Interview: Lord Ashbrook, patron, Professional Gardeners' Guild

It has been a cold winter for professional gardeners, many of whom are dealing with severe damage caused by one of the worst winters in recent memory.

Lord Ashbrook, patron, Professional Gardeners' Guild. Image: HW
Lord Ashbrook, patron, Professional Gardeners' Guild. Image: HW

But one thing to warm their hearts could be a boost in membership for the Professional Gardeners Guild (PGG), an organisation bucking the recessionary trend. According to chairman Tony Arnold, the guild has its new patron to thank for that.

A solicitor by trade and with no professional horticultural knowledge, Lord Ashbrook might seem an usual choice for the role. But ties with the Historic Houses Association (HHA) and the family estate at Arley Hall have made him something of an inspired choice.

"About two to three years ago I heard they might want me to be patron," Ashbrook explains. "It took quite a long time to come to fruition but eventually I was approached and, it being something I was interested in, I agreed to do it. So three or four of them came and vetted me and they spent about two hours there. In the end I got appointed. That was a year or two back."

Ashbrook first came into contact with the PGG during the 1980s in his role as head of the HHA gardens committee and it is through his ongoing associations with the HHA that he feels he can make the biggest difference to the organisation.

"The main objective is to get the name tripping off the tongue of more and more people who are influential in gardening. I would like to see more HHA members involved. Quite a few HHA gardeners belong to the PGG but by no means all, so one of the things I have been trying to do is encourage the HHA members to get their gardeners to join. It does require a certain amount of support from the owner because they need to go to meetings and that sort of thing."

Since becoming patron, Ashbrook has written an article in the HHA magazine and made a speech at its AGM, both designed to promote the PGG, and they appear to have had some effect.

But his interest in the organisation goes beyond simply boosting membership. "One of the things it does that deserves encouragement is that it started its own charitable trust. It raises funds with a view to paying out benefits for gardeners who have fallen on hard times and it gives bursaries to help young gardeners.

"Those are two particular things that I think deserve support. That might come within the remit of the patron to raise awareness. The charitable trust would benefit a great deal if we could attract funds from other big foundations. I have had some experience in some fundraising."

Indeed, Ashbrook has been heavily involved in numerous charities, societies and organisations, lending a hand wherever time can be spared.

He is currently involved with the David Lewis Centre for Epilepsy, the Leonard Cheshire disability charity and has a long history of involvement with organisations like Tatton Park, the National Trust and the Country Landowners Association, as well as serving as a magistrate and deputy lieutenant of Cheshire.

"I think it is important to do what you can. I don't have all the time in the world but I do intend to attend as many of the PGG events that I can."

His patronage may still be in its adolescence but he has already attended numerous meetings, including the AGM, residential conference and technical seminar. Despite not being a professional gardener, he says a keen interest in gardening makes them enlightening affairs.

"Every two years it has a residential conference and this year it was in Cheshire. I went and chaired one of the sessions there and then I went to the AGM," he says.

"I was quite keen to go and meet a few more of the members and again I was impressed. I think it is a good organisation. I'm certainly not a professional gardener but I'm interested in it, particularly trees and shrubs, so I suppose the background fits quite well."

His interest undoubtedly stems from his family association with the stunning gardens at Arley Hall. Converted from market to public garden by his mother after the war, Ashbrook returned to manage the family home during the 1970s.

Although he says much of the restorative work was already complete by then, he and his wife have been instrumental in creating the popular Grove area, which they opened in 1991.

"My mother did a huge amount in the garden and she enthused us a great deal. We are complete amateurs but perhaps it is false modesty to say we don't know anything," he suggests.

"I have focused on the Grove and now it is really quite a large collection of woody and exotic plants. It complements the main garden very well. We are still working on it, taking out old trees and replacing them with new exciting things. As the titular owner of the Arley estate I regard it as very important that the garden is well maintained, but we do get huge pleasure from it."

1949-54 Eton College
1954-56 National Service, grenadier
1956 Worcester College Oxford
1959 Began career as a solicitor
1975-76 Left law and returned to Cheshire to manage Arley Hall
1976-85 Involved with HHA, National Trust, Country Landowners Association and became magistrate
1978 Tatton Park management committee
1982 Became deputy lieutenant of Cheshire
1985 Returned to law part time
2008 PGG patron

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