Saying goodbye to Stephen - our retiring gardener’s fulfilling career
Stephen Hagon began work as a National Trust gardener two days after his 15th birthday. And on July 31, two days after his 62nd birthday, Stephen, now Blickling Estate’s Assistant Head Gardener, will hang up his hoe for the final time and begin a busy retirement.
Stephen has spent nearly five decades helping to look after some 47 acres which includes magnificent double borders, a formal parterre, woodland rose garden, secret garden, winter garden, the newly-recreated walled garden and a philadelphus garden which was Stephen’s idea.
Aylsham-born Stephen remembers the head gardener examining his work after his first day in 1972 and telling him he’d made a good job of weeding between clumps, but hadn’t weeded the middle of each individual plant.
“That’s something I’ve made sure I’ve done ever since,” said Stephen, who took home £8.10 for his first week’s work, giving £2 of it to his mum for his keep.
" I am grateful to the National Trust. It’s been a privilege and an honour. I’m very lucky. I wasn’t academic at school but I’ve learned so much here."
Over the years he also learned about gardening and wildlife from other staff, including Norman Overton, who once showed him how to attract a stoat or weasel by imitating a distressed rabbit’s call. A few years later, while gardening, Stephen spotted an adult stoat with four young and put Norman’s teaching into practice.
“They came within four or five feet of me and sat bolt upright,” he said. “If I’d had a camera that photo would have won BBC wildlife picture of the year!”
In the early days Stephen was one of a team of nine gardeners, with no volunteer help. Today there are eight gardeners and dozens of volunteers.
“Without them we couldn’t keep everything to the high standard we do,” said Stephen, who has seen Blickling’s visitor numbers grow, as its opening times have increased, from about 50,000 a year in the 1970s to last year’s record 205,000.
He enjoys sharing his knowledge with visitors and is always touched when they tell him what a good job he and the team are doing.
One of Stephen’s proudest moments came about five years ago when he took a party from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) on a garden tour and so impressed them that he was later presented with a prestigious RHS bronze award.
His most poignant memory is the great storm of October 16 1987 which blew down 265 trees at Blickling. Stephen helped mark out and plant 365 replacements, some of which are now 50-60ft tall.
He’s seen a lot of filming in the grounds of Blickling over the years and met royal and other famous visitors. Sex and the City actress Kim Cattrall was so taken with her visit that she joined the National Trust on the spot.
Gardening has helped keep Stephen fit and he still plays football regularly, including for Erpingham Reserves. Last season he was named their player of the year.
And he has been a massive Status Quo fan since his teens. He will clock up his 100th Quo gig this September in Hyde Park. He also plans to carry on his part-time roadie role for Suffolk band Walkway.
Stephen is expecting his last day to be an emotional one – Blickling has been his entire career since leaving school. He loves the fact that it has an all-seasons garden and knows he will miss it, although he hopes to return as a volunteer and give occasional tours.
Article reproduced by kind permsion of Just Aylsham