's so much more to do.

Q. What is the background of the site?

A. In 1923, the house became a school and that saved the site because it kept the core part of the garden as a whole. But by 1989, the school felt that to restore the gardens to their former glory it was better that an organisation such as the National Trust took them on, open them to the public and secure funding. Visitor numbers grew from 40,000 to more than 130,000 last year and with better facilities this will rise even more and we can increase parkland access.

Q. What is your background in the industry?

A. When I started at the school I was more interested in basketball but I always wanted to work outdoors. When the trust took over, it became a career. It's difficult to leave Stowe - my assistant Paul Stefanovic has been here 30 years and Zora Tyrone for five. You fall in love with it.

Q. What do you think about the trust replacing gardens advisers with consultants?

A. It's about going local and the properties becoming more independent. They can choose to go in a slightly different direction. The property manager has been key to this. He makes the plan then we get advice when we need it. That means more responsibility for the head gardener and his team but you have to realise when you need that help. With my experience, I think I know a lot about the garden. But a person coming new to a position such as this might need more advice.

Q. How has your role changed over the years?

A. It was very hands on to start with and now we're using as many modern techniques as we can get. Most new staff have to be managers because of the teams of volunteers - they have to be proficient in risk assessment and interpretation and working with the public. It's not just about garden work. You have to tell people what you're doing and answer questions. Communications have improved so much with mobiles, emails and GPS.

Q. What new gardening elements have you introduced to the new visitor centre?

A. From the garden it is mainly the fruit. There's a kitchen garden designed to look like a real farm garden. I'd love to produce home-grown food for the cafe but the amount we'll grow won't be much at all. I see it as important to encourage people to grow more of their own vegetables - it means the garden is not a museum but a living place. Stowe did grow their own in the 18th and 19th centuries and when I was the gardener at the school I grew potatoes, tomatoes and cabbages. It feels good to be able to do those sorts of things. It's labour-intensive but you can get the community involved.

Q. How have you made the new area fit with the surroundings?

A. Around the car park we want to recreate the feeling of a country lane with hedges. There is an invertebrate bank with pipes filled with sand and lime and 30 badger setts. With the help of volunteers and placement students, we're putting in cornus, willow and field maple and we coppice every three years with thinnings going into our new biomass boiler.

Q. How do you source plants when you must be historically accurate and peat-free?

A. Eighteenth century varieties can be difficult to source. Some we grow ourselves and some we get from nursery lists. For apples we graft our own material and we grow on cultivars from our lime trees. Our nursery is limited but we will improve it. Peat-free is an issue that makes it more difficult. Buying a lot of bare root is the easiest way. We are planting for 100 years ahead so global warming is a concern and tree funguses can devastate. We were still cutting down the last diseased elms when I arrived.


1980: Gardener, Stowe School

1989 to date: National Trust gardener, rising to head gardener, Stowe School

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