Great British Bake Off star Mary Berry shares her love for RHS Garden Wisley and Surrey
- Credit: RHS / Luke MacGregor
Great British Bake Off star Mary Berry may be the ‘Queen of Cakes’, but she has another passion too – gardening. Here she shares her love affair with RHS Garden Wisley – and reveals why she has no plans to retire...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine December 2015
If, like me, you’re missing Mel and Sue’s double entendres, pining for Paul and Mary’s banter over the mixing bowl or counting the days until the Bake Off Christmas specials begin, I bring tidings of great joy.
Life has been curiously empty since Mary Berry got uncharacteristically teary-eyed at the end of the last series of The Great British Bake Off. So, if you need your Berry fix, why not tootle off to the Royal Horticultural Society’s world-class garden at Wisley in Woking on Wednesday December 2 – because she’ll be there, in person, for the big Christmas Glow lights switch-on. As a huge fan of the gardens, Mary, an RHS ambassador, can’t wait to make a return visit.
“The switch-on promises to be spectacular, with lights dotted around the garden in the shape of magical, giant, illuminated flowers,” she says. “Look out, too, for natural Christmas decorations around the grounds, from holly wreaths to carpets of ivy. There will also be a wonderful tree-shaped Christmas display in the glasshouse, featuring hundreds of plants specially grown by the Wisley team.
“After I’ve turned on the lights, I’ll be doing a book signing (more about Mary’s new book later). And I must mention their wonderful Christmas shop, where you’ll be able to buy all sorts of planted bowls. Last year, I bought some wonderful Christmas hellebores, roses and orchids.”
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Every weekend in December, young visitors will also get the chance to decorate festive gingerbread and listen to stories with Santa. And for the grown-ups, the restaurant will be serving a warming seasonal menu – perfect after an invigorating walk around the garden.
“Wisley is enormously good value for gardeners,” enthuses Mary. “It stretches for acres and I often take my grandchildren because there are always lots of activities for youngsters. I also learn such a lot because the staff will happily answer all your questions. I buy a lot of plants there, too, because everything is raised on-site, which makes such a difference.”
Icing on the cake
Mary loves the Surrey countryside and on a clear day she can see the Hog’s Back in the North Downs from her Buckinghamshire garden. “I know Richmond and Guildford particularly well,” she says. “Guildford Farmers’ Market, where I filmed a segment last year for my TV series, Mary’s Absolute Favourites, is wonderful, and it must be lovely to have a market town with so much to offer. The stallholders sell delicious, locally-sourced meat and sausages, and I particularly remember one lady who sold unusual English apple varieties, which you could try and buy.”
Mary may have turned 80, but her enthusiasm and work ethic remain undiminished. Not only has she filmed The Great British Bake Off and The Celebrity Bake Off this year, but she has also published The Complete Aga Cookbook, packed with 150 recipes.
“There’s been a huge change in Aga cookers,” she says. “In the old days, the Aga was on for good, but you can control the heat better now. I’ve got one where you can have just one hot plate on normally – and that’s a huge saving.”
As for any suggestion of taking things easier, she quickly puts that idea to bed. “I love my work, I know what I’m doing and I’m on a mission to get everybody enjoying cooking,” she says. In a recent interview she added that she would continue filming the Bake Off for as long as she loved doing it. “I have lots of energy, receive masses of encouragement and am well looked after. Retire? Certainly not.”
That will be a relief to her legions of fans. Bake Off has done consistently well in the ratings, but after a move to BBC One its popularity soared. The latest final, in which Nadiya Hussain was named champion, saw viewing figures peak at 14.5m, making it the UK’s most-watched TV show of 2015.
“This year’s final was the best we’ve ever had and Nadiya was a very competent, brilliant winner,” says Mary. “She was the right one to win. You never know who it’s going to be until the very last challenge because the competitors have to do well in everything – and she did. I also admired her: she was calm, passionate about what she did and derived just as much pleasure from baking at home for her family.”
Food for thought
Mary may have allowed herself to get a little emotional over Nadiya’s victory, but the hysteria that surrounds every Bake Off final largely eludes her – deliberately so.
“I don’t think about fame or public recognition,” she says. “When people approach me in the street, they’re very nice, so that’s no problem, but I don’t do Twitter. If you do social media, you’re in trouble because all the time you’re telling people how clever you are, where you are and what you’re doing.
“I think it also helps that we all get on so well together. We’re a close team and care about each other. Paul [Hollywood] and I differ sometimes, but the main thing is that we are totally fair. As for Mel [Giedroyc] and Sue [Perkins], they’re brilliant at calming the bakers. They are the brightest buttons in the box and great to be with – I just love them.”
When Bake Off filming ended, Mary co-presented a four-part, festive-themed American version with pastry chef Johnny Luzzini, which has just aired in the States. Contrary to reports, however, she did not cross the Atlantic, but filmed the whole shebang in the usual tent. So how did the American bakers compare with our home talent? “They were surprisingly skilled, but the standard wasn’t quite as high.” And could this be the start of a new career Stateside? She has no idea, she laughs, adding: “Love Productions, who make the show, asked me to do it and I hope it’s successful. But the most important thing is The Great British Bake Off.”
Mary may love her work, but her family comes first – and this Christmas will be no exception. “We will spend it at home with the whole family – and we always have turkey,” she says. “I accept all help that’s going and we have lunch at the normal time, although when the grandchildren are bigger we will have it later.”
One thing is certain, households across the land are sure to be tucking into one of Mary’s recipes this season.w
• Mary Berry will be switching on the Christmas light display at RHS Garden Wisley, Wisley Lane, Wisley, Woking GU23 6QB on Wednesday December 2 at 5pm. There will also be a late-night Christmas shopping evening until 8.30pm where RHS gifts, plants and books will be on sale. For more information, see rhs.org.uk/gardens/wisley
• The Complete Aga Cookbook by Mary Berry and Lucy Young is published by Headline and priced at £25