Twenty years of tending Palace Gardens

IT has been 20 years since James Cross was interviewed by the then Bishop of Bath and Wells, Peter Price, his wife Dee and a panel of four for the newly created position of Head Gardener at The Bishop’s Palace and Gardens in Wells.

Having trained at Hadlow College in Kent and at Sissinghurst Castle Gardens under Sarah Cook and Alexis Data, James spent five and a half years at Courts Garden, a National Trust garden in Wiltshire, under Troy Scott-Smith. With his background James was ready for the challenge of Head Gardener and very excited at the prospect.

James’ move to the Palace in February 2004 supported the ambition of Bishop Peter Price to develop the gardens into a more professional, diverse and profitable destination for visitors to enjoy, using both historic and contemporary garden design ideas.

The Palace Trust – the charitable organisation which manages the Palace site – looked very different in 2004 to the current thriving visitor attraction in Wells which is now open to visitors year-round. The gardens in 2004 were open only from Easter to October half term and the cafe, now a year-round destination located next to the croquet lawn, was housed within the Palace’s Undercroft and open for only half the year. There were fewer than 25,000 visitors a year in 2004 – now there are more than 500,000 visitors to the site each year.

James says: “I remember my first big project was creating the romantic, English garden style inspired Phelps Garden which is still one of my favourite developments. When I arrived at the Palace this area was a blank canvas; much like the rest of the gardens. I wanted to create something that related to the historic Victorian parterre that was originally in this part of the garden. Bishop Peter was away when we ripped up the turf and his look of surprise when he returned was something I’ll never forget, although he was very happy with the outcome.

“Another highlight for me has been meeting so many inspiring and accomplished gardeners, including Roy Lancaster, Matt Biggs and Alan Titchmarsh, when the Palace held its popular summer Garden Festivals. I am very lucky to have my team Rob, Jo, Colin and Tracey who are fantastic, and my volunteers are incredible. We now have 25 regular garden volunteers and many Community Garden volunteers who help us achieve so much.

“The generosity of people is something I am very grateful for, both in the sharing of their time and skills with me but also those people that have donated towards the projects that could not have happened without them.”

And for the next 20 years? James says: “I hope to continue developing the gardens and keeping them as diverse and exciting as possible but now it will be time to rejuvenate the borders we started 20 years ago. In places completely redesigning them and in others changing them to reflect the changes in the climate and using plants that can tolerate the more extreme rainfall and temperatures.”