When we meet, Sarah Malleson is just one week into her new role as Head Gardener at Hidcote Manor Garden and still shaking her head in disbelief.
A career change 13 years ago saw her join the world-famous Arts and Crafts garden on a National Trust apprenticeship scheme in 2005. Now she is heading up the 11-strong gardening team.
“I still cannot quite believe it,” says Sarah, who is the first woman to run the Hidcote garden. “Thirteen years ago I never thought I would reach this.”
She has taken over in the lead role following the departure at the beginning of last year of Glyn Jones to become head of gardens at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Glyn had worked for the Trust for 29 years and had been in charge at Hidcote for 16 years, overseeing the huge 10-year restoration project that has seen elements of Lawrence Johnston’s original garden reinstated, including the plant shelter and alpine terrace.
Sarah didn’t apply when the job was first advertised, as she had just started work as Hidcote’s Visitor Experience Manager, drawing on her previous experience in customer services and marketing. But when the Trust did not appoint and the role was re-advertised last autumn, she put her name forward.
“Doing the Visitor Experience Manager job was a good thing and I enjoyed it but it made me realise my heart is really in the garden,” she says, adding that it’s also given her a better understanding of how Hidcote and the Trust are run.
Meanwhile, Michelle Bailey has been appointed as the new Visitor Experience Manager, and Richard Armstrong took over as Catering Manager last year.
So soon into her new job Sarah has few detailed plans but priorities include maintaining standards of horticulture, getting to know her team and recruiting for another gardener to bring their numbers up to full strength.
She’s also unlikely to make any huge changes after an unsettled few years: Hidcote had a caretaker Head Gardener in 2014 while Glyn was on secondment to Dyffryn Gardens in Wales, followed by Glyn’s departure and part-time guidance from Stourhead’s Alan Powers over last summer and autumn while the Trust sought to fill the job.
“This year is about settling things back down, learning about my role and making longer term plans.”
Adding more jewels and banishing blight
It will include drawing up a five-year plan, important in any garden but particularly so in one with the historic background of Hidcote and Sarah will be working closely with the conservation management plan.
“It will help us see whether things are as they should be.”
Sarah, who oversaw the restoration of the Kitchen Garden a few years ago, is planning to look at each of Hidcote’s ‘garden rooms’ to ensure the planting is as good as it can be.
“I want to look at the historic plants and see what we’ve got, what’s missing, what things need propagating, what needs to be brought back into the garden.”
Some of that work has already been started by Assistant Head Gardener Sarah Davis, who has been rejuvenating the “horticultural jewels that sparkle in the borders”.
The team are also partway through restoring The Fuchsia Garden, a move that was forced on them by box blight. Like several Cotswold gardens – not least Highgrove and Barnsley House – Hidcote has had to remove some of its old box hedges.
It’s been used as an opportunity to redo the rest of the area with the beds cleared and brick paths relaid, using traditional lime mortar. Research is now being carried out on what planting Johnston used in this part of the garden.
“We’re not going to rush the planting but will look back at the history.”
There’s also been no decision yet on what to use to replace the box. Ilex crenata was tried in this part of the garden but failed to thrive and the team are waiting to see how Euonymus japonicus microphyllus fares in The Maple Garden.
“We need to wait and see how that does before planting The Fuchsia Garden because we will need a lot of plants for there.”
Already the ‘to do’ list is starting to grow but Sarah says that’s the beauty of working at Hidcote.
“What’s nice is there’s plenty to get your teeth into here. It’s not as though it’s all done and you’re just trying to keep it the same. It’s ever changing and keeps the creative ideas flowing, which is exciting.”
• Hidcote reopens on Saturday February 11, 2017 for one week during half-term. It is then open at weekends with normal opening from March. For more details, visit the website
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