The House That Peter Built: Harrogate gardening charity Horticap receives amazing gift from late student and his mother to build new premises

The future of a Yorkshire gardening charity is looking rosy – thanks to an astonishing gift from a student and his mother after their deaths. Chris Burn reports.

Phil Airey, manager of Horticap Nurseries, photographed outside the charity's new shop and cafe, funded by a huge legacy from one of the students, Peter Hopkins. Picture: Ernesto Rogata.

When Peter Hopkins died in 2016 just a few weeks after his mother Marjorie had passed away, staff, volunteers and fellow students at the Harrogate horticulture charity he had been involved with for more than 20 years were devastated. Those at Horticap, which trains adults with learning and other disabilities, knew they would never forget him – and then learned of an extraordinary gift which has now helped create a permanent reminder of his legacy.

Peter’s mother Marjorie had left their family home to Horticap in her will to pass to the charity in the event of Peter’s death. The proceeds from the sale of the property have now played a major part in allowing for the construction of a new two-storey cafe and shop at the charity’s nursery on Otley Road.

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Construction work began last year and after being delayed by the pandemic, the shop opened before Christmas and the cafe is due to open on June 14.

Peter Hopkins, whose mother left a huge legacy to him and stated that upon her son's death everything should go to Horticap.

Phil Airey, operations manager at Horticap, says: “We are calling it ‘The House That Peter Built’. We would have done this eventually but it might not have been as big and it would have taken us years to raise the money. We are going to call the tearoom Hopkins @ Horticap so people can say ‘we are going to Hopkins’.

“Before we had a very small wooden building that was probably adequate 25 to 30 years ago but it wasn’t fit for purpose now. The idea was to replace it with something more fit for purpose and that was what we were aiming for.

“When Peter died his mum had left us an amazing legacy which helped us not only to build it but to grow our plans. It was going to be one-storey but now it is two-storey. We have got an absolutely amazing building now.

“I would say three-quarters of the building costs have been paid for through the legacy.”

Phil Airey, manager of Horticap Nurseries, photographed outside the charity's new shop and cafe, funded by a huge legacy from one of the students, Peter Hopkins. Picture: Ernesto Rogata.

The charity’s land is also being revamped and will be known in future as ‘Peter’s Garden’.

Airey explains that the gift from Marjorie and Peter is allowing Horticap to start a new chapter in its history. The charity, which was formed in the 1980s, provides adults with learning and other disabilities training in horticulture, allied crafts and rural skills at their four-acre site with those capable going on to gain City & Guilds qualifications in recognition of their newly-learnt abilities.

Students help with the tasks associated with running a nursery and gardening centre with the produce sold in the shop and at Harrogate Flower Show and other public events.

Airey explains that Peter started coming to Horticap in 1994 following the closure of another charity project he had been part of in the years previously. He says he soon became a regular at the site who loved his time there.

Phil Airey, manager of Horticap Nurseries, photographed outside the charity's new shop and cafe, funded by a huge legacy from one of the students, Peter Hopkins. Picture: Ernesto Rogata.

“Peter was always a really natty dresser with a shirt and a tie; he always looked smart. He also had a fantastic sense of humour,” Airey explains. “He came here three times a week.

“Majorie would always say to us, ‘Don’t worry, when I’m gone and Peter is gone we are going to leave something to look after you’. At the time we would say, ‘Don’t talk like that’ and not think too much about it. But she saw us as Peter’s family and they wanted other families to be looked after at Horticap. But we never knew what sort of legacy they were on about.

“It was basically the family house that they gave us and we got the profits of the sale.

“We were just absolutely gobsmacked that Marjorie would do such a thing. What she said to me before she died was that she wanted Horticap to continue to look after future generations of adults with learning difficulties.

“We had never received anything like this before. This was our first big legacy.”

Airey says the deaths of the pair were hard to take for everyone who had known them.

“We were devastated when Peter left us. Marjorie died in July 2016, she had been in her 90s. Peter didn’t last more than four to five weeks after that. When she died, it was like he just gave up. When he first came, he could do everything – pruning and potting up, he was digging and mowing. It was gradually harder as he got older and he would do a little bit of pruning and potting. The main reason he carried on coming was the social side. He loved to have a bit of a laugh and would always come out with one-liners. He liked the banter that you get in a workplace and it is a workplace here for our students.”

Airey says that having started from humble beginnings in the mid-1980s, the charity has been flourishing in recent years.

“The trustees and board eventually bought the land for next to nothing – it is bog land so it was cheap. It has grown from nothing really – there was even a greenhouse, there was one caravan and three students. Now we are open to 60 students and usually have 25 to 30 students a day. Unfortunately because of Covid it has been limited recently to eight students at a time. But it has all come on leaps and bounds.”

The tasks for each student vary depending on their abilities, with places going to people in wheelchairs to those with autism.

Airey says the lockdowns of the past year have led to a wider appreciation of the mental health benefits offered by gardening and the structure and involvement with nature it brings. “I think awareness of the benefits of gardening have come on leaps and bounds during the pandemic.”

He says for those students that are able to, working towards a formal qualification is an enriching experience – highlighting the recent story of David, who is in his 60s.

“What was great is David had got to 61 and never had a qualification in his life. So to get that from an accredited outside body and not us was great.”

Airey says it is a privilege to work at Horticap.

“The students are such fun and have taught me so much about fun and compassion. They are remarkable people. If you ever work with people with learning disabilities they keep you on your toes, they make you laugh and they are really lovely people. Sometimes you have to remind yourself they actually have learning difficulties because you forget. They are part of your day and part of your life. I absolutely adore working up here and so do all the instructors. The students make us smile every day. People will say you are doing a remarkable job. But we absolutely love it and we are the ones learning something.”

Following Peter and Marjorie’s amazing gift, work on fitting out the new buildings and garden has been supported by generous donations of time, equipment and labour by local companies including Bettys & Taylors, Marshalls building merchants and HACS.

Airey explains: “It is a big community effort. When people knew about what Peter had done it was easy to get others involved.”

Charity supported by Alan Titchmarsh

TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh is Horticap’s charity patron and Phil Airey says the Yorkshireman has been a regular visitor to the site over the years.

“The students love him and just call him ‘Alan’,” he explains. “They don’t give a monkey’s about him being a celebrity. Peter would say hello to him just as much as the other students. The lovely thing with Alan is when he comes up he wants to spend time with the students and not us.”

He says Titchmarsh, who is originally from Ilkley, has done a huge amount of work raising the charity’s profile to a national stage. “He does whatever he can to promote us when he is writing articles or on television. When he did The Chase he nominated us as his charity which was brilliant. They lost but we got £1,000 from it.”

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