Spotlight on Tricia Harris and Helmsley Walled Garden

by Marianne Long
Published: Last Updated on

What is your background?

After a degree in English Literature at Sheffield, my first job was as a library student for Essex County Libraries. After working in BBC Libraries and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), I’d had enough and thought I was tired of marketing. After an unhappy stab at an MA in Landscape Architecture, I went to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, initially as an intern, and then on their trainee programme. During this time I came upon holiday to North Yorkshire where my husband and I fell in love with the county. We moved up here—it is a step we have never regretted for a second.

Q When did you get involved with Helmsley Walled Garden?

I started work here as a part-time gardener in 2010 and combined that with the role of marketing and communications from 2014. It’s a busy job that all my previous career history has prepared me for.

Q What is the history of the Garden?

The castle was built between the 12th and 13th centuries and the garden was part of its grounds. On the death of the Duke of Buckingham—he died out hunting in 1687 without an heir—it was bought by Charles Duncombe, a London financier and one of the founders of the Bank of England in 1694. He built Duncombe Park in what had been the deer park of the castle.
The Garden comprises 5 acres and is just over 250 years old. Built in 1758, it was the kitchen garden for the ‘big house’ and grew flowers and fruit but also the exotic newly discovered pineapple! Glasshouses were used from 1783 for vines, figs and peaches.

World War I changed everything. The 1st Earl was killed in 1915 at the Somme, the family moved out and the house became a girls’ school until 1980.

The garden became a market garden from the 1940s up to 1984. The gate was then locked and the garden fell into decay until rescued by Alison Ticehurst in 1994. Clearing alone took 2 years—pigs, geese and ducks were used to grub out roots. In 1999 the garden became a charity. Alison died very suddenly that year. Alison’s garden was planted in 2013 as a tribute to the woman who had a vision to start the garden when it was a derelict wreck and opened the way for it becoming a visitor attraction with around 20k visitors a year as well as a provider of therapeutic horticulture.

Q On your website you say: “Helmsley Walled Garden was, in essence, a garden for its community”. Please explain how?

Alison Ticehurst was ahead of her time in her understanding of the importance of community, and the importance for individuals to have a sense of belonging. This is still today at the core of everything we do at HWG.
Although the garden attracts a huge number of visitors every summer, we see some of our local residents visiting the garden almost every day. Many of our volunteers live locally and see the garden as a place where they can meet old friends, make new ones and contribute to the preservation and development of a beautiful and tranquil space that is loved by so many.
We have links with other local charities and community groups, encouraging them to enjoy the garden for free. We are welcoming Countryside Learning to the garden for the first time this year, enabling groups of primary school children to come and enjoy HWG as an outdoor classroom for a range of activities.

Q How can the Garden help with people’s wellbeing?

The concept of physical and mental wellbeing is of enormous importance to HWG, our staff and our volunteers. Therapeutic horticulture is about gardening for the soul and our mission is to engage all of our volunteers, whatever their background, skills and abilities in work that is not only appropriate to the individual, but also meaningful and enjoyable. The wellbeing of our visitors is equally important and we encourage our visitors to take their time when they visit the garden, to hear the birdsong and to spend time being still in this wonderful space. We hope that our visitors will leave not only with a sense of wellbeing but with an understanding that they can find solace in gardens and gardening beyond the walls of HWG.

Q Does the Charity receive grants or funding?

We receive funding from various organisations to support the work we do. In 2020 we were fortunate enough to have revenue funding from the Brelms Charitable Trust, from the Charles & Elsie Sykes Foundation and from the Jack Brunton Charitable Trust for our volunteer coordinator post. In the same year we received emergency Covid funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and this, along with our massively successful public appeal, saved the garden from having to permanently close due to the pandemic.

Another more recent appeal has enabled us to carry out much-needed work on our Orchid House with additional funding coming from a number of funders including the North York Moors Park Authority, the Kirkby Foundation, and North Yorkshire County Council. Our key income is the admission fee which, along with gift aid, supports the running costs of the garden. Plant and shop sales are also an important and growing source of revenue for the garden. Every penny spent in the garden by our visitors supports the work that we do and we have been surprised and delighted by the response of the public to our various appeals over the years.

Q What do volunteers do at the Garden? Do you need more people to get involved?

We have no full-time horticulturists so the garden is maintained by our volunteers, guided by our volunteer coordinators Heather and Robyn. Volunteers also run our admissions kiosk and shop, give garden tours to groups, talk to visitors in the garden and undertake general maintenance. Volunteers are at the heart of everything we do and we would not be here without them.

We now have over 80 volunteers at the garden plus our team of 9 volunteer trustees who support and progress much of the work behind the scenes. We try to accommodate anyone who would like to volunteer at the garden in any capacity that we can. Volunteer mentors, who are happy to give a bit of extra support to some of our volunteers, are particularly welcome at the moment. Our mentoring scheme, ‘Over the Garden Gate’, is about ensuring that all of our volunteers benefit equally from their involvement with the garden.

Q Are you changing planting in the Garden to help (or cope) with climate change?

Much of the herbaceous planting in the garden is well established and forgiving enough to take anything the elements might be able to throw at it. One of our biggest challenges is the emerging dry season we are seeing from April to June, with baking hot days and cold nights. Plants are just coming out of dormancy and often new young leaves are frosted or newly-planted areas suffer from drought. Our approach is to try and ensure that new planting is done, as far as possible, in the winter months. We are also seeing long spells of torrential rain which makes it very hard for us to do any work in the garden with our volunteers as keeping off the soil when it is wet is very important in preserving soil structure. We tend to avoid watering the garden as much as possible, looking to keep our use of freshwater to a minimum. The garden takes sustainability very seriously and our own practice is focused on reducing our impact on climate change. From staff and volunteer car-sharing initiatives to using peat-free compost, we look to minimise our carbon footprint on a daily basis.

Q What is your proudest moment?

That’s a tough one, but I think it would be being the featured garden in Country Life in their Best of British edition.

Q Do you have any events planned for 2022?

We are thrilled to have open-air theatre with The Three Inch Fools again this summer. This year’s plays are a new take on The Gunpowder Plot and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Tickets will go on sale soon and both shows are family-friendly. In the best theatre tradition, the show will go on regardless of the weather so bring everything from sun hats to umbrellas.
We also have Flora and Thread: an exhibition from The Captain Cook Museum in Whitby. A fabric tent has been decorated with the flora discovered By Sir Joseph Banks on James Cook’s first trip around the world.
Embracing Wool is an exhibition created by textile artists in Yorkshire and the surrounding area, primarily working with and promoting the use of wool as a medium for their artistic work.

Q What does the future hold for the Garden?

So much, we want to undertake the renovation of the rest of the glasshouses. Also to improve all our paths, our facilities for recycling and water harvesting. We have plans to increase our own plant propagation, growing more of the beautiful plants we have, so our visitors are able to take home something they’ve enjoyed in one of our colourful borders. We are creating more ‘family friendly’ spaces in the garden this year, looking to encourage families to stay longer and take their time in the garden. This summer we are looking forward to opening our newly restored Orchid House and are hoping to build our collection of exotic plants for the enjoyment of our visitors. HWG is looking forward to a bright future where we become more sustainable, in every sense, and look to benefit as many individuals from our community as we can.


Owl or Lark? Lark.

Q What did you want to be when you grew up? When I was very young, I wanted to be either Calamity Jane or Morticia Addams. After that, a writer. But in the end, my favourite book as a small child was The Secret Garden and so it’s not a huge surprise I ended up in a walled garden in Yorkshire.

Q If you could only have one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be? On a good day, I’d say vegetables with herbs and spices so that I could have something different every day. On a bad day, I’d say chips.

Q Favourite plant? Dahlias. I maintain the dahlia collection here and they are my babies.

Q Favourite place in Helmsley Walled Garden? It changes with the seasons but the best place to sit and ponder life is the Garden of Contemplation.

Q Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh? Neither. I’d go for Chris Beardshaw

Q Who would you have at a dinner party and why? Barack and Michelle Obama, Charles Dickens, Amin Maalouf, Bettany Hughes and Mary Beard because they have all inspired and challenged me at various times.

Q Favourite holiday destination and why? Italy, for the history, the landscape, the language, the food, the art, the Roman remains.

Q Who is your biggest inspiration? Right now, the team I’m part of are truly inspirational. Everyone brings different strengths and ideas and are a collective inspiration. I find solace and strength in music, art and laughter, so I find composers such as Mozart, artists such as John Atkinson Grimshaw (no one paints moonlight as he did) and comedians such as the late and very great Victoria Wood and Morecambe and Wise give me joy and laughter which is always a great place for inspiration to start.

Q I couldn’t get through the weekend without…books, tea, cats and dear friends.

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Marianne Long
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