24th March 2021
We’re discovering some of the most unusual jobs around the English Riviera and getting to know those lucky enough to have them.
Today we’re meeting Ali: the Head Gardener at Torre Abbey. One of the most historic buildings on the English Riviera, Torre Abbey is an Ancient Scheduled Monument and dates to 1196. Now a multi-award-winning attraction with an art gallery and museum, Torre Abbey is also known for its 18 acres of spectacular gardens. Abundant with exotic plants, tropical glasshouses and even the Potent Plant Gardens, there’s plenty of outdoor areas to enjoy at Torre Abbey.
I have been the Head Gardener at Torre Abbey for 12 years. At four years old I believed that there were tigers living in the Palm House jungle. So how could I resist coming to work in a place where I spent so many magical, happy hours as a child? It feels almost inevitable that I ended up here when I took up horticulture as a career and I have never regretted the decision.
Every day I always try to arrive a little bit early just to have some time to ‘feel’ the garden and get a sense of where it is at. Before the work starts the garden really belongs to the local wildlife. Squirrels, birds and even the odd fox have the place to themselves and with a cup of tea in hand I can watch them scurry, listen to them sing , enjoy their antics and put my own thoughts in order. I really enjoyed the buzzard family that moved in for a while, not only because it was amazing to get so close to the youngsters and watch them grow but because their presence indicates a healthy ecosystem, essential for an organic garden.
Then I get on with planning the day’s work, checking on the garden’s condition, looking for issues especially after bad weather, and prioritising the workload. If only I had more hours in the day…
Weather and the seasons have a huge impact on our daily activities, obviously, dictating what we can and cannot do and what we should and shouldn’t do on the most practical level. There are some activities, though, that need to be undertaken every day of the year. Our glasshouses are special environments, artificial biomes containing plants that simply could not survive without our intervention. We have to water the Palm House and the Propagation House without fail, every day (even Christmas Day), as well as monitor the heating, ventilation and humidity and pest levels. Although some of our systems are automated, nothing really beats the keen senses of a plant obsessed gardener. The glasshouses are a critical part of our offering, giving visitors a chance to enjoy around the world trip whatever the weather. Having a picnic lunch in a snowstorm surrounded by bananas is really quite unforgettable.
Mostly, though, the weather in Torbay is much kinder and we place a high priority on keeping the whole garden and grounds in shape for the thousands of visitors that use our outdoor space for recreation, especially during lockdown. So, our other early daily tasks tend to concentrate on safety and tidiness – raking our gravel pathways, litter picking and grass cutting. Once we are happy with general standards then we can concentrate on moving the garden forward.
Torre Abbey Gardens relies heavily on its extraordinary team of volunteers to keep the garden looking good. They arrive at ten and the daily briefing, again with a cup of tea, is probably the most important part of the day as tasks and information are shared out amongst the team. Then it’s just a case of letting them loose. Most days I will join them as I will never stop loving the practical side of gardening, getting dirty, wrestling roses, pulling weeds, digging over. I am known for being brutally efficient!
What makes this job such a fantastic challenge are the opportunities created by working in an 800 plus year old site, where weddings, open air cinema, school visits and a host of weird and wonderful events take place regularly in normal circumstances and the team are passionate about creating a superb visitor experience for all.
The pandemic has put most visitor activities on hold, but that has not stopped everyone planning for the future and the garden itself keeps growing and changing so I have been working throughout. I miss the life and positivity that our visitors bring but I am determined to ensure that, once they can return, they have as good an experience as ever.
To be able to once more share the magic and love for the garden that I feel with the wider world; that’s what I am looking forward to.
Although currently closed in line with government guidance, Torre Abbey and the gardens will reopen in May. A place for learning something new and reconnecting with nature, Torre Abbey offers a memorable day out for all visitors to the English Riviera.