Horticulturalist Roy Lancaster is proud of his Lancashire roots
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 May 2017
Bolton’s Roy Lancaster has crossed continents hunting for rare plants. Now he has told his life story and his love of the natural world. Roger Borrell reports.
YOU would expect a man who has been on plant hunting expeditions to remote corners of China to have a keen sense of geography. But Roy Lancaster, probably the most respected horticulturalist of his generation, also has strong views concerning matters much closer to home.
‘I was born in Farnworth but that’s because the hospital was there. I’m a Bolton lad through and through,’ he says. ‘That makes me a proud Lancastrian. I don’t hold with all that Greater Manchester nonsense.’
Like all good gardeners, Roy has never forgotten his roots and his early days as the son of cotton mill workers growing up in a terrace in Astley Bridge, which forms a fascinating part of his new book, My Life with Plants.
Reading his story, it’s impossible not to hear that wonderful Lancastrian burr resonate from the pages – it’s an accent that has captivated and inspired radio and television audiences for generations.
It certainly hasn’t been dulled by decades living in Hampshire with his wife, Sue, and the years – he’s in his 80th – most definitely haven’t taken the edge off his memory. He speaks passionately about his home county, his love of places such as Silverdale and Ainsdale, and of a childhood full of happiness that allowed him to run wild with his pals across the Lancashire countryside.
‘We would escape whenever we could,’ he says. ‘On weekends and light summer evenings we would go off to what we called the Land of the Lost. I think that name came from watching Tarzan films at the Belle cinema.’
Back then, plants didn’t feature high on his list of interests. His passions were bird-watching and train-spotting. ‘I spent many hours in railway sheds across the north,’ he says. ‘I used to catch football specials because they were cheaper. I remember going to Newcastle for an FA Cup match against Gateshead. The Bolton fans got off the train and headed for the ground while I went to the railway sheds. I had a marvellous time.’
His father had small gardens, back and front, with ‘privet hedges that gave off that sickly smell when in flower and a laburnum tree I was told to keep away from because of the poisonous pods.’ It’s a tree he would later see growing wild in Switzerland and Italy.
‘Dad grew dahlias, chrysanthemums, roses, snapdragons, stocks and wallflowers,’ he says. ‘Carts driven by the rag and bone man and the pop man used to come into our street. I can remember it like yesterday – my younger sister and I were sent out to collect any horse manure for the garden.’
It was a childhood full of adventures roaming across the moors and into Smithills Woods. ‘I remember an old garden that was very overgrown with bamboo and burdock plants. We’d cut the bamboo to make our Zulu spears and used the huge burdock leaves as umbrellas.’
While at Castle Hill County Secondary School, Roy and his best pal Clifford Hayes joined the Bolton Field Naturalists’ Society. They were the only two boys in a club where members were keen to impart their knowledge to young minds thirsting for knowledge.
‘I didn’t know it at the time but my grandfather had been a member of the society. He was interested in herbs and used to collect coltsfoot to make a cheap form of tobacco. It was also used to make coltsfoot rock, sold on the local markets in Bolton and Oldham as a medicinal sweet.’
His love of bird-watching was also stoked by one of his teachers who turned Wednesday afternoons into trips devoted to ornithology. ‘That was like paradise for us.’
It was on one of these trips that Roy made his first mark in the world of botany. He spotted an unusual plant growing in an allotment, hopped over the fence and took a leaf and flower to check it in a school book on plants. Drawing a blank, he went to Bolton Museum where a well-known Lancashire botanist Alfred Hazelwood sent it to the Natural History Museum.
Eventually, Roy got a letter back from the experts in London saying it was a Mexican tobacco plant and this was the first recorded discovery in Lancashire. What’s more, it was only the second time it had been seen in the British Isles.
‘I showed the letter to the teacher and the headmaster insisted on getting me out at assembly and reading the letter,’ says Roy. ‘I was a shy lad and this was a football mad school that produced Nat Lofthouse. I just wanted a hole to open and for me to fall in as all the other kids looked baffled by why I would be picking flowers. I suppose it gave me a certain amount of fame – they used to point me out as the kid in the clogs who found the rare plant.’
Roy left school when he was 15 and joined Bolton Parks department where he was known as ‘The Nipper,’ responsible for the gardeners’ cabin, tea making and running errands for essential items such as the lunchtime pies.
Eventually, two of the senior gardeners took him under their wing and offered to teach him not just about gardening and plants but also their Latin names.
‘They told me I wouldn’t get on unless I learned them so I agreed to put in the effort and they taught me three names a day.
‘I worked really hard and learning those names led to me into the history of the plants and the wild places they came from, the kings and queens who had been around when they had been discovered, the famous gardeners and plant hunters and the medicinal uses. I wanted to see them in the wild. I owe a lot to those two men.’
Roy’s apprenticeship came to an abrupt halt when he was called up for National Service in the 1950s, joining the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and being dispatched to the Far East during what was known as the Malayan Emergency, in effect a war between Commonwealth troops and Communist insurgents.
Roy’s jungle training and 18 months of service might have been gruelling but it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to learn about exotic plants and wildlife.
‘I really blossomed there. It was the most amazing time. Even though I was one of the smallest soldiers they made me a Bren gunner and I had to carry this heavy thing around with magazines of bullets.’
Fortunately, his jungle fatigues had voluminous trouser pockets and this allowed him to collect specimens wherever he went. ‘I’d collect all manner of insects…spiders, scorpions and I even had a whip snake as a pet. When we got back from patrol, the other lads would slump onto their beds while I was pressing plants under my mattress! ‘Yes, they did think I was an oddball but when they made me company secretary and I was stuck in an office, the lads would collect for me. One came back with a giant bird eating spider.’
After he was demobbed, instead of returning north Roy became a trainee at Cambridge University Botanic Garden but it was his 18 years at what was to become the world-famous Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire that brought him to national and then international attention, receiving an OBE followed by a CBE and becoming a regular on Gardeners’ World and Gardeners’ Question Time.
In the 1980s he developed his freelance career, one he continues today as a broadcaster, a prolific writer and a hugely popular lecturer with a worldwide audience.
His well documented plant hunting expeditions to China and Russia produced more books which set the standard for botanists. It’s clear his passion for the subject burns as brightly as ever - but not everything in the garden is rosy.
‘I heard one of the saddest things the other day,’ he says. ‘The Bolton Field Naturalists Society, founded in 1907, is being closed due to a lack of interest. Apparently, the older members are getting too old and they can’t get younger people interested in joining.
‘What does it say about us if a society which filled so many young minds and launched so many careers - careers that will have taken them around the world - is no longer wanted?’
However, while Roy thinks we should watch a little less gardening on television and do a bit more in our gardens, he is optimistic about the future.
‘Gardeners are the happiest people,’ he says. ‘All you need is a packet of seeds and patience. The whole world can open up for you – whether it’s a pea or a tree.’
And he certainly doesn’t feel 80. ‘I only have to start talking about flowers and my energy levels rise,’ he says.
He’s coming home
Roy has been a regular broadcaster but he has stepped back from television, feeling that modern formats only wanted soundbites. However, he is hoping to make a television series based on his new book with another gardening doyen from Lancashire, Carol Klein.
You can see him in person later this year when he talks about his book at Bolton Central Library and Museum on Saturday, September 30. There will also be a free fun garden and animal themed family activities on offer from 11am to 3pm.
Roy Lancaster has published his autobiographical book, My Life with Plants, published by Filbert Press, in association with the Royal Horticultural Society, and priced £25. It takes the reader on a journey that staretd with his apprenticeship in Bolton to curatorship of the Hillier Gardens and Arboretum and a freelance career, which has seen him work as a plant hunter in China, Japan, Russia, North and South America and most of Europe.
His own garden in Hampshire is only one third of an acre but it contains a thousand different plants and one of them was named after him - the Hypericum lancasteri. It is a small shrub bearing flowers with red-tinted sepals snd golden petals.
Roy was awarded both the Veitch Memorial Medal in 1972 and the Victoria Medal of Honour in 1988 by the Royal Horticultural Society and an OBE in the 1999 New Year’s Honours. In 2014, he was appointed a CBE ‘for services to horticulture and charity.’
Looking back on his life, he said: ‘If I was asked about my greatest achievement it has been encouraging young people.’