Three’s company for the ongoing management of the historic Bowood estate

The ongoing management of historic estates as thriving communities where people work together to make the most of the land's assets remains key to their commercial success and ultimate survival, and Bowood is a great example of this. Jane Carley met with Head Groundsman Geoff Partridge, Head Gardener David Glass and Head Greenkeeper Jaey Goodchild to discover more.

Surrounded by glorious countryside yet close to bustling centres of population, the 4,000 acre Bowood estate in Wiltshire draws thousands of visitors each year to its historic house, Capability Brown parkland and award-winning gardens. In recent years, a sporting attraction has been added; the 18-hole PGA championship course at Bowood Golf Club, complete with golf academy and country club hotel.

Bowood House has been home to the Lansdowne family since 1754, and opened to the public in 1975.

Paintings of the house from 1725 shows that the grounds were laid out in a semi-formal style, but were dramatically reshaped by 'Capability' Brown, who was brought in by the 2nd Earl of Shelburne (1st Marquis of Lansdowne) in the 1760s.

Brown used all his skills and experience in designing a mile-long lake that dominates the park, draining the land, damming two streams and moving earth without machinery.

An arboretum features more than 700 species and twenty-three Champion trees (the tallest or largest of their kind). Capability Brown supplied the 'forest trees', with Lord Shelburne sourcing 'curious seeds and trees' including cedar of Lebanon, one of Brown's signature trees, several of which can still be seen at Bowood, including the largest cedar in Europe.

The nearby Pinetum was first laid out in 1849, featuring trees planted in a geographical pattern according to their country of origin.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, following the advice of the Hon. Charles Hamilton of Painshill, a 'picturesque' rock landscape, with a cascade, grottoes and a hermit's cave, was constructed below Brown's dam at the head of the mile-long lake.

As well as giving pleasure to individual and groups of visitors, the parkland is also in demand as a set for film and TV productions, including recent historical dramas 'Poldark' and 'Sanditon'.

Extensive areas of traditional parkland are used for events and festivals, from classic car shows to concerts and sporting events.

Head Groundsman Geoff Partridge

"Reinstatement after events for damage caused by vehicle movements keeps us busy - when Sanditon was filmed in June it rained incessantly!" comments Head Groundsman Geoff Partridge, who has been at Bowood for thirty-five years and has seen plenty of change in that time.

"Initially, the house, gardens and park were only open six days a week and for six months of the year; now it is daily opening from the end of March to November, so there is less time for renovations and improvements. But the seasons have also changed - the Woodland Garden is only open for the six-week flowering period, and that now begins three weeks earlier."

He adds that the nature of some areas of the parkland has been altered to give a more natural appearance and enhance habitats, with new wildflower areas.

"They have also made the land easier to manage. For example, the site of a former bog garden had become wetland and was difficult to mow, but needed management to preserve the historic vista to the Doric temple. Once the flowers have seeded, we cut and collect with a flail collector to encourage future growth."

Mowing is an ongoing job, with 5m gang mowers required to tackle the extensive parkland turf three days a week in the growing season, backed up with ride-ons for around shrubbery and other restricted areas. The events fields are grazed, with the sheep moved on as events build up.

Legislation has also shaped the landscape recently; flood prevention regulations decreed that extreme flood events should not see water going over the dam, but flowing onto a 15m wide flood plain alongside the lake.

"We aim to undertake as much maintenance work as possible in-house, using hired in kit, and this necessitated moving the pathway by the lake back 15m, which was a major task for our team."

The original Victorian drainage system also has to be maintained, with clay pipes repaired or replaced as required. Mainly sandy soil drains well, easing groundcare tasks, apart from the hilly Woodland Garden, which has to be tackled in dry conditions.

On such a large estate, even routine tasks become a major undertaking, with six miles of formal hedges to cut in the autumn!

A dedicated forestry team looks after the extensive woodland, but Geoff does tree risk assessments and has a climbing ticket, whilst a new member of the groundstaff has also brought arb skills.

"We aim to work closely with the golf club team, including sharing their kit if we need it! There are just four of us working on the grounds, but mechanisation has made the job easier."

This, he points out, includes leaf blowers replacing hand raking and more efficient brushcutters, which also offer HAVS protection not afforded to him at the start of his career.

Whilst much of the management is on a decidedly agricultural basis due to the sheer scale of the park, specific areas get targeted attention; the new spillway needs grass cover to be maintained at 100mm, despite the attentions of geese, and high wear areas such as the adventure playground get extra fertiliser. Chemicals are kept to a minimum, restricted mainly to spot treatment with glyphosate.

Added from 1976 onwards - and a huge attraction for younger visitors - is the extensive adventure playground featuring a full-size timber pirate ship. Realising that some of the equipment may be a bit ambitious for tiny tots, the designer also built a scaled down version for under-sevens.

"The playground has been built to RoSPA spec, and is inspected by RoSPA annually, although our use of natural estate timber for its construction is unusual," explains Geoff. "We have over-engineered every part for safety, and we check the equipment every day. Different members of the team check it so that they don't overlook a problem. It's extremely popular and brings a new generation to Bowood."

Gardens include formal terraces with views over the parkland, private walled gardens open for tours on specific dates, and the thirty acre Woodland Gardens open in the spring to showcase azaleas, rhododendrons - including thirty rare hardy hybrids - bluebells and magnolias.

Originally, the kitchen gardens for Bowood House, the private gardens were extensively redeveloped, to a plan by consultant Rosie Abel Smith, thirteen years ago. The walled gardens are made up of four one acre squares, home to tulips, roses, lavender, peonies, hydrangeas, honeysuckle and many other plants. The layout includes a 250 metre formal border, a picking garden, working greenhouses and retains a kitchen garden full of fruits and vegetables. Arched arbours covered with trailing wisteria flowers over the pathways are the focal point in the spring, but as Head Gardener David Glass points out, the gardens have to perform throughout the year.

Head Gardener David Glass

"The family use the gardens for their own pleasure and to entertain guests, so they must always look good. The same goes for the public areas. For example, we plant a large border at the side of the house to offer interest through the season, not just when plants are flowering, but also before and after. Tulips provide colour in the spring and there are shrubs for structure, herbaceous plants and some annuals which can be relied upon to keep flowering."

The terraces were planted with annuals in Victorian times, but have since been redeveloped as a rose garden to reflect the lower staffing levels for modern estates. David has a team of four, who are also tasked with caring for the gardens of the hotel.

"Those lawns are more challenging as the hotel is built on made up ground from a former farm. It's hard work to prevent them from drying out and keep them green all year."

The sandy soil in the Bowood House gardens does, however, facilitate a decidedly green and traditional method of weed control.

"We use hoes extensively to go through the ground and prevent weed seeds from germinating. We wear them out quickly!"

In 1992, a time when many estates were looking for farm diversifications, Lord Lansdowne decided to think big and develop an area of rough grazing as an 18-hole golf course, selecting renowned designer Dave Thomas to realise his dream. Bowood Golf is now a PGA Championship course and home to the PGA's Academy for the south west. In 2011, it was complemented by a forty-three bedroom boutique hotel and country club.

Head Greenkeeper Jaey Goodchild explains: "We cater for members, corporate clients and societies, plus hotel guests, so it's a real mix, and the parkland course is scenic and challenging with large areas of long rough, wildflowers and specimen trees with two plateaus and a valley in between."

He describes it as a typical Dave Thomas design with numerous bunkers, and enjoyed the opportunity to give the designer a tour of the established course a few years ago.

"It's a par 72 for men and a par 75 for ladies, as it's a long course at 7309 yards off the back tees, and was a true test for the recent English PGA Championships."

Soil types dictate how it is managed, with sandy loam on the plateaus and pure clay in the valley.

"The second hole is called Brick Kiln, due to its heritage as the area where clay for bricks to build the estate was extracted."

Jaey comments that he has worked to improve the heavier areas and extend the playing window, tackling numerous fairways that struggled to support buggy traffic through the winter.

Head Greenkeeper Jaey Goodchild

"It has required ongoing aeration, deep tining and topdressing, plus flocculation programmes such as adding calcium sulphate to manage clay and increase infiltration. Timing is key and we have to fit aeration into the golfing schedule to get the most out of it."

Drought-tolerant varieties and extra irrigation are targeted at the drier areas, and Jaey has also instigated a greens conversion programme.

"Overseeding has focused on increasing bents, supported by topdressing to create a fine, free-draining surface. I have also updated fertility inputs, using less nitrogen to stress poa," he explains. "The aim is to create strongly dominant bent grass swards, and most greens are now at 80% bent grass, with some stragglers. The challenges include the aspect of some greens, with lower light and airflow favouring poa."

Johnsons All Bent is the variety of choice, selected for the company's track record and high recommended list scores.

Liquid composts are used alongside basic key nutrients, with industry veteran Martin Townsend advising on formulations.

"We have to respond to the need for golf to use resources properly, and accept that the availability of products such as fungicides is going to decline in the future," he comments. "It's also important to acknowledge the importance of the golf course as a habitat and we aim to promote that to our members."

Jaey points out that not only are bents more sustainable but contribute to more consistent greens performance, especially in spring, by minimising the influence of poa seedhead production.

This year, the greens were hollow and solid tined, overseeded and topdressed on 29th July, and the strongly established bent was clearly visible a month later.

The long rough serves a dual purpose as a habitat - attracting species such as finches foraging for flower seeds - and an aesthetic feature, but requires careful management.

"We cut and collect at the end of the season for fertility reduction and graze with sheep from October onwards. We have an Amazone flail collector, and the shepherds also cut and bale for a higher output. The sheep play an important role in taking spring growth out and to tackle more persistent weeds such as ragwort, which we would otherwise have to spray just at the time we are busiest with mowing."

The ecological impact of the roughs always has to be balanced with the need to keep it playable, and this has been another focus for their management.

Bowood has a fleet of ten ride-on greens mowers and Jaey is keen on alternative power sources, but says he chooses machines for a specific job.

"We have electric and hybrid mowers, and they have to be the way forward, but I'm keeping an eye on the market. I'm fortunate to have a good mechanic to look after such expensive technology."

With eight greenkeepers in the team including his deputy Samantha Day, Jaey shares ideas and equipment with Geoff and his team, and comments that being part of a larger overall squad makes it an enjoyable job.

"We've got a wider pool of experts to call on than at many golf clubs, such as the forestry team. Communications are more open and Lord Lansdowne also takes a keen interest."

David agrees: "We work more like a traditional estate team than at many establishments, and that helps us achieve our mutual goals."