Life among the lilacs at Hampton Court

Interview / Graham Dillamore

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Graham Dillamore wants to unwind after work, he does it the way many Brits do: He heads for the garden.

But what makes this "green thumber" different is that he also tends roses and shrubs for a living - for royalty, no less.

Mr. Dillamore is deputy head gardener at Hampton Court Palace, one-time home of Henry VIII and, later, William III and Mary II. Though no royals live here now, the palace, near London, hosts one of the world's largest flower shows every summer, and it made headlines in 1995 for the elaborate renovation of its privy, or private, garden.

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More than a million people a year now stroll through the privy garden, pond gardens, hedge maze, and the long avenues of its east front gardens.

"The gardener has everything here," explains Dillamore, who has worked at the palace for a decade. "It has a rose garden, it has a herbaceous garden. We have more formal flower displays here at Hampton Court than most local [parks]."

On the grounds of the popular tourist spot, the affable Dillamore is known by his trademark hat. He rides his bike to work from the home he and his family share on the vast estate.

Dillamore is one of about 40 gardeners who tend the palace's 60 acres of formal gardens and 650 acres of parkland, where deer - descended from those Henry used to hunt - still roam.

Though he quips that Henry's idea of a garden was a place with animals in it that he could kill - it was the infamous king who structured the inviting gardens in basically the way they are found today, surrounding the 500-year-old palace on almost every side.

In spring and summer the grounds are at their most vibrant - offering a host of yellow daffodils in the wilderness area in April, and brightly colored flower displays set against deep green grass in July.

During peak seasons, the garden staff stays busy, mowing lawns in perfect criss-cross patterns, planting some 150,000 bulbs and 50,000 bedding plants, and tending the greenhouses.

"The gardens we've inherited are very, very labor-intensive," says Dillamore. "[They] stem from a period when manpower and resources had no real cost."

Since Hampton Court is not an occupied, palace, the staff doesn't have to worry about bumping into the queen while pruning the yews. But occasionally the royals do come to town.

In 1992, Queen Elizabeth II formally reopened the king's apartments - destroyed six years earlier by fire.

About that time, it was decided to renovate the privy garden, which was overgrown and obscuring views of the River Thames. When Prince Charles opened the renovated garden in 1995, it had been entirely overhauled. Before that, Dillamore says, it was "a real mess," full of "shrubbery we inherited from the Victorians."

Workers restored the garden as it was in 1702 for William, who altered the layout from Henry's time. Using invoices and historical records, gardeners were able to duplicate the flowers and plants William used.

Today the garden is full of cone-shaped yews, honeysuckle, lavender, and old roses.

"The beauty about this privy garden," says Dillamore, "is that even in the darkest depths of December, January, February, the structure of these formal topiary gardens really does give the garden a tremendous amount of interest. They maintain it right through the winter."

Dillamore is a stickler for historical accuracy in the garden. He says the gardeners could easily get rid of some of the less attractive specimens and plant some bright, sensational flowers, as is done at places like Versailles near Paris, where modern annuals grace the historic framework.

"But," he says, "we couldn't put our hand on our heart ... [and say] that the garden you see before you is a true re-creation of the garden from the early 18th century. And I want to be able to do that...."

Gardening is a lifetime profession for Dillamore. Early in his career, he came to London as an apprentice in the royal parks, learning the basics of the profession. Eventually he became head gardener at Kensington Palace, and in 1990 became deputy head gardener at Hampton Court, where the gardens are bigger and account for 15 percent of the palace's budget.

Dillamore, who spends much of his days on administrative tasks, says he looks forward to gardening at home. "It's a chance for me to do my own thing and get my hands dirty.... I think I'd rather sit outside in the garden than sit indoors, even in the pouring rain. I'm at home in a garden."

In his own garden, he has plants propagated from places where he's worked: dogwood from St. James's Park, rhododendron from Kensington Park called President Roosevelt ("a good one for you Americans," he jokes), and ivy - "you know ivy, you just sort of grab a piece of it and shove it in a pot, and away it goes."

At the palace, the pond gardens are Dillamore's favorite. Henry used to keep fish there, but William and Mary - well-known gardeners in their own right - saw the potential for something more attractive.

Here Dillamore gets a chance to experiment with modern flora.

Even with such modern opportunities, Dillamore says Hampton Court's real appeal to a gardener-in-charge is its massive historical potential.

"The privy garden, " he says, "is just a scratch on the surface of what can be done with the right research and resources."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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