Marcus Chilton-Jones reveals his ambitions as Curator of RHS Garden Bridgewater, one of the largest gardening projects in Europe, as well as a surprising passion for some feathered friends
Marcus Chilton-Jones started in the new role of Curator of RHS Garden Bridgewater in January 2017. He joined the project from the Dorothy Clive Garden in North Staffordshire, where he worked as Curator for eight years.
How does this job compare to what you’ve done previously?
It's pretty comparable in lots of ways but on a super-steroidal scale! I've done lots of restorations and re-creations. After I finished my apprenticeship I worked on a restoration project at Morden Hall Park in southwest London; we restored orchards, rose gardens and lots of features around the historic mansion.
Then I moved on to Berryfields [former location of BBC Gardeners' World] which involved setting everything up from scratch: a glasshouse, kitchen garden, borders... but on quite a small scale: it was a TV set if you like, a couple of acres.
My largest restorative (or re-creative) job was at Trentham, where the Italian Gardens cover about 10 acres - the Walled Gardens at RHS Bridgewater cover about 11 acres - so they're quite similar in terms of scale and what needs to be accomplished.
"The thing that's most exciting about Bridgewater is the scale - it's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a garden on a site that's so unusual and in such close proximity to a big urban centre"
Is it important to maintain links with the site's history?
Absolutely. Although most of the original plants and buildings have disappeared over the last hundred years, traces remained - such as the pear and apple trees around the Walled Garden.
Unfortunately, they were overgrown and some of them were falling over. We took some boughs out to encourage fresh vegetative growth, and then we did some grafting later in the season. We grew the plants off-site and then brought them back in to replant. This ensures that there's continuity with the things that we know have done well here in the past.
What gets you most excited about Bridgewater and your role?
It's the scale - we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a garden on a site that has a history of gardening that's been lost for over 100 years - and to do that in such an unusual site and in such close proximity to a big urban centre, that's what's most exciting.
What are your personal ambitions for Bridgewater?
"My personal ambition for Bridgewater is that it becomes the number-one garden in the north west of England. If we achieve that then I can reset the objectives!"
How do you think Bridgewater will be different to the other RHS Gardens?
Bridgewater will be different by virtue of its locality - the topography's different, the climate is different, and more importantly it's located so close to a big urban conurbation. The types of people that will use that space, engage with it, be inspired by it, educated at it, will be slightly different to our other gardens which are rather more rural in character.
Has the site thrown up any surprises?
There are some mysterious tunnels under the road on the northern boundary which we will have to investigate. They may be associated with an old hall that was pulled down, called the Brick Hall; there were various evolutions in the housing stock that was around the site, and inevitably there are some unexpected bits of history just waiting to be uncovered.
Have you always been interested in gardens and gardening?
The short answer is no, absolutely not! I grew into it as a late teenager, when I had a job working at a local nursing home where I grew up in Worcester. I worked alongside a guy called Ivor Jones who was a specialist in gooseberries and blackcurrants. Initially it was just a job, just a way of earning some money. In my second year there, I bought a book or two - and by year three I was hooked. I grew to love gardening by the time I was 21, but prior to that I had no interest whatsoever!
Who do you admire most in the gardening world?
Lancelot Capability Brown. He was the leading landscape architect of his day and his legacy 250 years on is massive - there are more than 190 'Capability Brown' landscapes across Britain - and his is the only truly artistic form that the British culture has added to art in a general sense.
"The person I admire most in the gardening world is Lancelot Capability Brown... his is the only truly artistic form that the British culture has added to art in a general sense"
Can you tell us something surprising about yourself?
I keep ducks as a hobby! I have Indian Runners and Khaki Campbells - primarily for their eggs - and for the fun of keeping them. I like watching them - I'm a duck watcher!