Dr Stephen Head, environmentalist, discusses Music on the Moors

Steve Head talks shop about the 2MF's success at Chelsea

Dr Stephen Head – or Steve, as he likes to be called – is an environmental consultant, although he’s quick to stress that he’s semi-retired; in his words, “I swore that I would never work for any bastard full time again because I’ve had enough of it” – but he’s devoted the last few years to helping the Two Moors Festival, of which he used to be a trustee, along its path to success at the Chelsea Flower Show 2010. Here’s what he had to say.

How did this Chelsea Flower Show project begin for the Two Moors Festival (2MF)?

I don’t know whether it was sort of swelled by the collapse of the fallen piano – actually I think it happened before the fallen piano. Penny Adie [artistic director with the 2MF] was just thinking what we could do to broaden out the appeal of the festival and make more people outside the region know about it.

A lot of the point of the festival, apart from bringing music to the stalwarts on the moor that live there, is to actually bring people in from outside the area so they come in and spend money outside the normal tourist period. The festival was going along quite nicely, the opera Tarka the Otter had just finished and was successful and I think [Penny] thought she might have some free time to do some organising. So we started talking about it a long time ago, probably three or even four years ago and for a long time we suffered from the fact that we just didn’t really imagine that we would be capable of doing it.

We thought we would be going for a big garden because that’s what everyone thinks of and it was only really when we got Christina Williams on board and we decided to go for the smaller design that things started to take off. She’s known to many people on the moor in her own capacity as a friend to people and also because she’s a garden designer and it was felt that as a fairly new garden designer who had never done this show before she would be good value for money, if I may put it like that.

How much did it all cost to set up?

We had a budget for a little over £30,000 but there was a lot of contingency and we think that when it all comes together it might be a little below that but we’ve actually got enough – we think – not only to do the garden at Chelsea but also to recreate it at the Calvert Trust in North Devon.

Is it all going to be taken apart and reconstructed down there?

What I was thinking of doing was spreading magic dust over it and waving a magic wand over it and saying, “garden that in Chelsea lies, bugger off to North Devon and don’t cause any more hassle” – but I don’t think it’s going to work like that! It’s all going to be taken down on Saturday and we’re taking all the plants out that we want to reuse – which will be quite an effort – and then over the next two or three days the garden is going to be broken down by the contractor. The bits that we want will be loaded onto a truck and taken down again to Barnstaple and then as soon as we can they will be moved up to the Calvert Trust and they’re going to install the garden there.

What will happen to the rest of it?

There won’t be much left over. We probably will not reuse the moorland grass because it’s going to be really hard to manage at Calvert. What we’ll probably do is use heather instead because it’s probably going to be easier. It’s a question of keeping it looked after and we don’t want to be a nuisance for everybody.

What was your particular involvement with the garden?

To begin with, I was somebody who believed in the project and gave a lot of encouragement. Since then, I’ve taken on the role of essentially chairing the project and I had a fair bit to do with Penny on going up to the RHS, getting an idea of how much we should be expected to spend, helping a little bit with the fundraising. My only real goal was to help with the fundraising and to get the budget together – I did a bit of the auction as well. This was a sort of promises and items auction – Lady Arran let us use her ballroom and we invited lots of well-heeled people and we got quite a lot of lots together and a local auctioneer to come in. It made getting on for £20,000.

What sort of things were being sold?

Holidays, rides in airplanes, sculptures by one of the Dimblebys. I put in a wine glass which I think made a couple of hundred quid and I gave a talk on wildlife gardening and a consultancy to somebody to look after their pond. They made quite a lot of money – nearly £1,000 between the three of them. Lots of people opened their gardens on both moors – that brought in quite a lot of money but it also involved a lot of people and helped people to hear about it.

And both the Exmoor and Dartmoor national parks chipped in £5,000 from the sustainability fund – they really thought this was a very good way of advertising the parks outside the parks because an enormous audience goes to Chelsea and, of course, it’s on the television with an international audience, not just a British one.

How many people go to Chelsea?

It’s a staggering number. In 2007, 157,000 paying visitors over five days. I should think there are an awful lot of hangers-on, invitees and the royal family so I think it would be fair to say about 160,000 people – 51 per cent are female, 54 per cent are aged 54 or over and 50 per cent of them are in the AB top socioeconomic classes, which means they’re frightfully posh and have lots of money to spend.

Which is why the Pimms cost £5 a glass.

Ah, you bought a small glass. I bought a big one, which cost me nearly £10. And 20 per cent of the visitors come from overseas – that’s a very large number and that’s a measure of the fact that it is without any dispute the world’s top flower show.

Do you think it will do the festival a lot of good?

I think it’s really opened people’s eyes to the fact that there is a possibility [of going to stay in Devon and attending festival events]. I think it probably will have worked and done its job and of course it hasn’t actually cost the festival itself anything because the project has been entirely funded separately. It’s been completely cost neutral to the programme and has been infinitely good value for money.

Were you hands on with building the garden?

I wasn’t allowed to do any planting but I did help a bit with the actual construction. The garden rises very steeply towards the back and the first thing that means is that you can’t just pile the earth up – you’ve got to have a lot of heavy-duty wooden shuttering to box the earth in so that it doesn’t fall out of the back or push the wall over but when we got to the site we’d designed it assuming we were having flat ground and it rose up by 30 cm or so towards the back which meant we had to play around with the levels.

That’s why the pool in the middle is about 20cm higher than we wanted it to be. We initially said “oh shit”, but actually it’s better because of it. It’s got this sort of step structure which makes it much more three-dimensional and intimate. It’s also true that when anybody’s sitting in it, you can see them. That was a bit of good luck although it wasn’t expected. The buildup involved quite a lot of engineering and there’s a couple of enormous heavy stones – the celtic cross and the gatepost had to be lifted in by a long-armed crane. It really did need machinery – the cross was so heavy that the wretched machine nearly toppled over, it was only just able to lift it.

What was it like watching it come to fruition?

Fantastic, particularly because I wasn’t there every day. It was just mesmerising how it grew a lot on the first day – it just got bigger and bigger and every time I came it just jumped further and further. The really nice thing was how very we were actually quite ahead of ourselves – we didn’t have any last minute oh-my-gods and all the plants had about a day to settle in finally before the judges came round. That’s very good for the plants because they sort of relax in and say “oh, thank god for that, no more mucking about”.

What was the garden supposed to represent?

Exmoor and Dartmoor and the beauty and the quietness and green and tranquillity. Because they’re two different moors with different geology, we brought that out through use of appropriate stone in different parts of the garden. It also represents music for the Two Moors Festival and that’s represented through the music stand and the sound of running water which simulates the music. They wouldn’t let us play music within it.

The festival takes place inside churches on the moor so the willow arches represent the ecclesiastical windows of the church. Those are the three main things, but there are other bits and pieces. The other thing we wanted to represent was the moorlands, the actual contrast of vegetation, the rough vegetation of moorland and the rather natural planting in the garden of the valleys.

One of the overriding impressions seemed to be how it looked like it had been there for so long when it had only been a couple of days. They were quite amazed how the moss appeared to be growing through the stones. How was that effect achieved?

Whenever I’ve been to Chelsea in the past, I say how on earth do they make it look like that? Well, I know now. It’s really quite simple – you just sort of build it up. You leave lots of gaps between the stones, you wash the stones down carefully so they look pretty and then you ram bits of moss in there so it stays – it’s actually incredibly simple. We borrowed little ferns from moorland gardens – native ferns that live naturally in walls – and you carefully make a pocket and push the ferns in. You don’t have to have that many, you just put the ferns in amongst the moss and it makes it look fantastic.

Some people said they weren’t sure how nature and music were related.

I’ve yet to meet a gardener that doesn’t enjoy music and if you look at the number of pieces that celebrate landscape and flowers – there are huge interplays between them. Think of Beethoven’s sixth pastoral symphony – music is full of depiction of the landscape and the natural world. More than anything else, part of the ambition of the music festival is not just to produce music but to bring people to Exmoor and Dartmoor and what we’re doing is taking Exmoor and Dartmoor plus music to London and saying, “come on look what you’re missing”.

And judging from people’s reactions, do you think you’ve succeeded in that endeavour?

A lot of people told me that it was their favourite garden of all of them. They absolutely loved it, you could see that by the way they spent so much time in front of it and looking at it and asking all the questions and just saying how lovely it was. And the other amazing thing was that you could be standing there and you’d hear in the distance, “oh look Roger – that’s the music garden”. “Oh good,” says Roger. And they’d obviously seen it on the television and marked it down as one they really wanted to see. And that was very gratifying.

How does it feel to have a gold medal and the best courtyard garden award?

It feels very good – everybody wants a gold. We were warned beforehand that newcomers simply getting accepted at Chelsea is a real achievement and actually producing a garden at Chelsea is a real achievement and anything above that is exceptional, so to get a gold on the very first day is pretty good.

It’s a high award and we got best in show for the category of courtyard garden. Having seen it, I thought this is good, but you can always foul up with the judges – but this time we were told that the judges came to look at the garden and nobody could fault it in any way. The chair of the judges had never known it happen before and they were all absolutely knocked out by it so there was really no question at all that it was the top of the top. I think none of us can really believe it yet. I thought we’d get a silver to be quite honest but to get gold and best in show is fantastic.

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