An outdoor life for me

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Paul King has swapped modern landscaping for an extraordinary, extravagant Victorian pleasure garden dating back to 1880. Tracie Beardsley reports.

Larmer Tree gardens, with the view to the Roman temple
All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

It’s seven in the morning. Paul King opens the door to his new “office”. No fusty filing cabinets here. Instead, a breathtaking site with manicured lawns, a green canopy of ancient trees and winding pathways that lure you in.
The 41-year-old is the new head gardener at the Larmer Tree Gardens, near Tollard Royal, a Victorian garden originating in 1880, nestling in the undulating fields of Rushmore Estate at the heart of Cranborne Chase. Created by the visionary General Augustus Pitt Rivers, it was the first privately-owned gardens to be opened for “public enlightenment and entertainment.”

Paul King, head gardener at Larmer Tree, standing in front of the famous open air stage

Today it still does the same – a stunning space for picnics, relaxation and festivals alongside becoming an award-winning wedding venue. (I’m proud to say that, 23 years ago, my wedding was one of first in these exquisite gardens).
Paul is little more than five months into his role. ‘I’m still in awe every time I come through the gates,’ he says. ‘My welcome committee every day is free-flying macaws and strutting peacocks. I love being here first and having the garden to myself. I somehow expect to turn a corner and catch a glimpse of a Victorian child in a white dress and summer hat playing on the lawn.’
The gardens do exude a time-traveller charm with quirky buildings, the shady Dell and even a Roman Temple. How does Paul feel about being responsible for a garden designated by English Heritage as a Garden of National Importance?
‘It’s an absolute privilege. The garden was here long before me and will be long after I’m gone. I feel like I’ve been here five years, not five months, and I put that down to settling in well. I’m not daunted. The challenge is exciting.’

BV magazine June 2023 – Image Courtenay Hitchcock

A determined path
In Victorian times these gardens would have employed an army of gardeners. Paul manages the huge workload with just one other full-time member of staff and Google (his go-to gardening guru). There’s also the juggling act of working around wedding ceremonies. ‘You can’t have a hedgecutter drowning out wedding vows – scheduling tasks is important!’
He’s also inviting horticultural students from Sparsholt College to gain work experience. ‘It’s great to have another pair of hands but I’m also keen to get people learning on the job. I’d have loved such an experience when I was at college.’
From an early age Paul knew he wanted to work outdoors. ‘As a kid, I was always out in the countryside, exploring on my bike. As an adult, I still struggle if I must go into an office for training. I fidget if I’m indoors too long.’
Adamant that he didn’t want to take A-levels and certain he wanted to work outside, Paul studied at Wiltshire College gaining a National Diploma in Horticulture and a City and Guilds in Landscape Design and Construction.
‘I wanted to design gardens, build gardens and be in gardens.’ He did just that, working for landscape and gardening companies before becoming
self-employed.

Peacocks freely roam the gardens

‘Gardening can be lonely at times, so I also worked for Avon and Somerset Police as part of the Neighbourhood Teams, investigating local crime and building up community relations. This gave me invaluable teamwork experience which comes into play here, working alongside the events team and the wider Rushmore Estate crew.’
There’s certainly no danger of getting lonely at Larmer Tree.

The Dell, which Paul is keen to restore to its gently undulating grass-banked original design

New plans
Paul, a keen historian, is already swotting up on the garden’s history so he can confidently answer the many questions visitors ask. ‘I’d love to reinstate garden tours as there’s so much history here. I really don’t mind having to do some homework.’
Not a list man (‘I’d just lose it somewhere in the garden’), Paul’s head is brim-full of ideas, including planting swathes of ornamental grasses and restoring the Dell back to its original Victorian splendour.
‘I’m keen to implement changes but not sweeping ones. I’m a fresh pair of eyes on a garden that has its roots in history and its future is evolving – I’m very well aware that this is a marathon not a sprint.’
And his advice to those of us with our own gardens? ‘Just sit and be in it! A pleasure in itself.’

Instead of the huge team a Victorian head gardener would have enjoyed, Paul has just one assistant and is constantly busy

Quick fire questions:

A-list barbecue guests?
Actor Stephen Fry. I love his humour and he’s so articulate. I’m also a huge fan of 007 so Roger Moore – he’s my favourite Bond. The Queen, she was a keen gardener and of course, Pitt Rivers himself so I could better understand his vision.
Book by your bedside?
Ben Fogle’s Life Lessons from the Wilderness – another man who must be outdoors!

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