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Sunflowers, Syringa and Skill-Building on the Royal Pavilion’s Workforce Development Programme

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I had worked at the Royal Pavilion for about four years when another workforce development placement was suggested to me.

I had done two before – a great placement working with researchers to put together a new tour all about the servants working below stairs at the Pavilion, and another researching the museum’s fabulous collection of musical instruments and bringing some of them out of storage. In my day job, I enjoyed working as a Visitor Services Officer, introducing people to the wonderful and unexpected world inside the Royal Pavilion. What I hadn’t done before was pay equal attention to what was outside this curious building – the faithfully restored Regency gardens that surround the Prince Regent’s palace of pleasure.

Any observer of my interests outside work would have been surprised to learn that I had never substantially ventured into the garden as part of my job. A keen allotment grower, I had been studying for the RHS Level 2 in Principles of Horticulture, and had spent many lunch breaks out in the garden peering at plants. When an opportunity came up to spend a day a week working in the Pavilion gardens and learning to be a gardener the practical way, naturally, I jumped at the chance. Having been unable to take up a volunteering position as this would have meant sacrificing a day of paid employment, this was the only path open to me getting my hands on a garden for a significant enough amount of time to build experience.

Royal Pavilion Sunshine in Brighton, credit: Simon Dack

My placement started in November, a very busy time for the Pavilion as Christmas approaches and we decorate and start building up to Christmas events. A day a week in the garden was fantastic experience at this time of year – pruning and clearing from the excesses of summer and autumn, planting bulbs for a spring display and feeding the soil with mulches. While my colleagues walked past in the rain and made commiserating noises about the wet and cold, I was delighted to be outside and learning about winter in the garden, when the imaginary curtains close on the show and the real work happens.

Highlights of my placement were many, but I remember two in particular. One was a session of pruning to reduce a Portuguese laurel and a bay tree – but because it’s a Regency garden, it’s never just reducing anything. What we were doing was using our secateurs and loppers to create a picture frame – a picture frame that had grown out of shape. Once I’d learned to recreate the frame, the picture could shine through – the picture being the northern façade of the Pavilion at just the right angle to be painted in watercolours in 1819 (or Instagrammed in 2019, naturally).

Monochrome tinted postcard showing photographic image of the North Gate to The Royal Pavilion, Brighton.

The other highlight of my placement was spending all day pruning a rose. I had never devoted that much attention to one plant before, and Rosa “Petite Lisette” and I spent hours getting into shape. The pay off came, as with all gardening, months later, as I walked past on my way around the gardens and saw it flowering robustly and showing a lovely balanced form. It was days like these that made learning from Robert Hill-Snook, the head gardener at the Royal Pavilion, a real privilege – having been at the Pavilion for more than twenty years, he not only knows every detail of the planting plans but also how each plant has done in previous years – and the history of each species’ journey across vast expanses of ocean all the way to Brighton by 1826.

Royal Pavilion Gardens, credit: Simon Dack

My placement in the gardens was, in some ways, a self imposed test. I had applied for it so that I could see if I really wanted to change my career and work as a gardener, and thought if I could enjoy it even over the depths of winter, then I could be pretty sure it would work out.

The end of my placement loomed, and I started applying for gardening jobs. I’d passed my own test – I had absolutely loved it.

I am now saying a fond goodbye to the Pavilion and its Regency garden so that I can take up a placement on the Historic and Botanic Garden Trainee Scheme, run by English Heritage. My placement is at Osborne House, so I’ll be following in the footsteps of none other than Queen Victoria, who decided to leave her inherited Brighton summer palace in favour of the privacy of her new estate on the Isle of Wight. I’ll be extending my planting cut-off date (the date we use as a deadline to make sure planting is appropriately of the period) from 1826 all the way to 1901, and learning about the different challenges of gardening a 354 acre estate. I know I will take all the lessons I’ve learned in Regency gardening with me, as my placement enabled me to take up this amazing chance. Thanks to this placement, I’ll be changing my career and embarking on a whole new adventure in gardening and even island life.

Queen Victoria with Royal Pavilion in background, c1840

Update: I have now spent 4 weeks in my new job as a garden trainee and have enjoyed every moment! I am learning such a lot and it’s great to have the plant knowledge the Pavilion placement gave me to fall back on. It’s been interesting learning about a whole new (to me) style of formal gardening, especially the bedding schemes, and to work with exotic plants – and many of the same plants I know from the Pavilion beds.

Emily Hall, Visitor Services Officer