Cleckheaton gardener's book shares memories of Kirklees Hall, Scandanavia Gardens and his first coleus

It all started as a boy, when in 1957, Peter Fawcett spotted the “vibrant” red colours of a coleus in Cleckheaton open market.The plant was supposed to cost one shilling and two pence, but young Peter only had nine pence left out of his pocket money.

Thankfully, the stallholder let him have it anyway, and Peter’s love for horticulture has remained since.

Now in his 70s, the West Yorkshire man has written his latest book, Gardeners Delight: Memories of a Professional Gardener, featuring his recollections of working for 45 years in the industry while weaving in some history and a monthly guide with tips for readers.

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Gardening and parks, he believes, have a key role in our daily lives, something which became more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic.

Peter Fawcett in front of begonias, taken by his wife Áine.Peter Fawcett in front of begonias, taken by his wife Áine.
Peter Fawcett in front of begonias, taken by his wife Áine.

"If the parks hadn’t have been there, people would have felt a lot worse,” says Peter. “The fact they could take a stroll in the park, they really enjoyed it. That proved that the parks have a real value and contribution to make to society. I think that’s often overlooked and the people who make it are the gardeners themselves – they are unsung heroes.”

After leaving school in 1964, Peter got early experience gardening at Kirklees Hall, a 16th-century Jacobean home near Clifton, Calderdale, owned by Sir John and Lady Armytage – where local monks had permission to wander the land.

He says: "I had the peculiar experience of monks walking past in their habits and waving to me. Sometimes you had to nip yourself, (thinking), which century am I in?”

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However, he really learned his trade at Scandinavia Gardens, which were attached to the British Belting and Asbestos (BBA) Company in Cleckheaton. There, he worked under his mentor Gordon Stewart, a contemporary and friend of Geoffrey Smith, who Peter considers to be one of the greatest gardeners of modern times.

Peter Fawcett in 1978.Peter Fawcett in 1978.
Peter Fawcett in 1978.

He soaked up Gordon’s knowledge while also attending technical college for five years – where one of the tutors was Lawrence Embleton, at one time a panelist on Gardeners’ Question Time – and after BBA worked in Kirklees’ municipal parks.

Over the years, chrysanthemums became one of his specialties, and adds that he has won seven national championships with the National Chrysanthemum Society.

In order to get so good at dressing them, he took the advice of Gordon, who said: “‘If it's becoming difficult, take a rest. Come back to it’. And he says, ‘Remember, each petal of a chrysanthemum is like tiles on a roof’. And by using that dictum, I became really skilled at dressing and now I describe it in the book as a piece of cake.”

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The book also promotes the legacy of John Claudius Loudon, the Scotsman who designed the country’s first public park, Derby Arboretum, in 1840. The park was free to all to visit and was soon followed by others.

Peter says: “To my thinking, he is more important than what Capability Brown. They talk about Lancelot Brown as the greatest gardener. He was a great gardenener, but for the gentry.”

He adds: “You couldn't go in (to gentry gardens) and there were big walls around them. So (Loudon) created the modern trend for gardenening, really. Once people had public parks, they wanted to improve their own gardens.”

Loudon was also an early propoent of what became known as green belt land, having proposed in 1829 for ‘breathing zones’ around cities.

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However, Peter says that in 2023 public parks are “a shadow of what they were 20 years ago” because of reduced funding.

The Cleckheaton man has previously authored other books, including Ringing for Gold: Hand-bell Ringing, the Living Tradition, and Fawcett’s Fleadh: Memories of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, about Irish music.

“Somebody said at the book launch for Gardeners Delight:‘Who else could write a book on handbells and then change to Irish music and then end up doing a book on gardening?’ Life’s for living. You've got to live it, you only only get one chance. I always think, how could people be bored? There's so much which you can can do.”

The book, published by Elgar Books, is available now from Peter Fawcett. Cost £10, plus post and packing at £2. Email [email protected] for details. It is also available from Spenborough Stationers in Albion Street, Cleckheaton.