Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Meet the Team: William Hurton

Over the next few weeks we will be publishing a series of short articles featuring the dedicated team at Dixter. To kick us off, here is a piece about just William - our maestro in the vegetable garden.

Name: William Hurton

Status: Single

Age: 22

Service: 8 Years

What's your role at Great Dixter?
Officially, I think it says I'm Head of Produce. My job is to grow all the vegetables and produce for the estate and to make sure the kitchen runs smoothly with seasonable vegetables. In the winter I ensure that there is plenty of wood and that the fires are lit.

How did you come to work at Dixter?
I saw Dixter on the TV on Gardeners World. At the time I was helping out at a garden in the local village. I wanted to do two weeks work experience and so I went up the house at Dixter and met Fergus. I came for two weeks initially. I don’t think I impressed them that much but I wanted to come back, but they weren’t so sure. Anyway, I persuaded them let me come to work for two days a week in the summer holidays, helping out with cutting the grass and so on – this is my chance, I thought to myself. In fact, I used to bunk off and go and help out in the Potting Shed. One time the phone went and I answered it – it was someone from the school. Unfortunately, my Dad had just called in 15 minutes before saying I was sick. I remember they weren’t too impressed and I got quite a lot of detentions for that! I came to Dixter full time from July 1999.

What do you love most about your job?
Coming to this gorgeous garden. It changes every single day and there is always something new and the seasons are so different at Dixter. In Spring there are the wild flowers, narcissus and orchids; in Summer there is the gorgeous Long Border and the freshness of the garden. In the Autumn I love the fantastic colour and the Exotic garden which is then six feet high and so lush. Then in the Winter you see the structure once again and get back to basics as well as enjoying the warmth of the log fires.

This is a high maintenance garden because when Christo started gardening at Dixter in the 1940s and 50s, horticultural labour was very cheap. I love learning about how to garden using these old methods. For example, we grow our own tulip bulbs, we don’t buy them – which takes time and hard work. But this means we get what’s called Tulip Fire – a fantastic variation of colour. And in the nursery we make our own compost, and to learn using the old techniques is an amazing opportunity.

What do you think makes Dixter special?
I think it’s seeing another way of life. Just to witness how Christo lived his life – how he would treat his guests, filling the house with people and giving them the most amazing experience ranging from what they ate, to sitting in front of the fire, perhaps having a doze after lunch or sunning over a cup of coffee – then out into the garden again for walk around with Christo where he would explain exactly how he had come by each plant……

What is your fondest memory of Christo?
For me it was the times we spent in the kitchen. When Christo became older and weaker, Fergus and I would help with the cooking. He would sit down and direct us – the sprouts should take exactly 12 minutes and be cooked with the lid off and the sauce should go into a hot oven and be cooled down to seal it – he had 80 years of learning the best ways to cook and he was passing it onto us. He taught me how to make his Mum’s favourite chocolate pudding....

What are your aspirations for Dixter’s Future?
To keep in going in the way Christo would have wanted it to – and it will take us a lot of hard work. We must fight for Dixter, to host events and workshops and to raise the funds we need and to keep the garden up to the highest standard possible. One day I would love to see a fantastic eating place here – maybe in the Barn. Somewhere that is very seasonal and where people can come and eat what’s cooking and eat produce we have grown here ourselves, just like Christo offered to his friends when they came to stay.

Dixter must carry on giving people a chance. I used to be quite a rebel when I was younger. I had bleached hair, sometime I was bald. But none of that mattered to Christo, it didn’t matter if you had a tattoo or an ear-ring, he would just laugh. He would always look beyond the superficial and see through to the person behind.

What are your personal ambitions / interests?
I want to travel more. I want to go round a lecture about Dixter and spread the word. I am hoping to go to America with Fergus late this year to help with the fund-raising. I love listening to music and, of course, supporting my local football team, Brighton Hove Albion.

Meet the Team: Jean Michel

Jean Michel works with William Hurton in the Produce team at Dixter. John describes himself as is the baby of the team, although you wouldn’t know it by meeting him. He’s only been at Dixter for two and a half years.

Name: Jean Michel

Status: Married with two daughters, 17 and 18.

Age: 48

Service: 2.5 Years

What's your role at Great Dixter?
I work with William and also help Ben with maintenance. I’m also in charge of all the mown areas of grass in the garden.

How did you come to work at Dixter?
Well, I lost my job as a furniture maker and I wanted to do something different. I wanted to work outside so I phoned Dixter and asked if they needed any volunteers. I came for a meeting with Fergus and Christo. We met in the porch of the house, and they asked me some questions. A started for three days a week as a volunteer in June and then they gave me a full time job in September.

What do you love most about your job?
I just love the beautiful surroundings. I love growing things and everyday at Dixter is different. I love being outside in the garden and in the woods.

What do you think makes Dixter special?
For me it is the people here. They are very friendly and there is lots of banter in the mess. You often get a bit wet though [referring to frequent water fights…]

What is your fondest memory of Christo?
I didn’t get to spent that much time with Christo. He would tell me if I wasn’t doing so well. I remember once I lit the fire in the Solar a bit late and it wasn’t roaring quite as he has expected. He let me know about that – not in a nasty way, though. When the fire was just right he would always smile and he liked the idea that I come from Bordeaux. That’s where his favourite wines come from, he would tell me.

What are your aspirations for Dixter’s Future?
I just want it to carry on as it s and to continue to attract more people.

What are your personal ambitions / interests?
I like to be busy. Being a taxi service for my two daughters keeps me fairly well occupied when I am not at Dixter. I like reading and taking my dog, Charlie, for walks.

Christo as I Remember Him

Rosa Steppanova first met Christo in 1992 when he came with Beth Chatto to visit her garden in Scotland. Rosa kindly emailed us this lovely article which she wrote about him for The Shetland Times in 2001 in celebration of Christo's 80th Birthday. Here it is now is for everyone to enjoy. Thank you Rosa.

TODAY Christopher Lloyd is celebrating his 80th birthday.
"That's the bed I was born in," he said casually as he opened the door to our room, a room with a magnificent four-poster bed and a magnificent view of an ancient pear tree, a fountain of Chilean bamboo and hoar-frosted lawn.

"The mattress has been changed since", he added equally casually. The garden at Great Dixter was laid out by Edward Lutyens and within its formal framework of yew hedges and topiary lies the playground where Lloyd enjoys himself, and has done since early childhood. There are scores of beautiful formal gardens in this country, but none I have visited has the vibrancy, the feeling of youth, vivaciousness and originality that Dixter has.

It's obvious that the gardener has never allowed himself to rest on his laurels. There are always some new plants he's excited about, or new plant combinations he's experimenting with, and during a visit these will be the first he'll show you. Not in an obvious way, he'll just lead you there, then watch for your reaction. If you don't react, he'll simply move on, if you pass the acid test he'll enthuse, but in a modest, dignified way, as befits a great plantsman: "Yes isn't that rather a good colour," or, "Yes, I'm quite pleased with that."

He takes credit where credit is due, and once, on remarking how perfectly-shaped one of his mahonias was, he retorted: "That's because we prune it."

He's renowned for his acerbic wit and has on more than one occasion alienated the horticultural establishment by calling a spade a spade. He's never been one to slavishly follow trends and fashions. Not one for "white gardens" or delicate pastel schemes, he's ruffled feathers with his daring colour combinations and caused furore when he replaced Dixter's traditional rose garden with an exotic planting of cannas, dahlias and bananas. Exotic gardens and juxtapositions of magenta and yellow have since become all the rage.

I first made Christopher's acquaintance in "The Adventurous Gardener", his seminal work, about 20 years ago. There he comes across as formidably knowledgeable, awe-inspiring, a man with a wicked sense of humour and one who doesn't suffer fools gladly. In person he is simply delightful, a kind and charming man with a springy head of white hair and a mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes. He's generous to a fault and I can't remember ever leaving Dixter without clutching a little assortment ofmuch-coveted young plants, dug up by Christopher during one of our gardenrounds.

Great houses can be forbidding places, cold, draughty and with an empty feel to them, especially those open to the public. When I first set eyes on Dixter Hall I said to myself: "The poor man, he must be rattling about like a pea in a pod in there."

He doesn't, he fills and warms all of that huge, ancient, timbered house. It's a wonderfully hospitable place. There are always flowers, arranged by the man himself,the subtle smell of beeswax, and in the winter, roaring log fires.

Christopher Lloyd is a phenomenon, a man of great energy and a vast range of skills and talents, one of our most influential gardeners, garden writers and horticultural lecturers, but I think he is above all these a "Lebenskuenstler". He knows how to enjoy life and the good things in life, how to forge and nourish friendships and how to indulge the senses.

He is a connoisseur of classical music and a regular visitor to Glyndebourne. You might find him stretched out like a cat in the grass, letting the sun warm his pelt, or sipping a glass of champagne on a Sunday morning "while the pious go to church." But this hedonistic playfulness is the reward of hard work, great discipline and strict adherence to routine

His culinary talents have been put on the wider map since the publication of Gardener Cook and in the kitchen of Great Dixter he reigns supreme. There's a lightness of touch (his is the best pastry I've ever tasted) and a simplicity to his cooking which brings out the best in the ingredients (and his dinner guests). There's also a seeming effortlessness to it all, brought about by his organisational skills and immaculate timing. Home-grown produce features large, from stewed fruit on the breakfast table to seasonal vegetables, always cooked to perfection. It was in his dining room I first tasted yellow raspberries and made friends with beetroot, simply baked in the oven - a revelation. It is one of my lasting regrets that I once had to turn downan invitation to lunch.

Over the 10 years I have known Christopher, he has mellowed a little with age, but he still roars and thunders at times, and he has eyes in the back of his head. Never let him catch you snipping off seed pods or taking shortcuts across the corner of a border. Only his dachshunds Dahlia and Canna are allowed to trespass now and again.

During one of our visits to Dixter, Anna, who was about five at the time, followed him to his study, and much to our surprise remained there while we packed the car and got ready for our journey north. Christopher Lloyd once met the great gardener Gertrude Jekyll, when he was a small boy and she a very old woman. A defining moment in his life, as Jekyll gave him a kind of gardener's blessing, and perhaps here, history was repeating itself. Convinced that he must have used his time with Anna to impart some (much needed) pearls of horticultural wisdom, I quizzed her impatiently as soon as we reached the main road: "Did he talk about plants?

Did he talk about gardens? What did he say?"

"He said shut the damn door."

Happy birthday, Christopher, and may you wield your trowel, pen and wooden spoon for many more years to come.