Prior Park recruits youngest head gardener

Alice Palfrey with the Palladian Bridge at Prior Park in the background (c) National Trust / Clare Green

The youngest head gardener in the National Trust has just started worked at Prior Park Landscape Garden in Bath.

Alice Palfrey, who is 29, already has seven years of National Trust gardening and rangering under her belt. She comes to her new role with both experience of looking after Prior Park, and enthusiasm to take the garden forward and continue the process of restoring it to its 1764 state and the time of creator Ralph Allen’s death.

Alice’s first introduction to gardens and tree work came as a teenager with weekends spent helping her father, an arboricultural professional, with tasks in private gardens. While he carried out tree work and hedge cutting it was Alice’s task to man the chipper and ‘do the clearing up as he made a mess.’

One of Alice’s memories of this time was telling her dad that she would ‘never do any work like you when I am older.’ But with an inspirational tutor teaching environmental science at college, Alice was soon applying to study the subject at University.

A four month trip to Madagascar followed university, and Alice fell in love with plants while playing a part in planting up mangroves and reestablishing reefs. Despite the tropical surroundings, Alice’s love of the English countryside soon brought her back to the UK, with an urge to play her part in conservation work closer to home.

Alice took up a full-time volunteer gardener/ranger position with the National Trust at Dyrham Park in 2010, and hasn’t looked back since.

The opportunity to work in both a formal garden and open parkland gave her experience with varying landscapes, and she developed a preference and passion for wider landscapes, as well as the tractors and chainsaws that come as part of the job. Alice soon joined the Bath Skyline ranger team, before deciding that landscape gardening was for her and becoming a full time Prior Park gardener in 2013.

Retired Head Gardener Matthew Ward hands over the Head Gardener mug to Alice Palfrey (c) National Trust / Clare Green

Her favourite jobs in the garden are mowing – a task that seems to be a firm favourite with a lot of gardeners, and also felling. Alice’s chainsaw skills are often called upon as work continues to open up areas and restore views that have closed in through much neglect over the last 250 years.

Alice says: ‘I feel so lucky to be looking after Prior Park – the National Trust really does provide access to some extraordinary places and experiences, so people come to value them and are moved to look after them. Our visitors to the garden are soon engrossed in the quiet peacefulness that Prior Park provides.’

Looking forward, which projects is Alice looking forward to getting stuck into? The restoration of the 18th-century dams are high on the list of priorities, plus a big emphasis on planting.

Alice explains how the Cabinet, at the top of the garden would have been a showcase piece of 18th-century planting, crammed full of botanical treasures. Alice will of course ensure that only species present in Britain during creator Ralph Allen time will be used. Completing the list of top three priorities is a desire to restore the thatched house – one of the lost Georgian garden structures, a little retreat by the lakes for visitors to enjoy.

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