TWO years ago the Horniman Museum embarked on an ambitious redevelopment programme – to totally revamp and transform its award winning gardens.Last week they were formally re-opened to the public by garden designer, TV presenter and the museum's patron Joe Swift.
I took a stroll with him to check it out
Perched on the top of a hill just off the south circular the Horniman Museum is one of the jewels in south London's crown.It has graced Forest Hill for more than 100 years and is set in 16 acres of gardens.
In the past these gardens have often been overlooked by visitors keen to see the artefacts in the museum which was established in 1901by Victorian philanthropist and tea trader Frederick Horniman.
But not any more. After a £2.3million refurb and 16 months hard graft by head gardener Gordon Lucas and his team, they have been extensively remodelled, re-landscaped and opened up, to reveal a stunning collection of interlinking spaces.
The gardens were formally re-opened on Thursday last week by garden designer, TV presenter and museum Patron, Joe Swift.
He arrived fresh from triumphing at the Chelsea Flower Show the previous week where he picked up a gold medal for his first show garden at the popular horticultural event.
Wearing his distinctive fedora hat, he is every bit as affable, chatty and down to earth as he appears on TV.
What is apparent from the off as I join him on a tour of the new and improved features is his passion and enthusiasm for the Horniman and its now "fantastic" gardens.
“I love this space,” he smiles enthusiastically, gesturing to the vast expanse before us.
“It’s fantastic. There is so much to see and it's like a celebration. Last time I came here was in the autumn. Just seeing it all finished and the way it frames the views across London is amazing.”
Joe was invited to be part of the project when the idea was first mooted two years ago but is very modest about his involvement.
"They asked me to be patron three years ago and then Gordon [Lucas] showed me the designs and it all made perfect sense.
"I was asked for my input and gave a few planting ideas but really they had everything pretty much spot on."
Looking around it's easy to see why Joe is so impressed.
Work done includes the refurbishment of the sunken garden,the display gardens, the restoration of the 100-year-old Bandstand and the creation of a new specialist plant area.
Other new additions include a Sound Garden with a musical play area and a Community Food Garden.
Later this year an open area for the animals will also be introduced.
The most significant development has been the introduction of a Gardens Pavilion, complete with a living sedum roof and ground source heat pump, which will be used by schools and other groups to learn more about the museum’s collections and how they link in with the gardens.
It is, Joe says, an amazing achievement.
"What has been recreated here is exactly what was inthe brief and Gordon and his team have done a brilliant job in bringing it to life.
"The quality of the planting is outstanding and the way it all links together and brings a sense of what's in the museum, outside, is incredible. I’m proud to be involved."
What makes him smile most is the many children clearly enjoying and exploring the new and improved space.
"Seeing them here today having fun in what is basically an enormous outdoor classroom – that’s what it’s all about – making a connection with nature.
“That’s why what has been achieved here is so great as it offers kids the chance to get out into the open air and learn about nature, plants, the environment and where food comes from."
It's this passion for educating the horticulturists of the future that fires him up.
"In times of austerity it's always horticulture and the arts which are the first to get their funds cut and it's so short sighted. We don't value them enough which is madness as we are supposed to be a nation of gardeners!
"We need more investment to train the horticulturists of the future. We need to grow more of our own plants, reclaim land for community spaces and invest in real gardeners.
“This redevelopment is so important as it shows the value of horticulture at a grassroots level. It should be an exemplar for others to follow. It's inspiring and I think Gordon is a legend for what he has achieved."
Pausing for breath, Joe is asked to give youngsters from Horniman Primary School a hand with some planting. Without a word, his jacket is off, sleeves are rolled up and he gets stuck in to the obvious delight of the kids and their teachers.
Afterwards he chuckles and says: "Actually they didn't need me - they seem to know what to do which is fantastic!"
I ask him which his favourite bit of the park is.
"Well that's a really tricky one,” he says. “I love the borders and the World Food Garden is very interesting. But the entire planting scheme is just so great, I love it all really. Just seeing plants growing and kids getting a kick out of it all is excellent!”
Before he goes off to explore the gardens properly, I ask him what his next project is now he's achieved his goal of designing a show garden for Chelsea.
"I'd like a bit of a rest to be honest," he laughs.
"I'd wanted to do Chelsea for such a long time but never got round to it as it takes a year of your life.
"I had been presenting the show for 10 years and this time last year I decided it was now or never and to make it happen. And I'm so pleased I did.
"I couldn't have made a better garden and the fact my gardening heroes Cleve (West), Dan (Pearson), Andy (Sturgeon) and Chris (Bradley-Hole) came and said they liked it was the icing on the cake. To win gold was like winning the World Cup though - it was just fantastic!
"However, it was a lot of hard work as it's all about the quality and the right plants and the spacing. The creative process was intense and the three weeks of construction were hard work
"I won't be doing it again though!"
I tell him this is a shame but he says he wants to concentrate on his presenting and his passion for creating urban community spaces.
Not bad for someone who didn't know what to do when he left school.
"I've been very lucky. I went to art college and was in a band and then went travelling and worked in a kibutz in Israel and realised I wanted to be outdoors. A job driving vans for a gardening company in north London followed before someone asked him to design a garden.
It was he said a pivotal moment. "I had no idea where to start but it was such an exciting thought that I decided to train as a gardener and I never looked back."
In between his TV commitments, presenting Gardener's World Live on the BBC each year and other gardening shows, he runs his own garden design company.
"This is my passion and in particular creating community spaces. We have so many areas crying out to be taken over and looked after by people who want to create little enclaves of tranquility and space in their communities."
He is currently filming a new series where he works with groups to create such areas.
"It's so satisfying because everyone is so enthusiastic. It's great to work with people who are so passionate and it's hugely rewarding for me."
And with that he's off to explore and inspire the next generation of gardeners.