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Beards, Botanicals & OIKs


Affable, jolly and utterly synonymous with the island, Abbey Garden Curator Mike Nelhams looks back on 40 years since he first set foot on Tresco’s golden sands…

I still remember my first moments on Tresco. It was September 1976 and I appeared – fresh-faced and full of enthusiasm – as a scholarship student direct from the Royal Horticultural Society Garden at Wisley in Surrey.

Having been met at Carn Near quay I was conveyed – or rather, bounced – to my new place of residence on the back of an aged grey Massey Ferguson tractor of unknown vintage. My new accommodation was, I believe, of an even greater vintage – an old potato store in New Grimsby then known as ‘the Bothy’. It was, however, a waterfront building with excellent views across to the island of Bryher. Not all was lost.

My first move was to ask Head Gardener Peter Clough about the awful din emanating from immediately behind the building. Were my new colleagues having a tug of war with two giant tractors? “That’s the island generator,” Peter replied. “You’ll get used to it; it goes all day… oh, and all night.” Welcome to Tresco!

Some years later in 1984, after five years running High Beeches Garden in Sussex for the Boscawen family, I received a call from Robert Dorrien-Smith. He asked me to return to Tresco as Head Gardener of the Abbey Garden – generally considered to be one of the finest jobs in British horticulture. It took me all of five minutes to consider the offer and, shortly after, I arrived back on Tresco on a sunny February day. Tresco hadn’t changed much in the intervening few years, but then neither had I – with the exception of the new growth of a full, bushy beard.

Why the choice of facial accessory? In all honesty, this was a somewhat vain attempt to impress the garden team – who of course had known me previously as ‘the long-haired garden student’ – with a sense of experience, gravitas and an idea that I might actually know what I was talking about. Surprisingly, besides looking like David Bellamy, it appeared to work!

One other significant change had occurred in my life in the years between the long-haired student days and the heady heights of the bearded Head Gardener. As with so many of us with a love of this special place, I had kept in touch with the island in the intervening years, and had in fact gone one step further than most and snapped up and married Isobel, a Tresco girl born and bred. Two daughters, Max and Kate also came along and our new family life on Tresco was complete. What could be more perfect?

With a new family, life was busy. In fact, island life is always busy. Life here often demands that you take on more than one role and so it was not long before I was seconded to the heliport team as Radio Assistant. I could often be found at weekends enjoying myself greeting visitors at Tresco heliport, shrouded in headphones, clipboards and bright yellow fire clothing. Boys and their toys…

Island life is also unpredictable, as I found out about three years into my stint as Head Gardener. It was December 1986 and I was on the top terrace of the garden with then Propagator, Andrew Lawson. I had decided that the garden was going to get a complete revamp and we were excitedly discussing the work ahead.

We needn’t have bothered. January 1987 came along and saw the garden completely devastated by icy weather, virtually unheard of on these ‘subtropical islands’. Nearly the entire garden was reduced to a substance that looked much like stewed rhubarb – and smelt like something a lot worse. The proposed revamp took on a whole new meaning.

Three years later – almost to the day – came an event that would be etched in the mind of anybody that lived through it as, in January 1990, a hurricane swept across the south of England. Tresco did not escape, with 127mph winds decimating the garden’s windbreaks, wiping out hundreds of trees that had provided shelter to the tender floral gems within for over 100 years. Cue another extensive ‘revamp’. I believe the phrase is ‘triumph over adversity’…

This combination of unseasonable weather events entailed many visits to contacts across Britain to replace the unique collection within the Abbey Garden. The Royal Botanic Garden Kew, in particular, has been extremely generous over many years.

Of course, such a unique collection could not be replicated and replaced without a degree of horticultural perambulation across the globe, and the subsequent years also saw trips to the various Mediterranean climate zones of the world, including California, Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa… Nice work if you can get it!

Travel has been something of a theme of my time on Tresco. In 1999 I instigated an annual garden visit to the finest garden on the Italian Riviera. Each spring, for around ten days, the whole garden team would decamp to the Italian village of La Mortola and the world-famous Giardini Botanici Hanbury, just ten miles from Monte Carlo. This visit gives the opportunity to prune the occasional olive tree, visit some wonderful properties up and down the riviera and compare notes with some of the greatest gardens in the world. Of course, every now and then there is also the obligation to sample the odd glass of Prosecco on a sunny coastal Mediterranean terrace. All, of course, in the name of gardening.

Every year, I have the pleasure of attending the RHS Chelsea Flower Show as a judge. One exhibit in particular always stands out to me: the South African exhibit from Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden just on the fringe of Cape Town. The stand usually comes away with a Gold Award and Tresco has enjoyed a close relationship with the garden for many years.

There is a serious side to all this horticultural gadding about, mind you. Building connections with other world-famous gardens allows us to share knowledge and expertise and to encourage visitors to delve into horticulture. There is no better example of this than the Great Gardens of Cornwall – a marketing initiative designed to entice visitors to Cornwall and Scilly to experience the incredible gardens on their doorstep. Five gardens – including Tresco and Heligan – became founder members; the launch was on Tresco and now, 25 years later, the group has grown to 18 gardens.

The marketing stretches beyond British shores, mind you. As the first Abbey Garden Curator, it is always a great treat and honour to be invited to speak aboard ships sailing around the world. A genteel few days viewing the splendid botanic gardens on the Mediterranean or Canary Islands always makes life worthwhile, and short circumnavigations of the British Isles speaking on gardens visited is always an excellent opportunity to get in a few words to entice passengers back to Tresco.

We enjoy nothing more than welcoming visitors to our own slice of paradise. Cruise ships have been visiting Tresco and the Abbey Garden for nearly 40 years, but my, how things have changed.

In 1976, Argonaut was the lone ship, bringing a modest number of American guests keen to see the garden. In 2017 we expect 75 cruise calls.

In a brisk two or three hours the passengers will leave their ships, take a guided tour of the garden, enjoy tea and scones (“Hey, how British!”), buy distant relatives the obligatory pot of honey, tea towel and postcard before returning to their ships for onward travel to the next destination, sailing out through the islands in the late afternoon.

Every visit is a mammoth event which entails the whole garden team mobilising to meet, greet and give guided tours to visitors from across the globe. Many of those conducting the tours are students. One thing I have never forgotten is my student gardener roots (pardon the pun) and students have always played a strong role within the garden team. Tresco is fortunate to enjoy close links with the Studley College Trust, which assists in enabling three young gardeners to come to Tresco for 12 months.

Each year in August there is a round of interviews for prospective students, held in London in the surroundings of the Royal Horticultural Society Council chamber. I am always delighted at the quality of students we attract, three of whom will arrive on the island six months later to start their scholarship – much as I did many moons ago. Thankfully, they no longer have to put up with the generator!

Our garden students are always happy to speak to visitors about their placement, especially when that visitor happens to have royal connections! Royal visits have always been a great treat for the garden team and over the years the Abbey Garden has played host to many members of the royal family.

There is always a great flurry of activity beforehand, raking paths and cutting back errant shrubs that may otherwise ungraciously dislodge the royal headwear. After the garden is made ready I usually find myself being pruned with a new haircut, shirt, tie and freshly polished shoes, before strolling through the garden as though it’s all in a day’s work!

Royal visits aside, Tresco has always been a magnet for publicity and there is something of a running joke on the island that where there is a camera, I am never far away. I honestly don’t know what they mean…

Over the years many programmes and their stars have made the pilgrimage to Tresco, from Harry Secombe’s Highway to Pebble Mill at One, children’s favourite Blue Peter (yes, I do have the badge!) and Alan Titchmarsh’s Gardeners’ World. Alan and I have gone on to be great friends; he very kindly wrote the foreword to my first book (a clever ruse by me that if people saw Alan’s name on the cover they might think he wrote it and I might sell more copies!).

Outstripping even me in the Tresco media stakes, however, are Tresco’s most famous residents – the red squirrels. Their arrival has been most fortuitous for me, precipitating the visit of one of my film heroes, Judi Dench, whose partner David Mills was instrumental in bringing the little critters to Tresco (the squirrels, not Judi). I must say I felt somewhat like Judi’s on-screen associate Bond when we flew the first young squirrels to the island aboard a search-and-rescue helicopter, courtesy of 771 Squadron of RNAS Culdrose.

It may surprise you to know that I believe in a healthy work-life balance! Sport has always taken a strong role in my activities over the years. Immediately upon arrival to Tresco I was drafted into one of the two gig crews on the island. I stayed true to the Men-a-vaur crew for nearly 15 years, rowing in countless races across the islands.

When my body dictated enough was enough I took to being Coxswain for the Men-a-vaur ladies’ crew, who were highly successful, winning many trophies. My role in their success was simply steering them in the right direction and the odd word of vocal encouragement to make sure they were not slacking.

On dry land, football was my first choice of sport. I was a founding member of ‘The Oiks’ or ‘Off Island Kickers’, a name invented by Richard Barber. The Oiks were formed from a selection of islanders from around the off-islands to play annual matches against the mighty St Mary’s. We even won once or twice. I also enjoyed many a game of cricket each summer for many seasons. I was worth my place on the field, with little escaping my grasp.

My bowling action, however, was once described by local farmer Roger Oyler as akin to someone bowling with a broken arm. I could bat when I felt like it but usually did not have the patience to last long at the crease, often playing a golf shot across the ball – a harbinger of my future sporting life.

Golf is now my chosen sport, and each Saturday I enjoy nothing more than scrambling into my boat, picking up fellow enthusiasts and colleagues Dean and Philip and – in the summer months – an assortment of Tresco visitors such as Paul Wilson and Ewan Cameron. We dash down to St Mary’s for a swift eighteen holes before rushing back to Tresco before the tide drops.

All in a day’s work on the island I love to call home: Tresco

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