Coolings Garden Centre celebrates its centenary

Paul Cooling

Paul Cooling - Credit: Archant

Paul Cooling reveals how the family-run, Knockholt-based garden centre has marked its special anniversary and what lies ahead

An enterprising teenager with a true passion for horticulture is behind the success of Coolings Garden Centre – but only sheer determination stopped this young man’s life heading off in a very different direction.

Arthur Cooling was encouraged to get a ‘steady job’ by his parents, who had moved from Lincolnshire in the mid 1800s down to Chislehurst; so at the age of 14 he found himself working as the village postman.

However, because the early shift started at 5am and ended with an evening shift at 9-10pm, this seventh son of 10 soon realised he had time off in the middle of the day he could use to follow his dream.

Arthur started growing market garden crops, which he sold to friends, family and neighbours. Diligent with his money, he eventually saved enough to be able to buy an acre of land at the rear of Chislehurst High Street in 1920. It was here that the first second-hand greenhouses were built and the company began, back in 1913.

Arthur’s story is being related by his grandson and current chairman Paul Cooling (left) who, when a coffee shop was built on the site and first opened in 1997, named it after his grandfather.

In 1955 Paul’s father Michael joined his father Arthur to form the partnership trading as Coolings Nurseries. The garden centre started that year with the sale of fertilisers, insecticides, peat and compost.

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The first car park was made possible in 1966 when a house in Willow Grove, Chislehurst was bought, creating access from the main road. It was opened at Easter just four weeks before Arthur died ‘with his boots on’ while working on the nursery.

Coolings continued to grow and to influence trends in the garden-centre market, becoming one of the first to introduce self-service bedding plant packs and hold regular in-house demonstrations. By the mid 1960’s it was one of the leading garden centres in the UK.

Fast forward 20 years and the whole site needed rebuilding, but with the rapid rise of land prices it was more prudent to sell the site and move to a location that had room for greater growth. The 14-acre site at Rushmore Hill was bought in 1990 from the Robinson family, who also had a good reputation for plants, and subsequently most of it was re-organised, with more than £1.5m invested in the process.

The ‘Gardener’s Garden Centre’ site now includes a production nursery, retail plant and shop area, display gardens – and Arthur’s Coffee Shop, where a picture of the man himself is proudly displayed.

In 2004 Coolings bought a second site, at Main Road, just over a mile down the road. It had been Whitelegg’s Nursery until 1991, then became Country Gardens and finally Wyevale before Coolings bought it.

The site now boasts a new eco-building which houses a garden shop, gift area, garden furniture and barbecue ranges, Blueberries tearoom and a Nature Trail.

While the majority of customers are from Bromley, Chislehurst, Orpington, Sevenoaks and The Weald, Paul tells me that deliveries to flats with roof terraces in the middle of London, or as far south as Hastings and Brighton, are not uncommon.

They also have customers who stop off en route to their holiday cottage in France and stock up before getting to Dover.

I ask Paul what achieving the centenary has meant to the company and how they’ve marked this milestone year. “It was quite low key at the start of 2013 – it’s hard to be excited with four inches of snow on the ground – then we’ve built up momentum as the year has gone on,” he tells me.

Highlights have included exhibiting at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, also celebrating its 100th birthday, centenary summer and autumn showcases, a dahlia exhibition with more than 130 varieties of these old favourites enjoying a bit of a revival on display in Arthur’s Garden, a special centenary visit to Highgrove, a charity fashion show in aid of local charity Hospice in the Weald – and lots of special offers.

Does Paul have a favourite plant? “My favourite plant changes all the time – but I’m a big fan of trees and I’m interested to see how one of our relative newcomers, the tree Hibiscus Resie, will perform. I’ve planted one at home to find out,” he says.

So what lies ahead for the family firm? “The fourth generation is bit too young to decide at 15 and 12,” smiles Paul, whose younger brother is involved in the business as a non-executive director.

“Who knows what the next 100 years will bring? We’ll have to wait and see.” n


Coolings Nurseries Ltd,

Rushmore Hill, Knockholt, nr Sevenoaks TN14 7NN , 01959 532269

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