Our Great West Way: David Glass

David Glass has been the head gardener at Bowood House, the family home of the Marquis of Lansdowne, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, for 12 years. 

How did you end up at Bowood? Did you always want to be a gardener?
No, not at all, I came here by chance, it was never planned. In was born into a farming family in Foxham and helped run two dairy and arable farms with my mum, dad and brother. I was a farmer through and through and was always going to be.

So how did the Bowood job come about?
The incomes on the farm were tight, so I started picking up bits of other work locally just to supplement the income. I was milking some cows at Heddington just down the road one morning when the landowner came in. He was asking if anyone could so some part-time gardening up at Bowood because they were short of gardeners.
I wasn’t interested because it wasn’t me at all. Someone I was working with said ‘that would suit you, you could do it between milking cows.' As he said it the landowner came in and this other chap said ‘David’s interested’. The next morning, I was up at Bowood having an interview. Although I was a keen gardener at home, as far as I was concerned I was a farmer. But they asked if I could come in a few hours every week and it just grew from there.

Was it easy to get the hang of the new job?
To begin with I was just weeding borders! But at the same time I started, Lord Lansdowne brought in Rosie Abel-Smith as a gardening consultant. Rosie and I hit it off straight away. It is all down to her, she really inspired me. Obviously my growing skills were there from my farming background but my individual plants skills weren’t there, so she mentored me really. I used to do the kitchen garden for mum and dad when I was a boy, but this was completely different.Lord Lansdowne’s philosophy is that the gardens need to look their best for the whole season and they have to have a wow factor. That was what Rosie was brought in for.

How much of the gardens at Bowood are you responsible for?
We are responsible for about seven acres of gardens. There are the borders around the house, the terraces and the walkways. Then there is the kitchen garden, which supplies vegetables for the family, the restaurant and the hotel. There is also a garden growing fresh flowers for the house and the hotel. There are the gardens around the 43-bedroomed hotel on the estate and then there are four walled gardens that are all one acre each. In the walled gardens we also have greenhouses and the estate’s grapevine.

Bowood House During the Summer

That’s a lot of gardens. How many people do you have taking care of them?
There are just four of us working full-time to take care of it all so there is always plenty to do! I have one gardener who looks after the front of the house, another who looks after the borders and then there is the kitchen gardener. Everyone has their areas and I know exactly where they all are and what they are all doing. I work between them all with whoever needs the help, plus I’ve got my own things to do as well.

What’s a typical day like for you?
I usually get in about 7.30am. The first job is to check with white board we have where everyone writes down the jobs they see that need doing. It might be a plant that has blown over or come away from a wall or something that isn’t doing as well as it should. Then I go to the greenhouses to check what has happened overnight. We grow as much as possible from seed, so the greenhouses are pretty vital to the operation. For instance, all the geraniums are taken from cuttings. We propagate them and then replant them for the next season. We all meet for coffee about 10am and then stop again for lunch. We talk about how the day is going and plan the afternoon. I tend to finish about 4.30pm. I’m quite good now at making sure I get away. There is always something else to do in the garden, it would be really easy to stay late every night and just finish that one last job. But I’ve learnt that it will always still be there the next morning.

Do you have an office?
Yes but I’m never in there! I’m out in the garden 90 per cent of the time. I should be in there more really.

What’s the biggest task for you and your team at Bowood?
We are constantly changing the borders and the displays. There are huge, huge borders here and the plants have got to look good from when they start to grow at the start of the season right though to when they die off or die down. Things like a lupin will look great for three weeks of the year but for the rest of year it will just look like a yellowy, unhealthy plant. I try to weed those sort of things out because I want the garden to look good all the way through the season.

What grows well at Bowood?
It’s more a case of what doesn’t grow well! We are very fortunate in that we have got really good soil. It’s a sandy loam, every gardener’s dream. But it’s a very hungry soil so we have to keep feeding it and it does dry out in the summer so that’s a challenge. Traditionally you would think roses wouldn’t do well on sandy soil, but we have a huge collection of roses here and they do really well.

Bowood is famous for its rhododendron displays at the beginning of the summer, a project overseen personally by Lord Lansdowne, and the parkland designed by the legendary Capability Brown, but what else should people look out for?
We have got a lot of vertical gardens – a lot of walls. All the walls of the house have plants growing up them. Bowood should be known really for the climbing plants. We have probably got the national collection for climbing roses because we’ve got so many.

Do you often get asked for advice by visitors?
Yes, they will stop for a chat and often they ask about an issue they are having in their own garden. I can usually suggest something they can try. It’s nice to be able to pass on what I’ve learnt here.

Bowood at Sunset

And what is your garden at home like?
It’s neat, it’s tidy, it’s well kept. I’m probably quite critical of it. But I only have a limited amount of time to spend on it. I still feel the pressure to make sure there are not weeds on the lawn though.

You obviously get a lot of satisfaction from your job
I love it. When it goes right, and someone says ‘wow look at your roses’, for the first time that day I look up and think ‘actually you are right, that does look really good’.
I start off more stressed at the beginning of the week and as the week goes on and it all starts to take shape, by the time I go home on a Friday night I can think ‘yeah, we’ve done a good job this week, it looks good’. I can go home knowing the visitors are coming this weekend and It’s going to look fantastic.

Tell us about your favourite places to go on the Great West Way
Foxham is a quiet, rural village with access to good walks around the surrounding hills, we also have a really nice pub called the Foxham Inn. We like to walk or cycle to The Rising Sun in Christian Malford for a drink or a bite to eat. Our favourite restaurant would be The Spice of Asia in Lyneham. Our favourite family day out would be the Cotswold Wildlife Park, we visit at least twice a year. It always keeps the children entertained and they never get bored of going I also get a chance to look around the gardens which are extremely well kept.

You are a keen cyclist. Where do you enjoy cycling to?
There are so many different cycle routes we can do in Wiltshire, including short flat routes around the Cotswold Water Park and across to Tetbury or longer routes around Marlborough and the Pewsey Vale or challenging routes around Bath.  All routes take in amazing, varied scenery and some lovely villages.  We pass many good pubs and make a mental note to come back and visit when time allows.

And you love walking too?
Our black lab Barclay loves his walks and one of our favourites is up to the white horse at Cherhill. The views are amazing and you can see across to Wales on a clear day and by facing west you can get great sunsets.

What do you love most about the Great West Way?
It’s a great location for the reasons I have mentioned above but also its location within the country. We can get to London within two hours or be on the beach within 2.5 hours. Its central location with good links to most areas in the country allows us to travel, explore, and visit friends and family with ease. I like to travel and see the world, but the Great West Way is home for me and always will be.

Bowood House Fountain

To find out more about Wiltshire and the surrounding areas, take a look at our See & Do and Plan Your Way pages.

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Bowood House and Gardens
Historic House / Palace
Bowood House and Gardens

Outstanding 18th century mansion house estate.