National Trust Nostell – Spirit of place!
Knowing such a marvellous house, gardens and grounds - with Robert Adam architecture and Chippendale furniture in abundance - and then learning about a certain "black-eyed lioness", David Mears was pleased to visit the National Trust's Nostell recently, not as a regular visitor this time, but to meet Paul Dibb, Garden and Park Manager.
To be able to take a behind the scenes tour of the gardens and grounds, meet the team responsible for development and maintenance and secure an in-depth interview was indeed an opportunity.
I arrived early on a bright but cold January morning and was warmly greeted at the machine shed and maintenance facility by Paul and a few of his team. As there was good weather: little cloud, some sunshine and it was dry, we decided to take advantage to walk and photograph. Fairly close by to the maintenance facility and hidden from public view, we came upon a path at the side of the middle lake I've walked a number of times as a visitor; most times with family or friends. With Paul at my side and with such a wealth of information, this walk now took on a totally different aspect. Although I had been along this path many times, I realised that there had been many rhododendrons here in the past. Paul told me that all the rhododendrons in this area had succumbed to disease (Phythopthora Ramorum) and had been removed carefully and correctly. New planting is part of a major project; more of this later.
We walked along, spotting two well grown but still not white cygnets at the water's edge. Paul commented that released American mink are a problem for the swans and not all cygnets make it! We looked across the lake towards the rear of the house and the gently sloping grass bank to the lake and I learned something new: it seems that, many years ago, and to create extra theatre, the family would take their guests down from the house to a landing stage and then by boat across to where we were standing. They would then walk a short distance to the Gothic Arch we were about to go through. This arch was gated in those days and rendered; so that explains the use of random stone and its current appearance! All would then be revealed as they entered the Menagerie Garden (created in 1743) and were able to see the black-eyed lioness, monkeys, colourful birds and other exotic species. What a spectacle would have greeted them; theatre indeed!
We carried on walking past the small pond. "Not a pond," Paul told me, "That was the cock pit!" Now it is a pond however and home to great crested newts. We continued and I learned more about the Menagerie House, designed by Robert Adam and where the "keeper" lived. It was hard to imagine this well cared-for area once contained a small zoo! Our walk continued back around the lake, over the bridge and up to the front of the house where we met all the team to take the essential team photo!
Paul and I then continued through the old stable yard and round to the kitchen garden. Here we met Mark Westmoreland and found him preparing a garlic bed. What was most fascinating, however, was the rhubarb cultivation. Most have heard of West Yorkshire's Rhubarb Triangle, a 9-square-mile area, famous for producing early forced rhubarb and Nostell is right at the tip! It's clear that Mark is passionate about his job and is the resident expert, often giving tours and talks. He explained that the forcing bed is based on a 300 year old principle and that maintaining the right temperature is crucial. In the old days, loads of manure was used, however woodchip, from estate pruning and maintaining sustainability, is now used and achieves the desired temperature. Mark opened up one of the five crowns in the bed and pulled out a digital thermometer: 34.6OC inside and 9OC outside; perfect! I then looked in to see how much growth had been achieved in a week. The photo shows the amazing speed of growth! Mark told me that he has his crop in three weeks; If only I liked rhubarb! The rhubarb (19 varieties grown) is just one of 130 different fruit and vegetables varieties produced in the Kitchen Garden. An amazing 270kgs of rhubarb are used in the café each year and, it seems, rhubarb scones are going down very well with visitors! Nothing goes to waste and, if the kitchens don't take all, any surplus is offered to visitors for a donation!
The Kitchen Garden, where work to reinstate it began in 2012 following local funding, saw the planting of an apple orchard, using all Yorkshire apple varieties. This work was quickly followed by vegetable beds and other kitchen garden beds to provide the café with home grown fresh produce. Apart from the cost savings, the scheme has proved to be a hit, not only with the kitchen but visitors alike!
There is much more visitor interest now attending garden talks with many getting involved with hands-on work such as pruning. The "new" garden certainly is working and part of the staff development and student activities. Not that we saw flowers at this time of the year, but I can vouch for the wonderful displays in season, not forgetting non-edible bananas growing too!
We then took a look at the amazing play area adjacent to the garden. It seems that there had always been a play area dating back to when the family managed the estate, but following safety concerns and some deterioration, a number of items were taken out of use. This led to a decline in visitor numbers, especially families needing play facilities. Something had to happen, so it was agreed to invest in a new play area. A specialist company, Timber Play, was consulted and a plan drawn up for a "Play Trail". Paul liaised with them and planning permission sought. This took much longer than expected and the work envisaged for the winter did not happen. With Timber Play installing one major item all the other work, including landscaping, was completed by Paul's team in August 2008; the time when there are higher visitor numbers! Nevertheless, hard and long work prevailed and the job was completed in good time. As Paul said: "We all got stuck in! The area is a credit to them and has ensured that visitor numbers have returned and improved!"
allowing this walking exploration, it was time for a cuppa, so we made for Paul's office and continued with questions about Paul, Nostell and the team's work.
Paul has been at Nostell for thirty four years. When he left school at sixteen he knew he wanted an outdoor job and, despite an offer of a higher paying joinery job, opted for a YTS horticulture course. "My father, when I asked what I should do, told me to go for the job you love. I clearly remember that I was paid £16 a week!"
Paul's first job was landscaping and tree surgery; not really what he wanted, which was horticulture. Fortunately, a position at Nostell was spotted by Paul and he discovered that a new team of gardeners was to be set up there to replace contractors. This seemed ideal, so applied and got the job, which entailed day release to college and he soon obtained an NVQ in Horticulture. Now he was making progress and doing what he loved. His work must have impressed as he was offered and took on the position of Head Gardener when he was twenty two! His inspiration to get into horticulture came from his granddad, as young Paul enjoyed helping him on his allotment. Paul remembers seeing the fruits of his labours and that gave so much satisfaction.
Paul also recalls that, during his early years at Nostell, he was fortunate to have help and encouragement from two people in particular. William Craven, the Land Agent at Nostell Estates, took a keen interest in his development and Andrew McVitie, the Senior Rural Surveyor for the National Trust, also helped and encouraged him. "He showed me how to advance my career," said Paul.
As Garden and Park Manager now, Paul is responsible for his own budget, reporting to the General Manager. His team of six and army of volunteers comprises gardeners, rangers and a tenant farmer, each of whom has their own specialities and favoured activities. The team, shown below at the front of the house, are:
Back row left to right:
• David Hudson-Spragg, Gardener. On his second stint at Nostell, having started on a YTS scheme and taken on full time. After a number of years, he left for another garden but the lure of Nostell has seen him return! Loves gardening and always has
• Paul Dibb, Garden and Park Manager
• Mark Westmoreland, Gardener. Started at Nostell in 2012. Got the bug from being a volunteer and from his grandfather
Front row left to right:
• Michelle Tierney, Assistant Gardener. Been at Nostell since September 2019. Came from Ribble Rivers Trust and a Horticultural Apprenticeship. Is gaining, at Nostell, what she needs; more horticultural experience
• Richard Farrah, Ranger. Been at Nostell since 2016. Has a degree in Geography and is passionate about the outdoors and conservation
• Richard Grayson, Ranger. Secured a seasonal Ranger's role in 2012, which led to a full Ranger in 2014. Loves working in the outdoors; a far cry from manufacturing where he used to work!
• Hazel Irving, Volunteer Ranger. Came to Nostell on her birthday in October 2019 and is on site each Friday. Is studying Arboriculture at Askham Bryan College.
Gardeners focus on the forty acres of gardens, and their work involves mowing, planting, watering and pruning. With such a large number of rose bushes and fruit trees and twice per annum pruning there's plenty of pruning work! Another big job is hedge cutting; mainly yew with some hawthorn and beech.
The Rangers, with their conservation background, concentrate on habitat and woodland management and resources. Their work entails fencing, cycle track maintenance (there are two cycle tracks now and popularity grows!) along with habitat management and monitoring.
The entire team share mowing over the site and all equipment is also shared. Regular work is usually rangers out in car parks and visitor areas mowing and strimming on Mondays and Tuesdays, with gardeners mowing and strimming menagerie and other park areas. Rangers tackle large park area mowing during the rest of the week with gardeners involved with every day gardening demands.
Daily maintenance of machinery is carried out by the team, but annual servicing is outsourced. Paul is also able to seek help from the National Trust's Gardens, Forestry and Nature conservation consultants. Large tree work and climbing is outsourced to a local contractor.
Additional help comes from volunteers who are keen to help and learn. They are in every day except Thursdays in the garden when mowing is a priority; team members are not available to supervise and train volunteers that day. Volunteers help to maintain the high standards set at Nostell and often this can lead to employment; Mark and Richard are prime examples!
The total acreage of the site is 300 acres of parkland with forty acres of gardens and two lakes. The soil across the site is predominantly clay, slightly acidic and on a sandstone bedrock. Compaction is becoming more of a concern now that visitor numbers are growing and the grounds are open all year round. Changing weather patterns have not helped either. Paul would like to invest to rectify the compaction problems. High winds can be an issue and cause damage in unsheltered areas. Bearing in mind that the site is a visitor focused operation, snow and ice needs to be taken seriously. Paul and his team have management plans and a snow plough, gritters, etc., to ensure the site remains open and safe; visitors need to know that they can come to Nostell, whatever the weather!
Asking about presentation, Paul said that this is very important; "The general public are paying to be here!" he says. He goes on to say they have a system called "Spirit of Place" guiding them and their work. In essence it is; "how did the family want the place to look?" The work in the gardens and grounds is striving to be sympathetic to the original designs and concepts.
There is no real end of season as Paul says; "we are open every day, except Christmas Day now. Renovations are tackled as dictated by seasons and weather and our ability to work around our visitors."
I asked about special events outdoors as they seem to have waned. Paul explained that, with wetter seasons and possible hirers unsure about attracting numbers, fees fell and the once attractive letting of parts of the grounds meant the Trust was unable to generate the revenues necessary. Taking this into account, and with the cost of clearing up and site remediation, it was decided to cease such large scale events. Attracting regular visitors took on extra impetus and has resulted in a steady increase in visitor numbers and, of course, revenue. Currently 150,000 folk visit the house and gardens and 300,000 the parkland every year. Each year is seeing an increase as many are seeing outdoor activities and exercise as an essential part of their lifestyle.
I asked what special projects were being worked on currently. Paul highlighted three:
The major project is working on the large lake dam. This is a capital project and for stabilisation work. Secondly, he hopes to tackle the construction of a new greenhouse in the kitchen garden; necessitated by the growing demand for produce from the café! And thirdly, a large planting project in the Menagerie Garden. This has been brought about by the removal of diseased rhododendrons mentioned earlier. Paul has researched this thoroughly and planting will begin with trees and shrubs using a plant list from the 18th century.
Looking at projects that have been carried out in recent years, three again were the major ones: we have already covered the kitchen garden and play area, reporting on our walk through the grounds. The third, however, is the Parkland Restoration. This commenced in 2003 and entailed arable reversion; turning arable fields into wildflower meadows, opening up public access and much woodland management being carried out. Restoration of some major structures was included too; the Robert Adam gatehouse, the boat house and bridges. The grand plan is to restore the parkland to the original 1849 estate map. "We are nearly there!" says Paul.
We next touched on training, education and Health and Safety. All are important to the Trust and Nostell. Paul ensures he and his team comply with current legislation. All have been trained and continue to receive appropriate training. Those with specialist skills have undertaken extra training and are certificated as required, such as chainsaw operatives.
Being a visitor focused site, Health and Safety for everyone is always to the fore and an awareness of possible hazards, particularly for visitors is maintained. There are four First Aid trained people in the team and a National Trust H&S officer is available.
Machinery used by the team:
• Two tractors (larger John Deere 4720 and a compact 2510 John Deere). A new John Deere compact is due to be added shortly
• John Deere 2653A triple ride on mower
• AS Motor AS510 mulch mower
• Stihl and Husqvarna chainsaws
• Stihl brushcutters
• Stihl pole saw
• Timber Wolf chipper
• Sit-on compaction roller
John Deere equipment is sourced in the main as part of a national deal the Trust have.
More cordless kit is due to arrive and trials of Cramer items have proved good; Bluetooth reporting facilities are most handy!
"We use local dealers for servicing and supply," Paul tells me. Hiring of machinery does not happen very often, but Paul thinks they may need to hire a scarifier shortly.
"So, what would be the item you'd put at the top of your wish list?" I asked. "A cherry picker would be so useful" came the reply!
Pests and diseases were covered next and the American Mink is the main pest; they need to be trapped. As mentioned earlier, the swans suffer badly. Squirrel control is also essential as there is much tree damage. There are no real disease problems now that the rhododendron issue has been dealt with. There has, however, been a small amount of Ash Dieback.
Next, we spoke about the importance of ecology and the environment. "This is huge," says Paul. "We are stewards for this wonderful environment. Conservation is so important".
As you would expect, a very detailed environmental policy is in place and regular contact is maintained with the Environment Agency. The trust employs environmental specialists who are on hand to provide help and advice.
Ever aware of pollution prevention and legislative compliance, Paul has a recycling wash system on his wish list. Furthering conservation, they also produce their own compost in a traditional three bay system.
Paul tells me that they are working towards the National Trust L.O.N. programme. No, I didn't know either! It stands for Land, Outdoor & Nature. Work includes assessing key species and habitats on site, enlarging habitats and improving them and providing extra habitats for new species. Paul has just finished writing an Estate Management Plan to help achieve these goals.
What about the state of our industry? Slowly moving forward would be the feeling. Paul believes that the work they do is undervalued and that more investment should be forthcoming to provide education. To raise their profile is difficult. "We have an area gardens consultant who feeds back information and concerns to head office," says Paul. "We all need to shout up!" To stay informed, magazines are read and occasional attendance at trade shows; workloads permitting!
In conclusion, it seems that Paul and his team are very committed, care passionately about their work and have a vision of what Nostell can aspire to. It is also evident that the work at Nostell is appreciated by visitors; a quick look at Trip Advisor confirms Nostell's growing popularity with very good reviews. Little wonder that the café is to be relocated to larger premises in the stable yard to cope with demand!
All images David Mears unless otherwise stated.
Our thanks to the National Trust for providing some of the images and certain historic information
For more information about Nostell visit https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/nostell
Nostell Priory - A Brief History
Nostell Priory, one of the great houses in northern England, with its three hundred acres of parkland including two lakes and forty acres of gardens, is situated adjacent to the A638; the Doncaster to Wakefield Turnpike Road in years gone by. This fashionable Palladian house is considered by many to be an 18th-century architectural masterpiece. It is also believed that it is the only house, now belonging to the National Trust, that was able to boast a menagerie, created in 1743.
The present house, built by James Paine for the Winn family, dates from 1733 and was erected on the site of a medieval priory. (Charles added 'Priory' onto the name in the 19th century, as a recognition of the historical origins of the site. The treasure house, gardens and parkland that so many visitors enjoy today are known as 'Nostell'). The house was designed to be more than a home but one that would demonstrate status. Much of the house was constructed through two generations of Winn's and, despite massive costs, the results were spectacular.
Following the death of Rowland Winn (4th Baronet) in 1765 and Rowland Winn (5th Baronet) inheriting Nostell Priory in 1765 at the age of 26, changes occurred. It seems he did not wish James Paine to continue working on the house but gave the work to the budding Robert Adam whose fame was increasing. Adam commenced work on the house in 1766 and created a number of splendid rooms over a ten year period. Working alongside Adam were the cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale (over one hundred of his pieces remain in the house today), plasterer Joseph Rose the Younger and painter Antonio Zucchi. In 1785 the 5th Baronet was killed in a carriage accident on the road to London and work on the house was immediately stopped. Vast sums of money were owed to Adam, Chippendale and Zucchi and the building project was left incomplete. A plan by Adam for four new wings had got no further than the empty shell of one.
The baronetcy died out and Nostell was eventually inherited in 1817 by Rowland and Sabine's grandson, Charles Winn. Winn had part of the house redecorated, but he had neither the money nor interest to complete the major building plans of the previous century - indeed he thought Nostell "overgrown" and a "burden". Financial challenges continued for the Winn's but fortunes were revived thanks to coal on the estate and the growth of the steel industry in Scunthorpe along with discovery of ironstone on another Winn estate. Rowland (Charles Winn's son) who inherited in 1874 invested carrying out repairs and refurbishments to the house. In many ways this time marked the point Nostell finally fulfilled its original purpose. As well as being a successful businessman, Rowland Winn was a major player in the Conservative Party, rising from M.P. to Chief Whip. The house played an important role in supporting his career, playing host to everything from mass political rallies to more intimate weekends with guests of influence and status. In 1885 he was made 1st Baron St Oswald (named after the saint to whom the original Nostell Priory had been dedicated). The dream of the 18th century Winn's had been realised.
In 1953, the house was given to the National Trust, with full management taken over from the family in 1997. From a chequered past defined by exclusivity and money, Nostell is now a place of wonder and enjoyment for everyone.