Marcus Chilton-Jones, curator of the new RHS Garden Bridgewater
The curator of Bridgewater, the RHS's newest garden, loves a challenge and a chat over a spade. Words Annie Gatti, portrait Charlie Hopkinson
For Marcus Chilton-Jones, curator of RHS Garden Bridgewater in Greater Manchester, 2020 will be a momentous year. All going well, the garden where he heads a team of 24 full-time gardeners, two apprentices and scores of volunteers will open its doors to the public in July. It was in 2017 that the RHS got full planning permission to transform the 154-acre grounds of Worsley New Hall, demolished in the 1940s, and Marcus embarked on the urgent task of assessing the neglected plants, removing invasive species and clearing the site.
When we meet in December, the ‘messy’ stage of the landscaping and construction, which has involved rebuilding the 11-acre walled garden, repuddling the ornamental pond, laying miles of drainage pipes and paths, refurbishing outbuildings and building a visitor centre, is still challengingly muddy, but Marcus seems confident they’ll make the deadline. “When I applied for this job, I realised the scale and pressure would be bigger than anything I’ve done before, but it’s nice to stretch yourself,” he explains. Marcus’s career path suggests that he has been stretching himself ever since he got his first gardening job, a three-year apprenticeship with the National Trust at Nymans Garden in Sussex, where he says he got a really good feel for the cycle of the garden, what to do where, and how to do it well. Is an apprenticeship a good way to start, I ask?
“It worked really well for me. If you can manage three years in a junior position on quite low pay and still enjoy it, you’re really well positioned to enjoy a fruitful career. It’s uphill from then on.”
'What are you creating a garden for if it's not for people? The whole point is to make people feel happy, to feel inspired'
Well, uphill if you have the drive, ambition and sense of when to move on that Marcus has. His next job as sole gardener at Morden Park, London, which hadn’t been gardened for decades, developed his skills in the heritage of gardens (he has a degree in history) and his interest in fruit growing. His eyes light up when he describes the process of sending off fruits to Jim Arbury, curatorial specialist in fruit growing at RHS Wisley, waiting for news of their identity, and then labelling and cataloguing the plants. His final position with the National Trust was as head gardener at The Vyne in Hampshire. A short stint at the BBC garden at Berryfields was not a happy experience, but proved useful in confirming for him that a slower, more reflective way of gardening in tune with the seasons is what he values, and that he missed interacting with the public.
The next move, to Staffordshire, where he was appointed deputy garden manager during the restoration of Trentham Gardens and where he and his wife Rachel settled with their two young children, introduced him to the challenges of scale and footfall. It was also a baptism in how to work with the plants of the New Perennial Movement, from two masters of the style, Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf. “In the right place, I think it’s amazing. You need quite big open areas, so you get movement and backdrop, but if you put it inside a walled garden or a smaller space, it loses its impact.” Tom Stuart-Smith’s use of it for the entrance garden at Bridgewater works really well, he says, as it relates to the adjoining lake and meadow.
Although Marcus admired the panoramic parterre layout of Trentham, he didn’t feel engaged with the garden, and it was when he moved to the nearby 12-acre Dorothy Clive Garden, all winding paths and areas to discover, that he refound that emotional response that he feels is critical in making and tending for a garden. “What are you creating a garden for if it’s not for people? The whole point is to make people feel happy, to feel inspired,” he says. He spent eight years there, bringing coherence to the garden and “chatting across the spade with the public”.
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It’s this connection with visitors that’s the first thing he highlights when he explains how Bridgewater will influence how the RHS runs the other four gardens in years to come. “We will have more social outreach and we’ll reach a wider demographic. There’ll be free days and a wellbeing garden with free access for those who need it. We also have community plots and training opportunities that will eventually include up to 20 apprenticeships.”
There’s also a big push to improve the biodiversity of the site, which needs a longer timetable. The next raft of planting, of bulbs and trees, will start in the autumn, and the Back to Back gardens, featuring winning Young Designer of the Year gardens from RHS Flower Show Tatton Park, will be rolled out in 2021.
Although he’s only 46, Marcus sees this job as the peak of his career. With fundraising for the second investment period continuing until 2030, he will have plenty to challenge him.