Chris Beardshaw - Cotswold Character
PUBLISHED: 14:58 24 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:57 20 February 2013
The rest of the world are keen to get their mitts on Chris Beardshaw. But we're not handing him over without a fight, says Katie Jarvis
Maybe we ought to start a Hands off Chris Beardshaw! campaign. Not a warning to the Ladies who Lunch for whom his knitting-pattern good-looks make him the perfect pin-up. No, Im talking about the Rest of the World: Asia, the Middle East, the Antipodes, whove suddenly tumbled to our national treasure. Well, hands off hes ours.Not that were not pleased for him. Delighted, of course. Last year, it was the Japanese who fell in love with his English-garden designs. This year, its New Zealand. Even as we speak, hes jetting off to the Ellerslie International Flower Show in Christchurch (the NZ Chelsea equivalent), where hes a prize bloom in a hotbed of international designers and hes building the biggest garden the show has ever seen. (Oh, and hes also busy with private-commission work in Bahrain.)But we need him here. Who else will sort our asters from our elders; or explain via Gardeners Question Time why our seeds havent germinated? He might only be disappearing Down Under for a few weeks, but Englands an only-island none of this North and South stuff brought up by itself; we dont do sharing.So why exactly is he off, creating gardens the world over? That sounds very grand! Chris Beardshaw says, with down-to-earth affability. Its simply a question of: if people see what you produce and they like it, then theyre going to commission it.Its not hard to explain why Chris has become such a popular gardening guru it just takes a while. His looks satisfy television; his easy communication skills glide effortlessly across the airways; and his eloquence enhances the pages of numerous newspapers and magazines (Cotswold Life included, of course). He also has that rare quality that allows him to straddle town and gown with equal success: he works with colleges and universities, lecturing and examining at under and post-grad levels.But his international career really blossomed last spring with an invite to take part in the prestigious World Garden Competition held, in 2009, in the Japanese city of Hamamatsu. Taking place just once every three years, its the Olympics of the gardening world.Theyd seen me at Chelsea and thought the Japanese market might like the English garden style that I produce, so they invited me over, Chris explains. I ended up working with a team of Japanese craftsmen who spoke no English, but we didnt have a single hiccup. The love of great gardens, flowers and garden architecture is a universal language, and I was in awe of the quality of their workmanship.Chriss English garden, which captured the spirit of the herbaceous border, was one of 29 viewed by more than three million visitors to the show. So impressed were the judges, they awarded him one of only three medals. But that didnt stop them being puzzled by elements of it.The two countries styles are just so different. Everything in a Japanese garden is highly manicured and highly managed, whereas we even asked the nursery to grow us some weeds, moss and lichen to put in the cracks of the paving stones, as if theyd been there 100 years or more.As a result, one of the Japanese judges said, I love your garden but what are the weeds about? The Japanese have a purity of style that means the grain on their paving stones will flow in the same direction. A timber building or gate wont have knots in it at all that would be seen as abhorrent. One of the girls who was helping us told us how her grandfather, father and two brothers earned their living picking the needles off pine trees. When a pine tree grows, the current generation of needles points forward and out, whereas the previous generation points down and backwards. Because the Japanese dont want those more geriatric needles, they employ people to remove them.Now, of course, hes hoping for a similar level of success in the garden city of Christchurch. Dont be fooled. Although its referred to as the English town (theres a Cotswold Hotel and a Winchcombe Street), with a not-too-dissimilar climate, Chris will nevertheless have his work cut out. The range of plants they grow is very different, as is the way they treat them. Herbaceous plants arent commonly grown in New Zealand: they tend to adopt a more Australian style of things. There are lots of prunus, lots of magnolias blocky rather than romantic plants. They dont engage with overtly floriferous gardening.Chris and his team have caught the Kiwi imagination by building the largest show garden theyve ever seen more than 60 metres long and 15 across. Its a think-big scheme to match an equally panoramic backdrop. The show takes place in the main park, with the Victoria Lake behind, and I wanted to capitalise on that view. So were constructing a stone portico and orangery through which you look at a meadow and the lake, and then a Brownian landscape beyond.So hes creating a frame; taking elements from the natural landscape.Yes, were borrowing, he grins. Trying to confuse people into believing its all part of the garden as well.This time, theres an extra reason to be excited about the trip, for the whole family will be joining him out there: wife, Frances, and their three daughters, the youngest of whom is just two. Theyre always very much a team: We rarely go to functions, events or meals where the children dont come. Id simply rather not go, he says. For me, the children are the centre of our home. That family home is a barn conversion, high on the wold, looking out onto an archetypal Cotswold landscape. At the moment, the children are at the age when they want to be involved in everything we do. I do a lot of cycling and my middle child had a bike for Christmas; its still got stabilisers but she immediately wanted to come out cycling with me and in fact cycled three-and-a-half miles over the weekend. When I say Im going out and doing 60 miles, thats no barrier, as far as shes concerned, he smiles. Its a case of: Youre going out cycling; Ive got a bike; therefore I can come out cycling with you.He enjoyed a gloriously rural childhood himself, brought up in Worcestershire; his parents moved to a tumbledown cottage in the middle of nowhere when he was four years old. It was just the ultimate adventure; a playground, he recalls.It had been an old bakehouse, and a butchers, and possibly an ale house, too; it was certainly mentioned in the Domesday Book. Before that, we lived in a 1960s house. I can still remember my father coming home from work, kneeling on the floor, and circling properly advertisements in the local paper. This particular property didnt even have a picture; it was just a few words of description. I remember getting out of the car and finding a house completely hidden by brambles and old derelict damson orchards with tumble-down chicken sheds.I think my dad loved the challenge of being able to do something with it, whereas my mum was horrified to begin with! For me, it was just a fabulous place to grow up. Id come home from school, kick off the uniform, wander out across the fields, climb trees, and look at the tadpoles in ponds and the crayfish in the local stream. I never remember watching TV.It was about this time that his grandmother gave him his first packet of seeds and ignited a life-long passion. In fact, if it hadnt been for his supportive family, he might not have made it onto his chosen pathway at all. The careers advisors of his youth were keen to steer him away from gardens and into the navy. Yet theres just such a broad range of things you can do with a degree in horticulture. You could spend your life exploring the rainforests of Borneo; looking down microscopes and dealing with genetics; you could look for the next breed of plant thats going to sweep our domestic gardens; or you might look after botanic collections.Thats one of the impetuses that has driven his interest in education. So much so that hes now running his own mentoring scholarship. Currently, its helping Paul Hervey-Brookes make his way into landscape architecture.Certainly, were Chris Beardshaw less polite, then ya boo sucks to you might seem a reasonable response to those career advisors of yore. For Chris has hardly been off our screens since his first television appearance in 1999, when he was discovered while lecturing at Pershore College. Hes since appeared on a plethora of shows, from Wild about your Garden encouraging wildlife this side of the fence to The Flying Gardener, with its birds eye perspective on the British landscape. Indeed, if you thought the most terrifying thing about gardening was finding a worm in your cabbage, Chris would beg to differ.We had the most extraordinary experience flying out of Staverton to Worcestershire, while filming The Flying Gardener. The cameraman was trying to take onboard shots of me but I was backlit and it wasnt working well. So he asked Michael, the pilot, if he could plug a light into the helicopters electrical supply. As it had all worked on the ground, Michael said certainly he could. We were flying at about 2,000-ft, heading up towards a tree nursery. As soon as the cameraman plugged the light in and turned it on, all the electrics in the helicopter went off. Ive never seen so many flashing lights and alarms in one place if it could flash, it flashed, and if it didnt flash, it made a noise. We were basically freefalling; the pilot had to unplug everything and restart the helicopter! But this is a man whos a fabulous pilot. A man who does it all with a nonchalance that inspires confidence. So, I had no problem getting back into the helicopter thenext time.And that kind of nonchalance, he says, is also whats lovely about gardeners. One of the great things about what I do is to be able to talk to gardeners who have that rather dismissive attitude: they dont consider they do anything special. Its only from an outsiders perspective that you appreciate how extraordinary they are; how much they inspire.He could be (though he isnt) talking about himself. For his own projects show just how inspiringly broad gardening can be. As well as his media and design work, his books and his educational interests, Chris is talking to a hospital in Manchester about developing its outside spaces. Its remarkable, but research has shown that recovery rates are up to 50 percent faster if people have access to green space or views of green spaces.As to our own gardens, the message is the same as always: encourage in the wildlife, garden in a sustainable way and, above all, enjoy. Oh, and dont worry about the current bouts of atrocious weather.I was talking with Peter Gibbs from the Met Office recently about perfect Christmas presents. I said mine to him would be pine cones and a bit of seaweed on the grounds that they would probably be more accurate than the Met Offices fantastic computer. And he said, Dont tell anyone which obviously Im not going to but I do have some seaweed and a pine cone hanging outside my back door. I thought that was hugely reassuring!But the great thing about gardens and plants is that they bounce back. Im sure Im going to lose some as a result of a foot-and-a-half of snow, but that just gives me a chance to nip up and talk to my local nurseryman about new plants.And talking of hardy perennials that do well in British soil: you can borrow him, New Zealand; but his roots are firmlyfixed here.
Chris Beardshaws next book, A Sustainable Garden, will be out in summer; for more details, log onto www.chrisbeardshaw.com