Interview: Rowan Blaik, head gardener, Down House

There are some people you meet who are just perfectly suited for the job they do. In the case of Rowan Blaik, newly appointed head gardener at Charles Darwin's home, Down House, this is certainly true.

Rowan Blaik, head gardener, Down House - photo: Warrior Spirit Images
Rowan Blaik, head gardener, Down House - photo: Warrior Spirit Images

Some might joke about his obsession with garden history but it's inspiring to meet someone who knows so much about where he works and is so keen to pass it on, especially as he's only been in the post for a few months.

Blaik grew up in north London, where he developed a passion for gardening when pottering around his back garden and poring over books by Beth Chatto with his mother. His love of garden history was cemented when he was taken on as a student for English Heritage's gardens and landscape team, where he spent a year doing research for the team's head, John Watkins, and travelling round gardens in the UK with former gardens adviser Russell Williams.

After a spell in Germany and a post at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where he previously studied, he has now returned to work for English Heritage, which since 1996 has owned Down House, the historic house and gardens where Darwin spent 40 years of his life.

Blaik explains that although Darwin's voyages on the Beagle to exotic places, such as the Galapagos, are widely credited with being the scientific foundations for his groundbreaking work The Origin of Species, it was actually Darwin's observations of the common things in the English landscape around Down House which validated his theories.

"Darwin sat in the long grass at Down Bank looking at native species and collected droseras on the common. He may have travelled the world but this is where he did his thinking and writing. The Origin of Species wouldn't have existed if this landscape and garden hadn't been around."

Blaik adds: "On many heritage properties it's the house that is important and the gardens are just the dressing. But in the case of Down House you could say Darwin just popped into the house after he'd done the important stuff."

Blaik and the team at Down continue to carry on the "important stuff", repeating the experiments that Darwin carried out in the garden. These include observing the way bees build their honeycombs, examining the morphology of climbing plants on the trellises outside the house and monitoring patches of ground to see which seedlings survive into adulthood.

"His work showed that nature is a real struggle and that even plants compete with each other. The extensive records Darwin kept mean we can compare our results with his, as we know exactly which days he went out to look."

Blaik explains that there is an incredible wealth of archives about Darwin to draw upon, and he clearly relishes being able to. He has access to Darwin's own writing, as well as letters by his wife Emma (who was an enthusiastic plantswoman), Cambridge University's Darwin Correspondence Project and information from one of Darwin's direct descendants Randall Keynes.

Blaik says Emma Darwin's letters give the team a "bit of freedom, because she used so many plants that some call her the local garden centre's best friend. So we can use many plants to make the gardens historically accurate - meaning it isn't a garden frozen in time."

Apparently Darwin used a donkey to pull a wheelbarrow and had a pigeon house, which it has been suggested should be reinstated. But Blaik is wary: "There are so many plants and animals Darwin was associated with that we could end up with a menagerie."

A radical restoration of the house is underway as the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth is in February and next November is the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. There is also an application being submitted in January to put forward Down House as a World Heritage Site.

English Heritage trainee gardener, Peter Howells, is helping Blaik prepare the site for the celebrations, along with a group of 25 volunteers and contractor Gavin Jones.

"I'm really glad I've got a trainee gardener instead of a general gardener under me. I've got to where I am by being a working student and I feel I've got an obligation - and want - to train others."

As the new head gardener Blaik will be aiming to build a good relationship with the local residents and council. It is anticipated there will be in excess of 30,000 visitors next year.

"We know there will be a huge amount of public interest on the site next year so we will need to manage the visitor numbers. People visiting Down do bring in local business and we have a good rapport with local people. But for their and the site's sake we will be capping the number of visitors and not overpromoting the site as the roads would block up and car parking would be difficult."

Celebrations next November will focus on the garden. Video guides have been prepared for touring the the grounds. David Attenborough, who has been filming a BBC series on Darwin, due to be broadcast in February, provides the introduction.

With such an exciting year ahead Blaik couldn't have arrived at a better time to oversee the gardens and looks set to do an excellent job.

1995-1996: BTec First Diploma in horticulture, Capel Manor College
2000: Royal Parks Apprenticeship, based in Hyde Park
2000-2003: Kew Diploma, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
2003-2004: English Heritage gardens and landscape team student
2004-2006: Horticultural team leader, Dresden, Germany
2006-2008: Horticultural technician, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
2007: Contributing author to the Management & Maintenance of Historic
Parks, Gardens and Landscapes: the English Heritage Handbook
October 2008 to date: Head gardener, Down House

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