Give it up!

15th July 2005 at 01:00
Retirement is a time for taking up golf and tending your rose bushes... or helping a team of volunteers turn a building site into a public garden

Tom Pattinson is 63. He retired early as deputy headteacher of Rothbury middle school, Morpeth in 2000 after nearly 30 years as a science teacher.

But he will always be a gardener at heart.

Volunteer role Gardener and tour guide at Alnwick Garden, a public garden run by a charitable trust set up by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland in 2002.

What drew you to Alnwick?

I met Ian August, the garden liaison director, many years ago when he asked me to advise the head gardener at the former Duchess Elizabeth's garden. I had a national diploma in horticulture and used to work for Northumberland's parks department. I was also writing gardening articles for the local paper, which I still do.

When the current duchess, Jane, invited me to help organise volunteer gardeners for her yet-to-be-opened public garden I said yes immediately. I felt like the Queen's nephew wandering around that undeveloped site.

How much time do you give?

I am in the garden about four days a week. On Mondays I help with hands-on gardening, whatever needs to be done, and on the other days I act as a guide for groups of visitors, often schoolchildren.

Did you receive any training?

Because of my qualifications I didn't need much gardening training, but that doesn't mean to say I have nothing to learn from the likes of Chris Gough, the head gardener. The trust offers in-service courses and I have taken part in first aid training, and willow-weaving to create plant supports.

What do you enjoy the most?

Apart from the gardening, I love leading groups of professional gardeners around and chatting to visitors as I work. Although all the volunteers work hard, there is also a strong social element. The trust works hard to create a family atmosphere, so every volunteer feels a valued member of the whole team.

...and the least?

Visitors who just come to criticise. The garden is a work in progress. It was designed so that the public could see its development, so there is always work going on and contractors on site. It always amazes me that people can come and stand in this beautiful place and moan "it's still a building site".

Has volunteering changed you?

I love to feel useful and that I am doing something worthwhile. I identify with the idea of the project and watching it develop has added to my life.

Would you recommend it?

I'm afraid I do evangelise. I try to persuade the members of my local gardening club to get involved, if only by becoming friends of the garden.

I hope that my enthusiasm will rub off.

Tom Pattinson was talking to Alison Shepherd. www.alnwickgarden.com; www.yearofthevolunteer.org

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