Andy Jeavons surveys the Rockery, opposite Brighton’s Preston Park, with pride. First landscaped in the 1930s with limestone from the Cheddar Gorge, the Rockery is a prize-winning garden built on a steep two-acre hillside, complete with a large pond, waterfalls, bridge and chalet. It is currently bursting with hundreds of daffodils (at the time of writing) and other spring plants, all planted by Andy, the garden manager, and his volunteers over the last 20 years.
Andy told me about how this came about. He started as a young gardener, aged 15, with a three-year apprenticeship in parks across Brighton. Part of his apprenticeship was spent at the nursery garden in Stanmer Park. “It was a wonderful experience – I was very keen to learn,” Andy told me. He often spent his lunch hour learning all the Latin names for plants, which has stood him in good stead ever since.
For his first placement after completing his apprenticeship, Andy stayed in Stanmer Park, where he had responsibility for the Orangery (sadly no more) and Palm House, currently being restored as part of the newly opened One Garden. He was there for 10 years.
After a five-year stint as an interior landscaper, working with tropical plants – “I loved the work but hated the company” – Andy was asked to return to Brighton parks as a plant propagator. When the Rockery came up as a project in 2000, Andy jumped at the chance. It was a daunting prospect, as at that stage the garden had not been touched for years and was completely overgrown. After the hurricane in 1987 “it went to rack and ruin”, as there was a lot of damage in all the Brighton parks and the Rockery was not a priority.
Andy’s first job when he took it on was to clear everything back to the rocks and then gradually plant it up again: “I had a free hand – I could choose what I want.” This was part of the appeal: “I was on my own. I prefer it, with no one to look over me.” His hard work paid off and the Rockery is now flourishing. It was voted the best park in England in 2016 and has won two gold awards in the South-East in Bloom competition. Andy himself won a Horticultural Achievement award in 2017, though he was too modest to tell me this himself. Preston Park as a whole has a regular Green Flag Award.
About 10 years ago Andy started to build up groups of volunteers. This began with a suggestion by one of the park rangers, who work with large groups of volunteers all over Brighton. The first group helped at the Rockery and is still going strong. Then, a couple of years ago, Andy expanded the volunteers to help with other areas of the park. This is when I got involved myself. Now there are regular groups three days a week, working on Preston Park’s main flower beds and rose garden. Most of the Preston Park volunteers are either retired or work part-time. They share a love of gardening and a wish to contribute something to the community.
Dani grew up nearby and visited the park with her dad regularly as a child. She remembers the formal beds that used to be filled with annuals, each sponsored by a local town or village. She saw it as a challenge to “help bring the park back to life” after a period of neglect.
Janet also lives nearby and used to bring her children to the rockery. She noticed when it was “getting a bit scruffy” and wanted to help after she retired: “I really enjoy it.”
Martin is another who grew up locally: “It was my park since I was a kid, so it’s very gratifying to give something back.” He started volunteering after moving to a flat with no garden. From helping one morning a week, he now does three. He trained as a team leader at Stanmer Park, did first aid and health and safety training too, and he now stands in for Andy if he’s not around. “It’s done me good, being out and about, mixing with people. Since retiring, there are huge benefits.”
Wendy told me about the mental health benefits of helping out. Working at the doctors’ surgery nearby, she walks home past the Rockery: “I used to see the volunteers there looking really happy. I thought I’d love to join in.” What she particularly likes is that “you can turn off for a few hours” and just focus on the physical work.
Susan does demanding work at the hospital and she, too, finds the gardening beneficial. She lives on the edge of the park and has a strong sense of ownership: “I feel it’s mine in a way, but I also feel it’s a public space for everyone to enjoy. It’s a nice community.”
Some volunteers do other community work too. Richard and his partner look after the large flower pots along the Lewes Road, which needed brightening up. They are members of the Triangle group, but “it’s a dwindling community”, so Richard started volunteering in Preston Park as well. “It’s something to get me out of the house and keep me interested.”
Julie is part of a volunteer group at her local church, which is developing an unused plot of land into a community garden. Last year, she started a Royal Horticultural Society course in practical gardening at Stanmer Park. The Preston Park gardening helps her to learn about different plants, as well as looking after the local environment: “I like the physical activity and where gardening can take you. During lockdown, the park has been a joy.”
As well as the three volunteer groups, Andy also oversees community service ‘payback’ groups. Individuals can have anything from 40 to 300 hours and are usually sent on a placement. “Guys I can trust usually spend the whole term with me,” Andy told me. “I’ve got to know some wonderful characters. Some I’m still in touch with.” He rarely gets “bad boys”, though he would give them short shrift if he did. If anyone strays onto the Rockery flower beds, Andy is on to them straight away.
Andy loves a project and is always planning for the future: “I want to keep improving the Rockery and fill it with as much colour as I can.” He has set up his own propagator in the chalet and puts in regular plant orders: “I’ve never been turned down.”
Apart from the main lockdowns, the volunteer groups have kept going through the Covid pandemic and have been frustrated during the months they were not allowed to help. They have now come back in force to help Andy realise his vision for the gardens.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer gardener, please see the Friends of Preston Park website for information how to help.
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