Robert Hill-Snook is Head Gardener of the Royal Pavilion gardens in the heart of Brighton, having been in post for almost 25 years.
Sophie takes a stroll with Robert as he reflects on his working life in this Regency garden, ruminating on how the garden – and nature more generally – continues to be a tonic for many of life’s ills
Narrator: From Brighton on the English South Coast. These are the voices of the Royal Pavilion and Museums with Dr Sophie Frost.
Sophie: Hello. I’m Sophie and I spent the past nine months wandering the corridors at the Royal Pavilion and Museums in Brighton and Hove, otherwise known as RPM, uncovering the stories of the museum people who keep Brighton’s historic buildings and collections relevant, vibrant and accessible for the world we’re living in.
Robert: My name is Robert Hill-Snook and I’m head Gardener of the Royal Pavilion Gardens and been here for over 20 years and my role is very multifaceted but I’m here to manage and maintain and otherwise conserve these Regency Gardens which are of historical importance and have a wonderful beauty and usage that I think it’s worth highlighting because I think, sometimes the gardens are slightly misunderstood because of the style of them. Of course, there’s also the fact that they are very much in the centre of the city and are never really closed at all, 24 hours a day, you know, we do have our problems. We do have extra work and it’s not always easy to keep them looking as clean and pristine as possible.
The period of when the Pavilion was built of course, which is the end of the seventeen hundreds, so early eighteen hundreds the gardens were created in the first sort of 20 years of the eighteen hundreds and at the time various designers put in designs for the garden. Some were obviously turned down but it’s believed that John Nash who designed the Pavilion went on to design the garden. I don’t want to go into too much detail but it was very much influenced by nature and inspired by the countryside and that’s why we call them ‘picturesque ornate, nature assisted’. It’s that natural look but also obviously you’re cultivating you are managing that but you’re still trying to keep that natural look. The garden is inspired by the countryside and that’s why it has that slightly wild, natural look that’s not over manicured not over-managed. I think that’s the misleading thing there that you have to do a lot of quite serious maintenance because if you don’t then you lose that effect.
So that’s one side of it, nature, we have a lot of wild native plants. The other big influence of the time was a growing interest in horticulture. Obviously, with a growing interest in travelling, people started to bring new ideas and new styles back from overseas and of course, this was imitated in plants as well, this period was the beginning of plant hunting. The two main strands that this Garden has are nature and then what they referred to then as the exotic because all these new things like peonies and poppies and more interestingly bearded Chinensis and some of the shrubs people had never seen before were starting to arrive from the plant hunters endeavours and would have probably been shipped and then, you know, filter down but of course, the Prince region would’ve had the pick of the best and all the latest things, whether it was a new rose bred in France or whether it was the new this or new that, it’s this juxtaposition of Nature and that exotic but in a very loose way. The idea is that you use the planting in a very informal way with no straight lines and you look through the planting to the Pavilion and the various buildings and this is a where you get these wonderful Vistas and Views through using the plants as the sort of framework and that enhances the Pavilion, the Dome and the two gatehouses because you’re not seeing them all at once you’re getting glimpses and that is more tantalizing. You sometimes you look through and you just get that lovely view through its only that view because the planting blocks up the other part of it.
Sophie: No one’s ever put it quite like that, so it’s really nice to hear it. I think you mentioned it’s been a bit misunderstood sometimes within the city. What did you mean exactly?
Robert: We mustn’t forget that the gardens have evolved. I mean, we’re going back, you know 200 years and there was a period when this present gardening style didn’t exist because the original Regency Garden disappeared perhaps because they didn’t get the right sort of Maintenance and of course time moves on. During the Victorian period and right up to the 60s and 70s seaside places towns like Brighton. Is for their bedding plants and their bedding schemes and very colourful, ornate, beautifully manicured and well-maintained. I mean, you’ll still see it in Eastbourne and places like that. Although it’s very, very high, intense maintenance
Therefore, when this Garden was newly restored it wasn’t quite what people expected and some people don’t understand because this is not overtly colourful, it’s about shades of green. It’s not about neatness. It’s an about naturalness, you know, the grass is a bit longer because that’s part of the style and we have to think of what horticulture was like in those days. Things have moved on with technology and machinery and science and we can achieve more, in a way. I mean and I like to think this is an example of modern gardening. This is the first time that this type of garden had ever really been done because gardens were very much tucked away from the house or they were formal Gardens or landscape Gardens like Capability Brown. This is the first time that a garden, this style of garden, where that the building and the garden were as one and they complimented each other and so it had never really been done before. I suppose when you think about it there was a lot of experimentation. New plants were arriving and, you know, here for instance with honeysuckle, which you always think of as a good climber was used as a ground cover plant and they used it to spread along the ground. They didn’t have any previous experience with some of these new plants coming.
Sophie: That’s interesting, and when was it restored?
Robert: It was restored in the late 80s early 90s.
Sophie: So behind me are all the maps from…
Robert: The plans
Sophie: The plans, sorry, from the restoration?
Robert: Yes, the garden is split up into various beds. As you walk the serpentine paths around the garden, of course, you come across these beds. The beds might line the paths and as you walk around the building, the Pavilion, the flower beds contain more flowers. As you Retreat from the building as if to go towards New Road the beds become more foliage and more natural-looking because the idea is that you are retreating into the countryside it’s the image that you’re not in a city or not in a town. That’s why we are very keen to keep the perimeter of the gardens green and of a certain height and so we’re blocking out modernity really or keep it as a Regency Oasis.
The beds, you know, that are more inclined to be around the Pavilion will more than likely be a mixture of a small tree they could be deciduous they could be a conifer or shrubs. Evergreens are very, very important because they give you the backcloth their permanently there all the time. Then they’ll be some deciduous shrubs too which will change and give interest throughout the year. We might have a spring-flowering shrub. You might then have an autumn leaf, something that does things with berries, you know, and then the next sort of planting would be herbaceous and then you’ve got annuals and then you’ve got bulbs, but all very much in their own place. Nothing must dominate and we don’t have drifts of things. We have what they call ‘Jewels of colour’ in front of the Evergreens to get that sort of effect and a great deal of the maintenance is trying to keep those different groups in order and that’s not always easy. For instance, some of the Evergreens now have gotten too big and we’ve got to think about cutting them down, coppicing them, and maybe replacing them. This is probably what happened to the original Regency Garden. If you don’t do that, then it just becomes a big Shrubbery because all the other planting is lost.
The other thing I talked about was having spring and summer. this style of gardening. We mustn’t forget that this is probably the only fully restored Regency Garden in the country. It was planted even in those days to give what they call succession interest, succession planting, where you have something of interest month by month. Sometimes you walk around the garden and one bit of the garden or one part of the bed or even one bed has been good, say, April-May and it goes off then you look to another part of the garden, which will then come into its own perhaps June-July, so it’s very much about that. As I said, it’s the first time that there was succession planting.
Sophie: All right. This is the north gate why is it called the north gate?
Robert: Well it’s the north!
Sophie: That’s the south gate?
Robert: Yes but [the north gate] it’s also known as William IV; it was built for William the fourth who became king after George IV. He only reigned for a very short period but by then, of course, Brighton was much busier more people, more activity. That was built so the only way in was through the gates and on either side, you would have had soldiers billeted where we just came from…
Robert: …and they would have been on duty in that room and then they would have slept upstairs where the volunteers meet all these hundreds of years later.
Here we are! We do like to keep a lot of the herbaceous seed head things going as long as possible because they could also give a bit of interest in the garden and contrast against the foliage and stuff and also they’re very good for the birds and wildlife but it comes a time when it all starts to look a bit tatty. So, this is the gradual process of as it gets tattier we cut it down and then serious pruning of some of the shrubs, we can’t do that until we’ve cut the other stuff down. It’s a process. It’s a process of garden maintenance. That’s in autumn. It’s a bit like the National Trust, they’re always saying they’re putting their houses to sleep and we’re doing the same with the garden. It’s nice. It’s sort of like putting it to rest really for the winter.
Sophie: What’s would be your favourite time of year in the garden?
Robert: Well, I quite like this time of years. I like it because it’s less busy. I quite like the melancholic sort of atmosphere of the autumn. The colours and the shades and the smells. It’s like saying goodbye to one year and we’re getting the garden prepared for a new year and that that entails every plant needing nurturing whether it’s feeding or pruning. This is the time when you do all that, with the thought of there’s always another opportunity for next year, the conditions might be different, right? So that’s the positivity about gardening. I think we all have a dull time at this time of the year and things are but you’ve got to look forward.
Sophie: How many times do you think you walk around this garden a day?
Robert: I don’t know, I really have no idea. I do a lot of mileage going from A to B and B to A, you know all the different places.
Sophie: I was thinking about how fit you must be. I mean, it’s part of the job I suppose
Robert: I’m not happy if I have to have a day indoors. I can get quite grumpy, fling open the back door, and I’ve got to get out in the garden
Sophie: Would I be possible to talk about the community of volunteers? And other guys you work with?
Robert: Well, I have now, I haven’t always had but in the last four or five years, I’ve had a part-time assistant called Wayne and he does quite a bit of the domestic side to relieve me of it and there is a lot of it. That entails litter picking and that has to be done every day and bin emptying and this relieves me of having to do it. Well really my efforts should be more towards the Horticulture and especially as there’s only one full-time Gardener, but also, he now does quite a bit of the grass cutting because he likes doing that and it’s a good thing for him to do. So that’s very helpful. But from the word go there have been volunteers and the original group which was set up for a Friday morning is still going strong. It’s a very successful, encouraging thing to do. The Friday group has been going for 25 years, based here and they usually do an hour-and-a-half Friday morning. When they finish at half-past eleven and have coffee here, we have what I refer to as a plant ident. So, they have something like a dozen little snippets of whatever’s in season, whatever’s flowering and I also picked little bits and then they have to identify them and then we have a very brief Swap. This is all about plant ident. So we line them up here. What is it? So we have to give it its proper Latin name, but we also obviously go with a common name as well because that helps. What type of plant is it? What does it do? What significance does it have in these Gardens and how we maintain it? So, there are five key questions there that cover quite a bit of information. Being a volunteer, you know, there can’t really be any pressure. But at the same time there has to be an element of learning I think if you come here to volunteer, you give your time and they’re honestly helping us out. It’s nice to give something back. Then again, it’s up to the individual how much they want to invest in. I can’t affect that but that is a very good starter, you know, you imagine having 12 plants every week, or maybe 10 over the months, that can build up and it. I say if you do it properly you can then build up huge information.
Sophie: Does that mean that around Brighton and Hove, somewhere, there’s just lots and lots of wannabe Regency Gardens springing up in people’s back gardens?
Well, I think that people do say, “oh, well if I see it growing in the Pavilion Gardens it’ll grow in my garden”. That’s probably because of the salt due to being close to the Sea. Lots of plants have to be salt resistant. I mean, I don’t know, well you probably remember about a months ago. Three weeks ago. We had those dreadful, dreadful gales that were salt-laden and the garden is affected by it, you know, now the trees have all gone brown prematurely because of being burnt by the salt and so have quite a lot of the plants. So, that can happen and there is nothing we can do about it. Also, because we are on chalk that’s a problem. People often come through, saying “if that’s growing I’ll try it” and the majority of people like the natural look and they like that look in the garden and they do try to imitate it. We do have plant and seed give away days that are very popular, I say give away but we do ask for a donation. That’s been going for years and years. The volunteers at this present time are collecting the seeds. These last couple of Fridays they have been harvesting. The public love it.
Sophie: Again, sort of a big that’s quite an outreach endeavour really you were mentioning it earlier about the public and their use of the garden. Could you go into that a little bit more?
Robert: That it’s so complex. It’s a cross-section of people. I mean, it could be just a thoroughfare. It can be a place for people to hang out. It can be a place for students, young people. Not necessarily young people not necessary is to get up to no good, but they can get away with maybe having drink and alcohol and smoking and etcetera and because the garden is, as it is it, there are lots of places you can hide because it’s quite a lot of greenery and shrubbery so it, you know, it works against us in one way that the people can come and do that and then, of course, we have all the local people who live nearby, elderly people who probably had to give up their gardens because they’re living in flats. They may have a dog and they use this as their daily walkthrough and this is their garden which I think is lovely. Another group are the people who work in this area and again may have high powered desk jobs, glued to a computer and, you know, people say to me; oh coming through here in the morning sets me up for the day, just to hear the birds singing and just to see what’s new flowering and that. As it has that natural look and you’ve got this depth of interest because if you let your mind get too worked up about maybe the grass is a bit too long or something hasn’t been deadheaded. You can lose yourself in the beauty of it and I think with this garden there have always been those people who just don’t get it and those who do. A garden is a place of Solace, I think this is where people come searching for something, they’re searching for answers, perhaps, and especially as there is an element of rest about it. Maybe some people do find some answers here. I hope they do.
Sophie: It’s quite rare in a bustling Town Centre to have something like this.
R: See this woman here, this is something we get a lot.
S: She’s feeding all the pigeons.
R: She’s covered herself with pigeons and she’s mass feeding the pigeons which, in some ways, we would rather not have because it can be very problematic and it creates other problems for them, but this is her life. We have quite a number of people who come in daily and that is why we have rat problems. However, it caters for people who maybe have mental health problems or just lonely or who have been let down by other humans and they have far more respect and love for animals and birds and they do for their fellow human beings and it’s very difficult to intervene and say “sorry, but we’d rather you didn’t do that or could you” because this is their existence. So that’s what I mean. It’s the whole spectrum of people’s feelings and emotions and you see them all here.
Sophie: It’s funny because it’s not really that big a plot of land.
Robert: It’s not. It attracts all people from all walks of life. Whether it’s the shopper walking through or whether it’s the person from overseas coming to visit the pavilion or the lonely old person who lives on their own who loves the gardens, nature and to see people who might have a chat with them.
Sophie: Could you just talk us through the initiatives that are happening with mental health and well being and the garden at the moment?
Robert: Whether or not it’s because it’s the times we live in, they’re saying how important nature and gardening and plants and wildlife are for mental health, you know as far as I’m concerned, I’ve sort of known that for years. There’s great therapy in gardening and studying nature and beauty and art but sometimes you have to rekindle it. As it’s such a technological age now maybe the younger generations have forgotten how to observe. It’s on your doorstep you don’t have to go on your phone, you can actually see it there and then as you’re walking through you might see a thrush you might hear thrush you might but of course, you know, you’ve got to perhaps remind people that a garden, this garden, any garden is a great wealth of material to help people, perhaps get over something or even understand themselves. We do have certain an amount of people helping in the gardens, who’ve got problems. Obviously, we have to limit a little bit because, at the end of the day, we’re trying to recreate a historic Garden. We care, of course, we care but at the end of the day, I have to come up with the goods. We do have people, and you could even go as far as to say that when one retires, we already know this is something that a lot of people do when they retire, they go and volunteer. I think the very nature of it is very good for even at that stage in your life because you know, you’ve perhaps just given up work, you’ve given up some sort of routine and you’re not seeing the colleagues that you’ve over the years and your whole life changes. You join something like this and it’s like a new purpose for one thing you’re out in the fresh air. You might be learning a new skill or you might not be learning a new skill but you’re working with nature, which I think is marvellous. You’re meeting people and you have to sort of stick to a routine and then that’s the social side to it.
Sophie: When you were talking about the spiritual side of the garden, for you, the way you talk about it. It does feel like a calling. I can sense that in the way you discuss it.
Robert: Well, I, first of all, I would say it’s a privilege. I don’t want to go into it too much but I’m a believer that God sends us into various aspects of life for a reason and we’re all here to do our bit in one way or another to make a difference and, you know, even with have problems and challenges a garden is something that can change people’s lives and can just change people’s attitude. Even if it’s for a few minutes. So if you’re actually part of that if we are all working as a team to create something that somebody’s going to see and maybe they will leave thinking differently or something like put a smile on people’s faces like the sunflowers, you know, that’s great. Isn’t it? To think that you’ve actually been part of that.
Sophie: Yeah, it’s a type of service.
Robert: Definitely. It’s a huge privilege and I’m really lucky to have been given that opportunity.
We talk about climate change, don’t we? Now if you look at the rose there this is the 1st of November and that would have been very unusual to see at one time, roses still flowering. We’ve got various ones around the garden; this is one of our later flowering herbaceous plants that gives a bit of colour. You see, now this is when the flowers are finishing and the seeds are forming. These are little black seeds in here which will be collected by the volunteers.
I think we can all be in denial [about climate change] and I think its quite a selfish attitude when people say “its lovely to have this sort of weather now” but long term it’s a worry. When in the little world here, one notices and I do realise that we are in the south here but it’s very rare now that plants get knocked back by frost and the grass keeps growing at one time you could stop mowing grass because it got very cold and we might have a frost that would knock the grass back and you would say “alright that’s the end of mowing now” but not anymore. Now we might have to get the mowers out before Christmas. Its all starting to look a bit overgrown.
Sophie: Oh that’s beautiful.
Robert: That’s fuchsia ‘Magellanica Alba’ it’s quite unusual to still have this flowering on November 1st.
Sophie: Do you think its because we have had so much rain?
Robert: It’s partly rain but its warmer.
Robert: Haven for nature this type of garden. We don’t use chemicals in any capacity at all. It’s totally organic. So, we do encourage birdlife and insects and we’ve even got foxes that are living in the garden now. It’s always been a challenge, this garden.
You can’t, you know, try to put it in some sort of category, label it, you know, “Should it be this, should it be that?”. Is it a park? Is it a garden? Is it a historic garden. You know, it’s very difficult sometimes when it’s in such a busy and… for me, it epitomizes what Brighton’s about. Brighton, you know even going back to George IV, I mean, you know, he was the Prince Regent, this whole reason for having this was about fun-loving entertainment. Slightly hedonistic, enjoying life, enjoying the good things of life, whether it was architecture, art, food or music. Not always behaving, you know, well, perhaps, and overeating. Oh, you know, and I suppose that really is embedded in Brighton and can continue; so the gardens in a way are very much tied to that. And it’s very difficult to unravel it.
Sophie: Maybe we don’t want to
Robert: I just say it is what it is. Might not be quite what it should be but it is what it is and there’s something very unique about it. There’s something very and I think that’s the beauty of it is that there’s probably nowhere else quite like it because of all the ingredients that go into it. It’s Unique.
Sophie: Do you feel hopeful about it and what the legacy of it and what it is and what it can be? Is there anything that needs drastic attention? Where is it?
Robert: Well I do worry about it because it does need special maintenance, special knowledge really to keep the historic side of it. It does need quite a lot of money spent on it. It needed, certain areas of the garden, quite a lot of the garden now, that needs replanting and really looking at again and the hard features and, you know, I think everybody’s aware and I suppose because of modern times it needs protecting but then, at the same time, and I suppose this is very easily contradictory, you know it we mustn’t change and ruin its uniqueness, which I was trying to and it’s very difficult to specify and pinpoint that.
So I would like to think that the gardens will continue, that maybe there will be improvements made that the essence of the gardens will continue and the historic side of it because I think that’s important. But they will retain that uniqueness.
Sophie: Thanks, Robert. I think that we’ve got a lot of rich, really rich stuff there. So thank you.
Robert: I’ve been as honest.
Sophie: No, no, thank you. Thanks very much. I’m going to press stop.
It was an absolute pleasure to spend time with Robert and his garden, absorbing his serene and philosophical perspective. I was struck by the many roles that the Royal Pavilion Garden plays in Brighton as a place of solace. It’s the urban sprawl of nature, retreat and rest, community, play and pleasure and of revelry; albeit sometimes unwanted.
Robert is a true Museum treasure with a vast wealth of horticultural knowledge and a fascination with regency gardens mixed with a sort of poetic wisdom on the humanity that crosses his path on a daily basis. In other words, Robert helps us to understand the scope and scale of the people that make up Royal Pavilion & Museums in Brighton and Hove and that they don’t just work indoors.
My thanks again to Robert Hill-Snook for participating in this episode, as well as to the garden for begrudgingly letting me traipse around it and pass comment on the size of its squirrels.
Next time on voices of the Royal Pavilion & Museums: Dr. Helen Mears, Keeper of world art at RPM will be in conversation with Sara Lee, consultant and advisor to the museum as well as co-founder of Brighton and Hove Black History, on some of the black and minority ethnic cultural heritage projects to have taken place in recent years. See you there.
Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, hit like and subscribe and please leave us a very nice five-star review. Find out more about the Royal Pavilion Museums at brightonmuseums.org.uk and more about this project at onebyone.uk. On Twitter, I’m @soph_frosty and RPM is @brightonmuseums.
I really hope you can join me next time till soon. Goodbye.
Narrator: The voices of the Royal Pavilion and museums are supported by the One By One research project, The School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, The Keep, Arts Council England and produced by Lo-Fi Arts.