Poor weather hits garden visitor numbers

Facilities such as cafes and other undercover areas have helped some historic and botanic gardens hit by the bad weather.

Hever Castle has seen fewer visitors this year - image: HW
Hever Castle has seen fewer visitors this year - image: HW

Visitor numbers at historic and botanic gardens have been hit hard by the poor weather in the first half of the year, managers have said.

Gardens are hoping the weather will improve for late summer and autumn, with many counting on events and improved facilities to attract more visitors.

The weather has had a mixed effect on the gardens, with herbaceous perennials growing well but many plants suffering from a lack of sunlight and many routine tasks becoming more difficult.

Great Dixter head gardener Fergus Garrett said: "Strong rain and winds have knocked things to bits and we just want the summer to come. Some of the herbaceous perennials will love this weather, but plants that need a degree of heat need the sun.

"We've had to adjust and the plants have had to adjust. People who normally would come to visit aren't coming, which has implications for gate money. There is a knock-on effect because you want to put money into training."

But he said it was too early to write the year off. "You have to keep marketing and planting and carry on with fingers crossed that the weather cheers up.

"We have a lovely plant fair in October and hopefully the weather will be good and we will get people in. We inject a lot of colour at the back end of the season. If all our eggs were in one basket and we were just a spring garden, we would be more despondent."

Lowther Castle has opened for the first time after a redevelopment. "We're still busy, but it's difficult to say in the first year how much more busy we would have been," said commercial director Andrew Mercer.

"We've had torrential rain some days and there are still hardy souls who turn up. The staff are having to be more flexible and a lot of routine jobs are difficult because it is so wet. The paths we put in last year have helped."

He said new facilities giving shelter from the rain are important. "We have opened a large new cafe and that has certainly helped. We also have proper car parking. We have significant undercover areas so people can retreat to somewhere warm and cosy.

"There are summerhouses that we are starting to refurbish. That was always the plan. We are having more wet weather than anticipated but in the Lake District the rain has to be something that you're prepared for."

Hever Castle head gardener Neil Miller said: "Overall on the horticultural side the garden has benefitted, but we haven't had the visitors so numbers and profits are significantly down. It's partly the recession, but when the sun is out visitors will come. It costs about £50 for a family to visit the castle, and if they've only got £50 to spend on a day out they're not going to come if it's raining."

Kew Gardens has been hit but said it is too early in the season to know whether this year will be up or down. At Wakehurst Place, visitor numbers are down 27.1 per cent year to date, with paying visitors down 36.1 per cent, meaning members are coming but paying visitors are not, said head Andy Jackson.

"Catering is down 22.8 per cent and retail also down 22.8 per cent. When people are coming out, the recession isn't stopping them from spending. That suggests that this is an artefact of the weather rather than a microeconomic effect."

He added that numbers recovered slightly in June. "It feels more buoyant than it was four weeks ago. We need some reasonably nice weather over the summer. This is such a weather-dependent business."

Gardens consultant Alan Sargent said the weather has been a headache for contractors. "Start dates have been pushed back and completion dates are all over the place," he added. "People don't understand that it's because the garden is flooded and it's not the contractors' fault.

"A lot of smaller contractors are having problems trying to persuade clients to pay up. Lawn mower contractors are having problems as well as hedge cutting, with some hedges that are normally cut once a year needing to be done a second time.

"Cash flow and labour are going to be a problem. When the dry weather comes, everyone will expect contractors to be there. I would advise them to contact clients now and explain that life is going to be difficult and they'll be there as soon as they can. The worst is yet to come."

Head gardeners and owners on coping with the weather and its impact on visitor numbers

"The weather has slowed things up. Herbaceous stuff is growing really lush, which makes it soft and weak. Lots of soft fruit will be affected and the coldness has affected plants. We don't open to the public but visitor numbers are down in other gardens from what I've heard. We just need to put on our waterproofs and get on with it."

Tony Arnold, chairman, Professional Gardeners Guild

"As soon as there is a good day, people are coming out. Visitor numbers are still very high and we're quite confident. Entry is free so we're not relying on people paying to get in. Catering is the biggest issue because we never know when the weather is going to be good and whether we'll be able to get the food in that we need. Wastage can build up."

Andrew Turvey, head gardener, Myddelton House Gardens

"April was a washout and we were 40 per cent down. We had a couple of good weeks in May and people came in the numbers we would expect, which shows that they will come if the weather is good. You're totally at the mercy of the weather. If it doesn't pick up it will be an interesting winter. We have had to lay off some staff in previous winters."

Nick Hamilton, owner, Barnsdale Gardens

"All our data indicate that the majority of visitors decide to come on the day or the day before their visit. What I have a problem with is pessimistic weather forecasting because people decide not to come out even though the weather might be good on the day. We really could do without over-pessimistic forecasts."

Andy Jackson, head, Wakehurst Place

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