Photographs: Charles Francis
September 2016: For a trainee horticulturalist, the chance to spend a year working in the celebrated subtropical Tresco Abbey Garden is surely the fulfilment of a dream. Yet Alasdair Moore admits: “I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know where the Isles of Scilly were until I applied for a studentship there. Then I went to Tresco — and discovered that it is a very, very special place.”
It was the start of what he describes as “a transformative year,” working under the direction of the Abbey Garden’s head gardener Mike Nelhams. “Mike is a wonderful chap,” Alasdair says. “He really opened my eyes to plants.”
Alasdair, who grew up in Margate, Kent, hadn’t planned a career as a gardener. After a degree in English literature, he worked at an antiquarian bookshop in Threadneedle Street in the City of London. He enjoyed the job — “’I’m still absolutely obsessed with books” — but he also liked working outdoors, and to escape the heat of a daily summer commute on the London Underground, he applied for a seasonal job at Queen’s Park in north-west London. “It was a really lovely Victorian park run by the Corporation of London,” he says. “At the end of the summer they very kindly said that if I wanted to stay on they would send me to do a horticultural course one day a week.”
In deciding to take up the offer, Alasdair took the first step on a path which would lead to the studentship at Tresco Abbey Garden — advertised on a college noticeboard — and after that to two other great gardens, RHS Wisley in Surrey and West Green House, Hampshire. Then, unexpectedly, he had a call from Mike Nelhams, offering him the chance to return to Tresco as assistant head gardener. “I didn’t have to think very hard about it,” he says with a smile.
He was there for nine years. “It was a wonderful, wonderful time. I did everything from showing groups of tourists around to cutting 30-foot hedges. Mike was always very encouraging, and gave me a huge amount of freedom. In the summer, I would take a packed supper and eat it on the beach while I watched the sun go down. And when I wasn’t working, there were cricket matches and gig rowing, and a great sense of camaraderie and conviviality.”
Alasdair only moved on from Tresco when a publisher friend invited him to write a book about Sir Thomas Hanbury, creator of a great botanic garden at La Mortola in Italy. His second book took him to South Africa to study proteaceae — but he then returned to the Abbey Garden to cover for a gardener who was on sabbatical.
“The job was only for six months — but during that time I fell in love with Kate, who is now my wife. It made it rather hard to leave. So I became a woodman and gamekeeper’s assistant, and also helped set up a magazine on the island called The Islander. I ended up being editor and sole writer. Through doing that, I was asked if I wanted to do the marketing of Tresco, so I did that for five years.”
However, 18 months ago, with his 50th birthday on the horizon, Alasdair wanted to do something different: “I just felt I was getting further and further away from plants.” It was then that he was approached to become horticultural manager of Duchy of Cornwall Nursery, just outside Lostwithiel.
“I came over on a grim December day, but as soon as I arrived, I could see that it was an extraordinary spot, set in a valley with a sense of place and history — you can see Restormel Castle from the nursery — and has a wonderful café and shop. Then I met the team, who are immensely knowledgeable and dedicated.”
But the decision to move from Tresco was not an easy one — particularly as his wife wanted to stay on Scilly. “Kate comes from a large family on Bryher, and she runs the one and only shop on Tresco,” says Alasdair. “So I understand why she chose to stay there — and she knows that on the island the opportunities for me to do other things are not readily available. We now have a commuting relationship. She loves to come over here, and I love going there.”
Alasdair chose to live in Lostwithiel. “It reminds me of being on Tresco. There’s a great sense of community and a lot of things going on. And the nursery has huge potential. As a Duchy of Cornwall employee, I’m very aware that the man at the top of the tree is a consummate horticulturalist himself. Prince Charles is very keen on the nursery and knows what he’s talking about.” The nursery follows the Duke of Cornwall’s horticultural philosophy, with a strong emphasis on locally-sourced plants and natural growing methods.
“As an organisation, we have a sense of the natural world and our place within it. I am a gardener rather than a horticultural retailer, and that sense of being in a garden which visitors have when they come here is something we’re keen on maintaining and developing. It hopefully gives people a bit of inspiration for their own gardens, and is much more fun to do that just having rows of plants.”
Outside working hours, he has the whole of Cornwall to explore. As he points out, when Isles of Scilly residents visit the mainland, they often pass though the county on their way to somewhere else, either in Britain or abroad.
“Some people who have lived on the islands always have a yearning for them, but for me, here in Cornwall, there is such a sense of exploration. I now own a car for the first time in my life, and I really enjoy heading off into little lanes and thinking: ‘If I keep turning left, I’ll end up somewhere’. One of the things I love about Cornwall is the difference in topography, landscapes and plants between somewhere like Bodmin Moor and somewhere like St Mawes. It’s a fascinating and enthralling place to live.”
He now feels equally at home in Tresco and Lostwithiel. “Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are separate entities, but they share a culture, attitude, landscape and maritime tradition,” he says. “I really believe Cornwall is the most horticulturally blessed of all English counties — and Tresco is still, without question, my favourite garden in the world.”