Gardener Alan Bradford on a lifetime of service at Sheffield Park

The breathtaking landscape holds hundreds of memories for National Trust gardener Alan Bradford, who started work back in 1971

They say that there’s no such thing as a job for life anymore, but one National Trust gardener would beg to differ. Alan Bradford has dedicated his entire working career to just one place: Sheffield Park Garden in East Sussex, where he is celebrating his 40th year of service. Alan started working in the informal garden, which was laid out by Capability Brown, in 1971 when he was just 15. Rising through the ranks, Alan always found pride in his years of experience and knowledge, which stood him in good stead many times, especially during the dreadful storms of 1987.

Alan recalls: “When I had my interview for the post of under-gardener at Sheffield Park Garden, the land agent, Mr Garrett, came to my family home in Fletching to see me. I then received a letter a few days later to say I had got the job. I still have my first wage slip - �8.91 per week, paid fortnightly. Techniques in the garden haven’t changed much over the years, but our equipment nowadays makes the job a lot easier. When I first started work we had to use scythes and swaps (grass hooks). Today we use strimmers and brush cutters.”

Alan is part of a team of five gardeners and a warden at Sheffield Park Garden and between them they care for the Grade I listed garden’s many trees, shrubs, lawns, pathways and lakes, as well as 265 acres of adjoining parkland. Every autumn the garden becomes a vital destination for visitors from all over the world in search of magnificent autumn colours. Trees such as the tupelo, sweet gum, red and scarlet oaks, Japanese maples and witch alders all produce breathtaking colour that still leaves Alan and the team in awe.

Yet, despite Sheffield Park Garden’s autumnal magnificence, Alan still holds a soft spot in his heart for the garden in the spring and summertime. “Everything is new and fresh in the spring, when nature’s cycle starts again. And on a still summer’s day there is nothing more beautiful than looking across our lakes to our wonderful water lilies.”

Sheffield Park Garden holds hundreds of memories for Alan, none so clear as the storms of 1987 and their immediate aftermath. “Overnight, the garden became unrecognisable,” he recalls. “We were all in a state of shock, but with determination and support from others we soon got stuck into clearing the devastation before us. It took three years to complete the work. But we were cheered by a visit from HRH Prince Charles after the event.”

Another of Alan’s recollections is of an event that could have been equally disastrous. “My colleague Tony found a 25lb high explosive artillery shell in the storage lake in 2000,” remembers Alan with a smile. “I got a radio message from him one afternoon asking me to come and have a look. The garden had to be evacuated; the bomb squad arrived and we ended up on the local news that evening.”

Most Read

Thankfully all ended peacefully and Alan continued working at Sheffield Park Garden for several more years. His knowledge and expertise is often called upon and he especially enjoys mentoring younger members of the team. While he has no plans for retirement yet, he is keen to make sure as many of his memories and tips as possible are passed on when he does decide to hang up his gardening gloves. To that end, Alan likes to answer questions on the garden from the public as well, such as how visitors can get the best autumn colour in their own gardens back home.

“Top tip: research, research, research. Go and see as many local gardens as you can first of all, to see how the different plants and trees will look. Finds out what grows in your area and what you like. Finally, don’t forget to check your soil type and likely weather conditions and get on top of your weeding before you start.”

 Is it a clich� to call Alan a ‘hardy perennial’? Perhaps, but there aren’t too many people about who would dedicate so much of their life to ensuring the ongoing upkeep of a garden. Why not come to Sheffield Park Garden this autumn? While you admire the spectacular colours, see if you can spot the gardeners going about their daily work, much as Alan Bradford has been doing for 40 years.

Comments powered by Disqus