The first days work I ever did in my life occurred at Easter 1962 when I started working for Lord Burghley on the Burghley Estate. It was a harsh wake up call and something of a reality check.
To have to cycle the three miles to work and be there for 7.30 sharp was a long way from the comforts of the school classroom. It was an experience that I had longed for but mentally found myself totally unprepared for. For my mind set was that of a schoolboy. Yet here I was in a strangely different world. The kitchen garden was indeed not only a different world it was a throw back to times long past. The regular unearthing of smokers broken clay pipes a firm reminder of those gardeners that proceeded me over the centuries.
I was always aware that I was walking in the same steps one hundred years behind the peasant poet John Clare who like me had been employed within these very gardens. The isolation that the gardens afforded allowed imagination to run free as did John Clare's creative mind. For it was in this very place that he first committed verse to paper when he penned the poem 'The Morning Walk'. Clare recalled:
The sun got up and it was a beautiful morning and as I did not like to let anybody see me reading on the road on a working day I climbed over the wall into Burghley Park and nestled in a lawn at the wall side. The scenery around me was uncommonly beautiful at that time of the year and what with reading the book and beholding the beautys of artful nature in the park I got into a strain of descriptive rhyming on my journey home. This was the 'morning walk' the first thing I committed to paper.
It was 1962 the world was changing. Britain continued to be rebuilt following world war two. The Great North road had now bypassed Stamford and the brand new A1 which bordered part of the Burghley estate was now open. The world of music was about to explode and change forever with the discovery of The Beatles and yet within the walled kitchen gardens time stood still and had done for hundreds of years. The only proof that there had been a slight move with the times was the presence of a telephone, two vans and electricity.
The walled garden was divided into several areas each section was a walled garden within its own right. Within these growing areas were low level box hedging no more than 18 inches in height and 12 inches in width. The hedging acting as a living framework to border growing areas. Every inch of every wall was covered with a spectacular example of how espalier fruit should be trained. Apples pears and peach trees were in abundance. The evidence was clear to see that generations of horticulturists had created a legacy that I was now a custodian of.
Within the enclosed plots a wide variety of crops were grown, strawberries, gooseberries, and rhubarb being some of the fruit that was harvested mainly for use in the kitchen of Burghley House. Other crops included radish, lettuce, brussel sprouts. potatoes and runner beans.
Little had changed in the growing methods and the implements used. It was extremely labour intense and as a result non profitable. Nature was starting to win the battle over a small workforce as whole areas of the walled garden were abandoned in order to concentrate the decreasing labour force on a smaller area.
Within the kitchen garden were nineteen glasshouses of various design within which a variety of crops and potted plants were grown.
I didn't always fully appreciate the working environment I was in and to often took it forgranted. Figs, peaches, orchids and arum lilys growing under glass around me as part of every day life. Most of the glasshouse areas were given over to cyclamen, primulas,coleus, pelargonium, tomatoes, succulents and cucumbers. Chrysanthemums were also a main glasshouse crop with a number also being grown in whale hide pots outside.The productivity of the glasshouses was intense especially in comparison with the surrounding walled kitchen garden.
The knowledge I acquired and the guidance and advice given was amongst the best in the country. Up to that point agriculture and horticulture had been given the lowly title oflandwork but this was the dawning of a new and exciting age. The sciences of the soil and the growing techniques had started to be acknowledged. As industries, agriculture and horticulture took on their own separate identities with specialist colleges opening up. Even the wages board became two separate bodies. It was at this time that horticulture as an industry was able to offer for the very first time an apprenticeship scheme aimed purely at horticulture. I became the countries and maybe the Worlds very first horticulture apprentice and so Lord Burghley and I became legally tied under the new agreement.
My working life was not always restricted to the splendid confines of the walled garden. On occasions I was engaged in caring for the gardens around Burghley House. I joined a team of three gardeners permanently working in this area. Each of the gardeners having the name of George. Working within the shadow of the splendour of such an Elizabethan construction and walking the now established views of the genius imagination of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown became my life. I was not only benefiting from a vision that Brown would never see but I was its custodian, all be it for such a brief period Clare himself had preserved it for me and now it was my turn.
Mowing the inner court of Burghley House was pure theatre. A thousand windows surrounding my amphitheatre with as many eyes watching my every move. Laborious yet rewarding swaths were cut in each of the inner lawned areas. Meticulous precision ensured nothing but perfectly patterned lawn linage would be viewed. As far as I was concerned this was my artwork and complemented Antonio Verrio's art within the Heaven room of Burghley House. For me that was the magic of Burghley. In my minds eye, I was now in partnership with the Worlds great artists and greatest landscaper. To many this would appear to be a fifteen year old lad in a fantasy world but in reality I was right and I was a fifteen year old lad in the fantastic world of Burghley.
John Chapman 2014