‘When you gar­den, you have to plan, you have to fo­cus on the fu­ture’

Roy Lan­caster sows the seeds of suc­cess,

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Roy LAN­CASTER de­votes 42 pages of his new mem­oir to his Na­tional Ser­vice. This was largely spent in the Bor­neo rain­for­est, where he was un­der con­stant threat of be­ing at­tacked by Com­mu­nist ter­ror­ists. He al­lo­cates an en­tire sen­tence to the ex­pe­ri­ence: ‘Much of our time was spent on lo­cal pa­trols, oc­ca­sional am­bushes and more ex­tended op­er­a­tions in deep jun­gle.’

of con­sid­er­ably greater in­ter­est to him were the flora and fauna. Crawl­ing through dense un­der­growth with the en­emy on ev­ery side, he stops to ‘ex­am­ine and col­lect wild pitcher (Ne­penthes al­bo­marginata)’. En­coun­ter­ing a tribesman car­ry­ing a blow­pipe and poi­soned darts, he be­friends him, asks to try out the pipe and notes that the poi­son ‘ap­par­ently comes from the sap of the Ipoh tree (An­tiaris toxi­caria), a mem­ber of the mul­berry fam­ily’.

Mr Lan­caster is 80 this year and I formed the im­pres­sion that he prob­a­bly hasn’t changed much in the past six decades. He was ob­sessed with Na­ture as a small boy; he’s still ob­sessed. He was so fit as a teenager that he was of­fered a po­si­tion as a gym teacher and he looks as if he would still be up to the job. He was so­cia­ble from a young age and it’s clear from the con­stant ref­er­ences to his fam­ily, men­tors, col­leagues and friends that peo­ple still come first in his life.

The off­hand way in which he de­scribes his com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence is typ­i­cal of his modesty. It’s not that false, self-dep­re­cat­ing modesty we Bri­tish learn be­fore we can walk and it’s not hu­mil­ity, ei­ther. Mr Lan­caster clearly be­lieves that his ex­tra­or­di­nary in­tel­li­gence, mem­ory, knowl­edge and abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate are not par­tic­u­larly re­mark­able. When I ask about be­ing a house­hold name, writ­ing best­sellers, pre­sent­ing count­less tele­vi­sion se­ries and re­ceiv­ing pub­lic recog­ni­tion, he ap­pears non­plussed, as if I must have my facts wrong.

I’m get­ting ahead of my­self, how­ever. I am an unashamed roy Lan­caster fan. I’ve lis­tened to him on ra­dio, watched him on TV and read all his books. I was de­lighted when an ex­cuse came along to in­ter­view him be­cause, although Mr Lan­caster al­most in­stantly be­came a na­tional trea­sure af­ter his first ap­pear­ance on Gar­den­ers’ World in 1981, he has spo­ken and writ­ten lit­tle about his per­sonal life.

I can re­veal that he lives in Hamp­shire. Not, as one might ex­pect, in an old rec­tory sur­rounded by rolling acres, but in a Vic­to­rian house on a wide, leafy sub­ur­ban street with a plot that’s a mere third of an acre. ‘We of­ten thought of mov­ing to the coun­try so that we could have a larger gar­den, but I came to the re­al­i­sa­tion that I have no in­ter­est, per se, in the ac­qui­si­tion of plants. What fas­ci­nates me is find­ing them, learn­ing about them, see­ing them. I don’t need to own them to en­joy them. Any­way, we love it here.’

‘We’ are his wife, Sue, and him­self. ‘Sue is my part­ner in ev­ery sense of the word. I couldn’t have achieved any­thing with­out her. She gave up teach­ing so that we could work to­gether.’ When I tell him I was touched by the ref­er­ences to her in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy—for ex­am­ple, the way in which he dec­o­rated the church for their wed­ding— he im­me­di­ately starts list­ing the plants: ‘over the porch, there was New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax, with its sword­shaped leaves com­bined with a large ruff of the rich red Ma­ho­nia japon­ica. As you en­tered…’

Mr Lan­caster de­scribes plants the way oth­ers de­scribe peo­ple. He laughs: ‘Well, that’s not sur­pris­ing. Like peo­ple, they have dis­tinct ap­pear­ances, per­son­al­i­ties, likes and dis­likes.’ Later, he refers to some­one who had chopped down a healthy tree that blocked his view as ‘a mur­derer’. Per­haps it isn’t sur­pris­ing, given his life with plants, that he comes across as a rather gen­tle man.

Mr Lan­caster was born in Bolton. His par­ents worked in the cot­ton mills and his fa­ther, who grew roses, bred in him a love of gar­den­ing. His plan on leav­ing school at 15 was to be­come an en­gine driver, but the cu­ra­tor of the Bolton Mu­seum sug­gested he be­come a gar­dener and found him a place at Moss Bank Park. He worked for Bolton Parks Depart­ment and, in 1960, went to Cam­bridge to study botany. From there, he worked at the fa­mous Hil­lier and Sons Nurs­eries in Winch­ester un­til 1980, when he went free­lance.

Travel has been a ma­jor theme. His he­roes are the early plant hun­ters such as E. H. Wil­son— only, as he ex­plains, I ought not to call them hun­ters: ‘A hunt ends with a kill. Dis­cov­er­ing a new plant is not about death, but about life.’

Like Wil­son, Mr Lan­caster re­turned re­peat­edly to China, although there’s barely a coun­try in the world that he hasn’t vis­ited. He can re­call each trip as if it hap­pened yes­ter­day. ‘Iran?’ I ask. ‘Novem­ber 1972 to help plan the coun­try’s first botanic gar­den and, of course, to ex­plore for plants.’ ‘Jor­dan?’ ‘In July 1990, I was sum­moned in great se­crecy to save some dy­ing trees in one of the royal palace gar­dens, only they turned out to be plane trees that were sim­ply shed­ding their bark.’

He fol­lows world events, although he finds them de­press­ing. ‘How much bet­ter it would be for the world if politi­cians were forced to spend some time gar­den­ing. When you gar­den, you have to plan, you have to fo­cus on the fu­ture.’ His own plot brings him un­told plea­sure. ‘Ev­ery morn­ing, Sue and I throw open the cur­tains and gaze down at it. It’s like a stage set and each plant plays a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter.’

I find I’ve used up the avail­able space with­out even be­gin­ning to ex­plain prop­erly how kind he is (he must have asked me quite as many ques­tions as I asked him) or por­tray­ing his ex­u­ber­ance. His part­ing words give a good clue to his per­son­al­ity, how­ever: ‘Give me a packet of seeds and I’m happy.’ Jonathan Self

‘When you gar­den, you have to plan, you have to fo­cus on the fu­ture

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