An abridged version of the podcast.
This podcast featured Simon Toomer, Chair of PlantNetwork, as the interviewer, talking with Mark Ballard.
Tell us about your role at Westonbirt.
My job title is curator at Westonbirt, the National Arboretum in sunny Gloucestershire. I like the simple definition of curator, which is a keeper, or custodian, of a collection. I think I very much see myself as just a temporary custodian of of Westonbirt Arboretum, ready to hand it on in good shape to the next person. I’ve been at Westonbirt for 20 years, having been curator for around half that time. I get involved in a variety of tasks, from civil engineering projects to fundraising and everything else in between. Essentially, my role is to look after the living botanic collection and the historic landscape. I work for Forestry England, which falls under the umbrella of the Forestry Commission and hence I am officially a civil servant! We’ve almost got a flagship status in the forestry service as a recreation site, and we are the busiest pay-to-enter site in Gloucestershire.
Did you have a particularly busy autumn this year?
Westonbirt is traditionally associated with autumn colour but this autumn was interesting because of the pandemic. We were closed for about 10 weeks in the spring, with no visitors at all. When we were allowed to reopen, we did so in a COVID safe way with this really great pre pay pre booking system which has worked out really well to the point where I hope we keep it on because people now have to book a slot and we can control the volume of people coming into the Arboretum. This has spread visits over a wider period and reduced the massive peaks and troughs because even in our busiest autumns, we can have 12,000 people in one day but if it’s raining, hardly anyone. Currently, people seem to come in their slot regardless of wind, rain or shine. Pre-COVID, we were seeing around 600,00 visitors a year but mostly in autumn and while we haven’t got to the end of the year yet, the pre booking system seems to have reduced numbers in autumn but spread them out at other times of the year so we’re looking at about 500,000 visitors.
Tell us a little about where you are from and how you got to Westonbirt?
You can probably tell from my accent I’m a Bristol boy born and bred. I didn’t have access to plants per se when growing up but we did always venture out and have amazing family trips into the countryside so I was always aware of the majesty of trees but I just didn’t have the opportunity really to engage with them that completely. I eventually tapped into this interest: I started working in financial services and when I got the opportunity for voluntary redundancy, I took it and used the time to think about what I really wanted to do. And what I wanted to do was be around it’s trees, so I decided that’s what I’d do. I might miss the bonuses which let me travel to different exotic places! Having careers advice on taking redundancy, the advisor said it was too late to get a role with trees but that just made me determined to do it. I went on a course and that led to a six month placement at Westonbirt as part of my qualification. Luckily enough, towards the end of the placement, a job came up on the tree team. It was a close run thing apparently but I just managed to convince them that I was the person for that job, got the job and have been here ever since.
Do you have any advice for people thinking of entering horticulture or arboriculture, especially if changing career?
We work a lot longer now and retirement just seems in the dim and distant future, so I think you can have two or three really valuable careers. You can develop transferable skills that allow movement between careers: I like to think I’ve brought skills to the Arboretum that perhaps others might not have had. Skills and a bit of passion.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I’m probably in the office a lot more than I once wanted to be. But I think I’m driven by the opportunity to influence and to improve. I’m a custodian so I want to leave my mark, and I want to influence the way that the Arboretum is maintained and more importantly developed. I also want to improve the site: the team that we have now, which is probably better than ever, with the equipment, vehicles machinery, and the way we do things from database recording to our appreciation of the historic landscape, all improve the Arboretum. I’m proud that we have such a range of landscapes and management regimes in place. A significant proportion of the Arboretum is woodland with areas designated as arboretum and open down land. We have an active hazel coppice with oak standards so that people can see traditional woodland activity right before their eyes. The biggest challenge we face is Chalara ash dieback as the woodland is predominantly ash-maple habitat and our efforts to naturally regenerate this habitat were severely hit in 2015 when ash dieback was found in the woodland. We’ve now developed a woodland management plan in association with Forest Research, which is trying to turn a negative into a positive to create a resilient woodland.
Are there any exciting developments taking place at Westonbirt?
The Arboretum is almost 200 years old and we plan to do something to celebrate our bicentenary in 2029. I think we’ve got to pay homage to the founding fathers, the creators of the Arboretum. We’ve just purchased, probably for the first time in well over 100 years, 30 acres of land adjacent to Silk Wood and we’re currently determining how best to utilise this land so that is particularly exciting.
Do you have more plans for seed collecting trips?
We’ve carried out a lot of wild seed collecting expeditions to places like Japan, Italy, Chile, the USA, Turkey, and many more. Of course, things have quieted down a little bit this year for obvious reasons. We’re plugged into a group called the UK Botanic Garden and Arboretum Collecting Consortium, which works together to maximise our limited resources. We also work with BGCI very closely. Our aim is to visit China where most of our living connection arose, and we’d really love to do some work there probably helping with some in situ conservation.
Is there anything in particular you would like to achieve in your career?
I really love the job that I do! There are downsides but I still feel that I’ve got more to achieve so whilst I still feel like that I think this is the job for me.
Do you have a favourite area in Westonbirt?
Westonbirt is renowned for amazing autumn colour, but if you speak to anyone that works here, they will tell you to come in the spring as the first couple of weeks of May are spectacular, with carpets of bluebells in Silk Wood. I also like Maple Loop which was a former forest research trial plot, that we turned it into a brand new part of Arboretum: that’s an area I push people towards!
Have you been inspired by anyone or anything in your arboricultural career?
I think it’s massively important to work collaboratively and to get out and see other gardens. We recently had an Acer Global Conservation Consortium meeting and it was brilliant to speak to people from predominantly the USA, Mexico and Europe. It was great to see some gardens on the call that I’d visited. You’ve got to share experience and knowledge. ,
What would be your three deserted island plants?
I think that’s the sort of question that you’ll probably get a different answer from me every day of the week! At the moment, the three plants I would take are trees. So number one, I’d probably take Acer griseum, the paperbark maple. That tree has a special place in my heart because the first time I came to Westonbirt, I came across it and it was a winter’s day so the bark was glistening – just looked magical. Then I’d take Acer palmatum, the Japanese maple, as what would Westonbirt be without these maples. And the third one I’d probably take is Ginkgo, a truly remarkable tree going back hundreds of millions of years. I’ve seen it in Japan in the wild, seen as street trees in New York, and there’s one I can see from my window here in Bristol, which is incredibly tall. If you pushed me and allowed me to take anything else I’d probably take a carpet of bluebells.
Is there anything about you that might surprise people?
I was once quite an active sportsman and I wasn’t too bad at football, playing to a reasonable standard. I broke my leg a few years ago so that kind of put pay to all of that. I think my proudest achievement, though, is that six years ago we adopted two children, and that’s probably not something most people know. I’m most proud of my adopted children than anything else.
Find out more about Westonbirt and PlantNetwork
Report by Simon Toomer, Westonbirt National Arboretum, from PlantNetwork Newsletter No. 37, December 2008
With thanks to Bruce Langridge and Will Ritchie of National Botanic Garden of Wales for question format and original podcast idea