An interview with Piers Horry


An abridged version of the podcast.

Tell us a little about your role with the National Trust.

I am the Garden and Outdoor Manager for the National Trust’s Bath Portfolio. My role for the National Trust extends across the Bath area which includes Dyrham Park, Prior Park, and the Bath Skyline so quite an extensive area of about 1000 acres all together. My main focus is the gardening teams and obviously Dyrham, with its 17th century garden and historic deer park. The National Trust owns a significant amount of land in and around Bath and the skyline is included in the curtilage for the World Heritage Site, which is quite unique as World Heritage status rarely covers landscape.

What are your day-to-day activities in this role?

I provide a strategic lead but work with each of my department leads on delivery. So we’re trying to juggle quite a few things – not only our historic representation because Dyrham is a Grade II* listed garden and Prior Park is a Grade I listed garden. There’s a lot of historical significance and that’s what we want people to experience when they come here, we really want them to feel like they’ve stepped back in time and they can actually feel the spirit of that original garden. Day to day is a lot of planning – we very rarely consider the here and now and usually we are thinking at least a year ahead such as what the planting displays will be and what improvements to make to a 17th century garden. However, the last year has been a little different. mostly. We need to plan our maintenance of historic vistas around the visitor experience, benefiting nature and ensuring historical representation.

Are you working on any big projects at the moment or have they been impacted by COVID-19?

Our projects have largely continued due to the nature of many of the projects we are working on. For instance, we dismantled a dam at Prior Park just before the pandemic and as a dam is quite an important structure, we have had to continue with the project which for me is centred around the reinstatement of the landscape after dam replacement. This includes planting 3,000 shrubs and trees, recovery of the grassland, and planning for the future to protect and maintain this reinstated planting. At Dyrham, we had planned a £10 million project to rework the site but since COVID-19, we are having to scale back and pick up parts of the project that most urgently need doing. The West Terrace Parterre is still high on the agenda as is restoring some of the orirignal 17th century gates which were the original entrance to the gardens. So despite all the uncertainty, we still have a few good projects running.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I love history so I enjoy the fact that we plan our future based on our past. It’s interpreting what we have and what has been here. Sometimes, just standing in these gardens and realising it has been managed by gardeners for over 300 years and there’s definitely a good feeling about that, the long term continuity that we’re keeping alive.

How did you start out in horticulture?

I trained as an ecologist, so my degree was in ecology where we did do a lot of plant physiology and soil work. I worked for the Parks Trust in Milton Keynes in parkland landscaping, which is very amenity driven. I made my way over to the National Trust as I took a lot more interest in the history of our gardens. I did it step by step, with lots of short courses to build my experience in horticulture while still working in gardening roles. I have attended some pretty fantastic courses which I never expected to be as good as they were! Garden history in particular proved to be very interesting and I did this great course at the Historical Institute in London. That one really was pretty life changing, confirming I was going the right way I wanted to go because I’d never really thought about the changes in gardens or the impact of gardens through history. Gardens used to be entertainment, with people coming from all over to see a garden that was important or significant or interesting and I just didn’t realise how much gardens have shaped society.

What does the future hold for you?

I like planning, not just for next year, but planning 20 years in advance. I have to admit, it’s a bit more of a passion for trees: trees are just really interesting, especially working in the heritage sector, when we’re planting trees for future generations and protecting trees that might be centuries old. So it’s that long term thinking that interests me – seeing long-term plans put into action and take shape.

What advice would you offer your younger self or someone interested in working in heritage horticulture?

I don’t think I could have done things differently as I could only make decisions based on what I knew at the time. I would suggest doing as much research as possible – look what’s out there from courses to apprenticeships, and explore what options might work for you.

Do you have a particular favourite garden?

My favourite garden is the one that I have spent most of my working time – Hughenden Manor, which was the home of the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. I was a senior gardener there and you don’t spend that much time getting your hands dirty in the garden without completely falling in love with it. Disraeli loved to talk about everything under the sun, so he created a garden ‘zoo’ with lots of different garden styles from formal to informal, productive to walled gardens. I do like formal gardens, particularly Italianate parterres. It’s not that same cosy feeling you get with landscaped gardens, but you can appreciate the amount of work that’s gone into it, and the impact of formal gardens.

Do you have a favourite plant or a plant that reflects who you are?

My favourite plant, which is very underrated these days and this is why it is my favourite, is probably the holm oak tree. In the 17th century, Petworth had one of the first holm oaks and people flocked from all over the country to come and see this tree. The gardens were re-landscaped to create a queuing system, and to provide a view of the tree from all angles. There’s just something so romantic that people would go on a pilgrimage just to see this one tree. Holm oaks are a little bit overlooked these days, but knowing this story brings them more attention.

Is there a garden tool that you can’t do without?

It’s the hori hori, the Japanese towel. I use it in my own garden. I use it for everything, it’s the most useful thing I’ve ever discovered: there is nothing you can’t weed with it. It’s durable, it’s an incredible tool, which I wish I had discovered years ago.

Do you have a “go to” book about horticulture or plants?

Working in the heritage sector, there are lots of technical terms and phrases that you come across. Michael Symes’ A Glossary of Garden History is very useful for checking up on these terms and making sure I look like I know what I’m talking about! And the book is small, it’s pretty concise and is as it says, is just a glossary of garden.

You mentioned that you love trees. I wondered what you thought about the proposals that the government, including devolved governments in the in the UK, have for large-scale tree planting?

We need more trees, without a doubt. Planting trees is pretty easy in comparison to maintaining them. I worry that they are going to survive. Also we need to carefully consider what species we’re selecting, with climate change and new pests and diseases, some species will struggle. There needs to be more thought on planning – the right species for 200 years time as well as how these trees are going to be cared for as they establish.