Passed/Failed: An education in the life of the television gardener Chris Beardshaw

Author: Interview by Jonathan Sale

My most vivid memory of Pitmaston Primary School, in an old manor house on the
outskirts of Worcester, was of the three yew trees in the playground. Their
boughs touched the ground and when you went under them you were in this
almost cathedral-like enclosure. Only later did I discover that some of my
favourite cultivars of the apple were bred in the grounds of that manor
house in the early 1800s, and we still cultivate them now.

I was only there for 12 months as my parents decided to renovate an old house
in the middle of nowhere, and I went to the small Church of England primary
school in Broadwas village. It probably had no more than 35 children, and.
there were not enough of us boys to make a full football team without
enrolling some of the girls. I was the captain.

It was a fabulous school, at the heart of the community. I never remember not
wanting to be there. There were three classes and a nursery, and teaching
was very much tailored to each individual child. Yet I’d have been a dead
loss if all I’d done had been in the classroom, as I spent much of my time
looking out of the window at the river valley and the cows on the flood
plain. Most of my learning took place outside school.

I had known that I wanted to spend my life working with plants since my fourth
birthday, when I was given a plant propagator, a packet of seeds and a
watering can, and by the time I left primary school, I was working every
weekend at a plant nursery.

At 11, I had a 10-mile bus ride back into Worcester to the Bishop Perowne
School. (Apparently there were two bishops, but whoever carved the name in
stone accidentally dropped the final “s”.) The school was fabulous
and I felt completely at home. There was a maximum of 100 in each of the
five years, and the ethos was of individual learning and caring: you felt a
sense of belonging and pride.

I knew I wanted to study at Pershore [part of Warwickshire College] for the
National Diploma in Horticulture. By the time I was 12 or 13, I had visited
the college and spoken to the principal about what subjects I needed to get
at O-level. I got eight O-levels, which included biology, geology and
geography, and got the highest grades in my school that year. I had worked
out my courses at college, but the [external] careers teacher tried to
persuade me to join the Navy: “You don’t want to take up farming!”

I did a year’s work experience at a plant nursery, then went to Pershore
College. I was the youngest student ever, and had to sign a letter promising
that I wouldn’t go into the college bar until I was 18! The first and third
years were academic, and for my placement in the second year, I went to the
nursery at which I’d worked previously. I was 19 when I left, and I then
worked for 15 months at one of the country’s largest nurseries.

I went on to study landscape architecture ? BA Hons and a postgraduate diploma
? at Cheltenham College (which is now the University of Gloucestershire).
The three years of the BA course were fantastic, just the most enlightening
experience, primarily because of two lecturers: Alan Steves-Booker, an
architect-turned-artist, and James Wilson, a wonderful plantsman with a
passion for all things horticultural. I got a 2.1.

I am now part of an initiative that has just launched a website that offers a
career service to anyone thinking of studying horticulture
(www.growcareers.info). At school, there was no perception of what
horticulture was. I remember that when I told one of the teachers that I
wanted to work in a nursery, he asked, “Why do you want to work with
young children?”.

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