Interview - Bryan Smith, gardener, Brookwood Military Cemetery

For someone who has spent 42 years surrounded by death, Bryan Smith is a remarkably cheerful gardener. That might not be surprising, given he has spent more than four decades tending the same 37 acres and has "never really been tempted to leave".

Bryan Smith, gardener, Brookwood Military Cemetery - image: HW
Bryan Smith, gardener, Brookwood Military Cemetery - image: HW

Walking Brookwood Military Cemetery's beautiful grounds in his company is a rare pleasure - a mixture of history, humour and horticulture - and it is little wonder his tours are famous in royal circles. "I do tours for the officer cadets at Sandhurst," says Smith.

"One time I was telling a group a few jokes when one of them went and grabbed his friend. They introduced me to him and it was Prince William. It was a bit daunting but he was so nice I carried on telling stories. At the end of it all he came and shook my hand and told me how much he enjoyed it."

Smith clearly made an impression, as he found out years later when awarded an MBE. "When I was nominated I thought it was a wind up," he explains. "I got a letter through the post and it had Buckingham Palace written on it so I threw it aside thinking it was junk mail.

"After a while I read it and just assumed it was a joke from one of the guys at work so I left it. But after a couple of days I picked it up again and thought, hang on, this is a bit good for them, perhaps it is the real thing. I ended up going to Buckingham Palace."

"When I met the Queen she asked what I do and I just went completely blank. She smiled and carried on talking until eventually I managed to tell her I worked here at the cemetery. I told her about doing tours for the cadets and she suddenly remembered me. She said her grandson had told her about the tour I did when he came to visit. To think they were talking about me was unbelievable. It's a day I will never forget."

Smith and his colleague Mike Lewis MBE have both worked at the cemetery for 42 years. During that time they have seemingly seen it all, from a military funeral turned brawl between free and communist Czechs to the filming of The Omen in the cemetery grounds.

To give a horticultural perspective on the length of his tenure, he points to the leylandii. "When I first started I could touch the top of those," he recollects. "Now if you go to the top of them you can see Guildford Cathedral."

But it is not just the foliage that has changed. As a 15-year-old recruit, Smith spent large parts of his day walking a push mower up and down the sweeping avenues of headstones.

"We used to use the old fleximowers," he recalls. "It was a two-man job. A lot of things like that have changed. Obviously when we first started there wasn't much health and safety. We didn't really have any instructions for the old sprayer. We just put a load of chemicals in and sprayed away. It killed everything."

Though many jobs have been mechanised leading a decrease in horticultural staff, Smith says some things have gone full circle.

"Traditionally the graves were cleaned by hand with a brush and detergent - it was one man's job to do 100 graves a day. That was replaced by chemicals for many years, but now a lot of it is back to being done by hand because of the environmental impact. Weeding beds has gone full circle as well. We are now back to weeding by hand again in some places." But adapting to change has never been a problem and Smith says he is sometimes surprised by how little health and safety there used to be.

So what advice would he give to young people coming in as gardeners? "Always have a sense of humour," he declares. "Certain things about the job have become monotonous, and you need commitment. Kids now can go and earn more money elsewhere - there is a dedication you need to work here."

He says he considered retiring after 40 years but didn't know how else he would spend his time, aside from tending his tomatoes and helping the elderly with their gardens.

The elderly's gain would be history's loss, as Smith's encyclopaedic knowledge of the vast site is surely unrivalled. At every turn he points out a fascinating detail; the grave of a war hero, a peculiar inscription or how each tree species relates to the men buried around it - Maples for the Canadians, etc.

It is even rumoured that he knows every grave in the site, though he denies it, saying younger colleagues think him "sad" for learning the history. But despite the decades spent among the fallen, he appears undaunted, determined to go on learning the tales behind the graves he tends.

"The thing that brings it home some times is when you see the Afghanistan or Iraq funerals and you know it's hurting the families. Once a lady came over and started talking to me. I gave her a brief history of the site and she asked how much I knew about the recent burials. I told her I make an effort to find out what happened so I can talk to relatives.

"We started talking about one soldier in particular and eventually I asked her if she had known him. She was his mother. I felt like an idiot so I apologised, but she said she was touched by the fact that someone here had taken the time to know his story."

1968: Junior gardener, Brookwood Military Cemetery
1968-73: City and Guilds, Merrist Wood College
1973: RHS diploma in horticulture
2007: MBE

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