Association of Gardens Trusts Making a Difference

by Steffi Shields, AGT Vice-Chairman

“Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by,
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.”

Rudyard Kipling’s familiar verse is as good a starting point as any to convey the purpose of the Association of Gardens Trusts (AGT). The vision and strength of this unifying organisation come together to conserve our ‘thinking’ spaces. The AGT is a national charity, underpinned by volunteers, working to prevent further loss or corrosion of specially designed green living spaces that imbue a sense of our past while we survey the present. But there has to be more than nurture and enjoyment we have to think about the future. This far too crowded island is under ever-increasing pressure from building development and motorways. Hence, since being founded in 1993, the AGT has been working closely in association with ten branches of Welsh Historic Gardens Trust, and in partnership and cross-fertilisation with a range of like-minded garden heritage groups, especially English Heritage, the National Trust and the Garden History Society, but also Green Space, Historic Houses Association, CABE, NADFAS, the Heritage Alliance (formerly Heritage Link) and the Woodland Trust.

Why do we research tired, old landscapes and gardens? Spaces with a special sense of place are narratives of the taste and ambitions of individuals, reflecting layers of family history, often over centuries. Gardens offer more than aesthetic pleasure, adding to the visually enjoyable and often scented experience by engaging the mind with a much-rewarding fourth dimension: understanding the context of a garden, landscape or park. A tour de force in conservation circles, AGT President Gilly Drummond is fond of pointing out: ‘Gardens are tellers of tales; the skills of the designer allow the tale to be heard.’ If you are interested to learn about the design development of gardens, she says, you may then begin to read them like a book, even if some of the pages are missing. Recently, as a trustee for the Chiswick House and Park Trust seeking planning permission for a huge £12 million regeneration project, Gilly transported a group of Hounslow councillors by coach down to the outskirts of Swindon to view progress on the Lydiard Park project, to appreciate with their own eyes just what could be achieved. Consequently, those councillors who visited Lydiard supported the Chiswick bid including restoration of the walled garden. Those who had not taken the trip were noticeably ‘less enthusiastic’.

The AGT works to ‘make a difference’ in conservation: by supporting friendly, enlightening annual conferences for CGT delegates to learn about and explore the wealthy mix of gardens and parks, and their designers, in diverse areas of the country; by emphasising special events, by suggesting issues and recommending speakers for major conferences, regional workshops and study days; by informing and advising county gardens trust committees and members with website, papers and e-newsletters, by forwarding planning applications and, lastly, by arranging insurance cover with modest premiums. The AGT responds to government initiatives, sometimes questions and challenges planning issues, but, perhaps above all, is committed to encouraging schemes to pass on valuable gardening skills and knowledge in schools and adult education and enable teachers and planners with local research.  Hence the AGT supported the first phase of the unique online Parks and Gardens database and is now working towards expansion in a second development phase.

One applicant for the recently advertised staff post of AGT Administrator/Co-coordinator wrote: ‘I see the Association of Gardens Trusts as a warm institution, where culture, history and nature merge to advocate beauty and civilisation’ a rather charming, if somewhat exaggerated assessment! However the AGT team is encouraged that the County Gardens Trust movement, a ‘full-house’ of 36, has now come of age, and is determined to continue to support this valuable, pleasantly open, grassroots network.  Rather like the vine and its fruit-bearing branches, the AGT is only as good and as responsive as its committed volunteers. The ongoing work of these impassioned County Gardens Trust members goes largely unsung like seeds sown on the Solent wind carried to evergreen landscapes and gardens from Cornwall to Northumberland .

…But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.