The Bridge Interviews
Cotswold Wildlife Park & Garden
This month The Bridge went to the Cotswold Wildlife Park & Garden to meet Tim Miles, the head gardener. The “& Gardens” part of the name is very important. Reggie Heyworth and his team have been determined that they are running a garden as well as a wildlife park, and Tim is the man responsible for what has become one of the most admired gardens in the country.
Tim is a Cornishman born and raised “by, in and on the sea” and admits to sometimes feeling a little landlocked in Oxfordshire. His father was a photographer in Falmouth who combined weddings with documenting ship repairs at the local docks for marine insurance claims. He also took many photographs which were used for the investigation into the loss of the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne which sank in 1981 with the loss of 16 lives including those of eight volunteer lifeboatmen. Tim’s great grandfather was a head gardener in Lancashire and his father was a keen gardener. “Gardening is in my sap” he says. He started early when his father gave him a plot of his own. When Tim was not playing sport or on the sea, his friends were sometimes surprised to find him planting petunias.
After leaving school he went to Cannington College in Somerset to study ornamental horticulture and his enthusiasm was fired by a senior lecturer, Roy Cheek, “a great influence on me and many others”. His first job was with the BBC in Plymouth who had decided to put on a monthly gardening show. The main presenter was Dan Hoyle, head of the Falmouth Parks Department. Tim helped to create a garden in the grounds of the BBC studios and appeared in the first series. “Then I got itchy feet”. He went back to college, this time in Pershore, to take a more general horticulture course and, in particular, to learn about growing fruit and vegetables. He had to do his work in the severe winter of 1981 when the temperature fell at times to -20C – “interesting for a Cornishman”.
Next he went to work at Peper Harow Therapeutic Community for Emotionally Disturbed Adolescents near Godalming in Surrey (now known as Childhood First). This was a centre for young people aged between about 11 and 22 who were often highly intelligent but were severely disturbed as a result of abuse, neglect or other trauma in their early years. Tim stayed there for six years, developing what was a run-down garden and growing vegetables which were used in the kitchen. “The culture was to give them love and security - a warm house, plenty of food and beautiful surroundings.” He got on well with the children and developed their respect for what he was doing in the garden.
After this he went to work at London Zoo for three years. He acquired experience of planting with animals which proved useful later. His next move was to The Grange near Alresford in Hampshire, now a noted opera venue. His main job was to look after a walled garden. He and his family lived in a “Hansel and Gretel cottage”, a flint and brick home in local style on the site. After that he worked for a time at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.
In 1998 he moved to the wildlife park (and gardens!) His predecessor, Les Scott, had been there since the park opened in 1970 but had worked with a fairly tight budget. Reggie and his father John had decided to develop the garden because of they had noted the increasing popularity of garden visiting. “I had the ideal background and was given more resources”. An initial challenge was to get the whole park staff on board, as some felt it was wrong to put the effort into the garden rather than the animal side. “Reggie* had come back from Africa two years before I joined and we worked together on it. Now there is much more appreciation of what we do. Reggie, Jamie Craig [the curator of the animal side] and I have grown together on this.”
Many well-known gardeners have links with the park. Roy Lancaster has been a good friend and Tim tells the story of how Roy provided them with a rare bamboo favoured by pandas in exchange for five bags of rhino poo. (This is one garden with a plentiful supply of manure). A supporter living in the area is Sibylle Kreutzberger, who, along with her friend Pamela Schwerdt, ran the gardens at Sissinghurst for over 30 years. Chris Beardshaw and Dan Pearson have given talks there, and Gardeners’ Question Time has been broadcast from the park. Tim, in turn, has given hundreds of talks to local horticultural societies around the country and contributed to various radio features on gardening matters.
Another eminent gardener he met was Christopher Lloyd who he almost literally bumped into on a staircase at RHS HQ in Vincent Square. At the time Christo was pulling up his rose garden at Great Dixter and replacing it with exotic plants. He was getting a lot of fire from cottage garden enthusiasts (“which he loved” adds Tim). Christo found Tim a valuable help on this project because of his experience of growing bananas and other exotics in Cornwall (and now in Burford) and several times invited Tim to stay for weekends at Great Dixter.
What is he most proud of? “The fact that this is looked on as a garden for professional horticulturists. We are here to enhance the visitor experience. The reputation we have built up for ourselves is what I am most proud of.” The most spectacular area is the walled garden with lawns surrounded by imaginatively chosen flowers and shrubs. However Tim is responsible for all of the grounds as well as the gardens, with eight gardeners and five ground staff, and this has given him the opportunity to landscape may parts of the site. For example, the long path to the giraffe enclosure how meanders slightly and the view along it is broken up by beds with an African theme. This makes the path seem shorter and encourages visitors to take a walk along it. Some original features remain, notably a magnificent oak tree, believed to be 600 years old, in front of the house.
Sitting in the café with Tim, it is obvious that the park is a lively operation in every sense. The air crackles with static as the staff maintain constant contact via walkie talkie, and Tim is at the centre of much of this. As he is in charge of the grounds as well as the gardens, health and safety issues are a major concern so, for example, while we were there a protruding branch on the Skymaze needed immediate action. The animal enclosures are made as naturalistic as possible with planting: but the downside of this is that a falling shrub could create the risk of an escape.
When Tim was working at London Zoo he was invited to join the Royal Horticultural Society’s Tender & Ornamental Plants Committee. This involved judging at RHS shows at Chelsea and Vincent Square, and deciding which plants deserved the RHS Award of Garden Merit. As more shows were launched, this extended to Hampton Court, Tatton and Malvern. The other members of the committee were all aged 60 or more and the chairman, the botanist Antony Huxley (whose father, Sir Julian, had been secretary of the Zoological Society of London) was omniscient. This continued for 27 years until last year, during which he also took on the job of judging show gardens and being a member of the international panel at the prestigious Jury des Plantes in France. In the end he decided this was taking up too much time and gave it up, although he is still able to go to the press day at Chelsea when the Royal Family and other VIPs attend. He recalls at an earlier show being nearly mown down by the Queen Mother when she emerged from the marquee in her electric wheelchair.
Tim lives down close to the park with his wife Annette. She shares a musical gene with one of their daughters, Genevieve, who writes and performs her own songs. Their other daughter, Lydia, is a former head girl at Burford School and is about to start a gap year in Australia.
If all the above was not enough to keep Tim fully occupied, he has also retained a keen interest in sport. He had played senior league cricket in Cornwall and years later was asked to help revive Langford Cricket Club. He became captain and they swiftly progressed under his leadership from Division 3 of the Cotswold and District League to Division 3 of the Gloucestershire League. He has now stepped down to captaining the second XI. He also ran a girls’ football team in Carterton in which his daughter (which one?) played.
What are his plans for the future? The next project in the garden is to replant the old arboretum near the main drive and to create a wetland area. He is also working on a new book to celebrate the 50th birthday of the park. The text is being written by garden blogger Harriet Mycroft and Tim is selecting photographs to go in. It should be out by Christmas and it sounds like a very good present idea for friends and family.
*Reggie Heyworth, owner of the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens was interviewed by The Bridge in the May 2017 edition.