Head gardener Matthew retires after 20 years at Prior Park

Head gardener Matthew pruning shrubbery
Published : 11 May 2017 Last update : 21 May 2017

After almost 20 years as head gardener, Matthew Ward is hanging up his trowel and heading off with wife Hilary into a well-deserved retirement. Matthew's National Trust career stretches back 37 years and has seen him and his family move across the country between a number of Trust gardens. His 20 years at Prior Park have seen him lead a number of major restoration projects, in the aim to restore the garden to its 1764 state, and the time of creator Ralph Allen’s death.

Matthew’s National Trust career stretches back to 1979, when, at age of 23, with a horticulture diploma under his belt, he took up the post of assistant gardener at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.  A gardening role at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire followed, with his first look at a Capability Brown Landscape.

In 1986 a private estate with grand plans tempted Matthew away from the Trust, but he soon found himself longing for the National Trust life, its special places and, in Matthew’s words, its dedicated people.

Matthew returned to the National Trust at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, where his favourite job was mowing the lawns.  Stripes were the order of the day, with a head gardener’s inspection to contend with when finished.  It was while at Cliveden that Matthew’s lifelong passion for landscape rather than formal gardens was born, a journey that took him first to Stourhead then onto Prior Park.  Matthew explains his landscape garden philosophy:

‘Gardens are living, breathing things, they demonstrate processes, of life, growth, and decay.  Gardening is about managing these processes.  Landscape gardens are about managing in a subtle way, more in tune with the processes.’

Matthew came to Prior Park in 1996, just a few months after the garden had opened to the public.  Things were in a ‘raw’ state, and the operation was being managed from a collection of sheds. In these early days the garden, created by one of Bath’s founding fathers, Ralph Allen, was trialing opening as a visitor destination.  Full permission had not yet been given, and there was a lot to prove to local residents.

Visitor reception facilities have changed little in 20 years, but Matthew is proud of the way the reception team have always strived to provide a great welcome to visitors.

‘We provide access to extraordinary places and experiences so people come to value them and are moved to look after them,’ he said.

With Matthew at the helm conservation plans were drawn up, and projects began.  Heritage Lottery funding enabled the recreation of the Serpentine Lake, cascades and the Cabinet.  This work brought together National Trust archaeologists and property volunteers to first examine the site for parts of the original features.

Since the garden’s creation trees have self-seeded, and views have closed in.  Recent tree felling has opened up areas and restored views.  Timber from the garden was used to recreate the Summer House that visitors can see in the garden today.  This was the first step in the plans to restore a number of lost garden structures.  Ambitions for the Gothic Temple and Thatched Cottage will be passed onto Matthew’s successor.

The more pressing restoration project is that of the dams at the lower end of the garden, which date from the 1700s.  The iconic view of lakes and Palladian Bridge has been obstructed in recent years by safety ropes and signage.  The essential work to ensure their continued resilience will be a significant project for Prior Park, and one that Matthew will be sad to miss.

As Matthew prepares to bid Farewell to Prior Park he has been reflecting on what makes the garden special for him.

‘The view from the top of the garden out over the city has changed very little in 20 years.  I love how the garden shares a great closeness with the city, but is still in a little world of its own.  The mood changes as you move around the garden, it really is a dramatic place.’