Voices from the Past

26 July 2018

What an exciting time we have been having recently

In the last three weeks we have been visited by two former gardeners who were employed (not simultaneously) by Miss Mitchell in the 1950’s. It is so important for us when we make contact with people who have been associated with the house, because we get tantalising pieces of the jigsaw.  Photographs always help us to understand more about life as it was lived ‘up at the big house’ and obviously for us in the garden, it is invaluable to learn how the gardens were laid out and what was grown where. 

Gardener Jim

Jim, the first gardener to visit worked at the house when George Wood was the Head Gardener in the late 1950’s. We walked around the policies with him and he was able to tell us how they grew peaches in the greenhouse, where the potatoes and carrots grew and where he and George had to double-dig the entire walled garden to remove Horse-tail weeds.

A Young Apprentice

He told us that as a young apprentice it was his job to cut the grass with the ATCO lawnmower, the best machine available at the time. Miss Mitchell used to watch him from the library windows and if he started to go squint with the mower she would open the window and shout in a high-pitched voice for ‘Woods’ the head gardener to come and sort it out. Surprisingly, he referred to the pond in the Rockery as ‘the Fish Pond’ and he often wondered how the water managed to stay so clean. We wondered how this muddy, overgrown rockery and soil-filled pond could have been so awe-inspiring and contemplated whether we could ever return it to a fish-pond.

West Side

We asked Jim what had been grown on the west side of the house and his answer amazed us. Miss Mitchell never went into that part of the garden, so they didn’t do any work there – ‘that would have opened a whole can of worms’ – because it was all overgrown and they would have had to spend a lot of time trying to claim it back.

Top Tip

Jim’s tip was to always let nature do its work for you, so e.g. if you hoe your weed seedlings early in the morning on a hot day, leave them on the surface, they’ll wither away before nightfall – job done!

Bill the Gardener

About a week later Bill visited. He was employed at the House at the beginning of the 1950’s for a few years until he had to present for National Service in 1956. His tenure didn’t overlap with Jim’s, and James McNicol was the Head Gardener during his spell of working at the house. Bill, despite having worked there more than 60 years earlier, had drawn a map of the planting plan for some of the vegetable beds and helped us by indicating where there had been an orchard, the peaches again – “..on the right hand side of the greenhouse as you go in, against the wall” -, and he also mentioned the fish pond referring to it as the ‘Goldfish Pond’.

Pear Trees & Roses

Bill said that the back of the House had pear trees and roses growing up the walls. He stopped at the old pear tree ‘Souvenir du Congres’ which is clinging to the east wall of the Victorian extension and said that each year the pears had looked delicious but he was never allowed to try one so we have promised him that this year, when we harvest them, he will get the biggest, juiciest one and finally get to taste them.

Small Team

Amazingly, both gardeners told us that there were only two people in the garden team during their time. They made their own compost using leaf litter gathered up from under the beech trees; they stored their harvested carrots in sand; their potatoes in soil and their apples on shelves all in the third outbuilding down by the cottage.  They hand dug the manure into the soil on frosty days in winter when as a special treat, to thaw out they would hunker down by the coke-burning boiler that created the heat for the big greenhouses.

Happy Birthday Bill

Bill was celebrating his 80th birthday and arrived with an extended family party, some of whom had travelled from Canada. The grandchildren were amazed to hear and see this part of their grandfather’s early life as he showed them the stable where on rainy days he would spend hours chopping firewood. It wasn’t all bad however, because, if he was lucky, Maggie, the Cook, would bring him out a bowl of piping-hot soup. 

Grateful Memories

It has been terrific to learn from these two gentle, placid men about life as a gardener at Bannockburn House and they have helped us immensely with their memories. We hope that they will visit us a lot more in future and who knows, we might even get them to do a bit of hoeing or light pruning the next time they visit. Heaven knows, there is enough to be done – how did they ever keep it under control with just two people!


Blog by Margaret in the volunteer gardening team 

Featured image from Lesley McPherson