Blossoming late in life
Top developments for green-fingered grans
Springtime at Amesbury Abbey is heralded by carpets of daffodils and bluebells that flank the long drive up to the ancient building and surrounding cottages. The River Avon, which cuts through the retirement village’s gently undulating 35-acre landscape, is a favourite picnic spot in summer for the retired residents who can enjoy a spot of fishing and family fun with the grandchildren in this idyllic spot near Stonehenge in Wiltshire.
The animated twitter of the bird life is matched only by the excited chatter of the property owners who stroll the grounds – where the 13th-century queen Eleanor of Provence, wife of King Henry III, is said to be buried – and meander down to the fresh water spring, where early hunter gatherers settled to build Stonehenge.
“We do live a sybaritic life,” admits Marigold Routh, 86, who has lived at Amesbury Abbey for five years. She owns a one-bedroom ground-floor apartment with a patio. Like many retirees, it was a wrench for her to give up her family home – but a bigger one to give up her garden.
“We had a two-acre garden with a wildflower meadow and walled garden,” she recalls. “I have to say I miss the garden more than the house – but look at this.” She gestures toward the patio, which she has filled with raised beds and plant pots, and the grassy area beyond.
“I grow clematis, dwarf roses, daffodils and geraniums, and don’t have to bend down too far to look after them. There’s even a heated greenhouse where I can keep my geraniums in winter.”
Routh, who has a natural sciences degree from Oxford University, worked in plant physiology for chemical manufacturing giant ICI in the Sixties at the cutting edge of weed killer and insecticide development. She loves being surrounded by plant life.
“We have beech trees here which were planted by the Duke of Queensbury in the mid-18th century, limes and cedars of Lebanon which were planted in the 19th century, and a giant sequoia redwood from America,” she says. “I love popping down to the river to see the wildflowers and pottering in the greenhouse.”
The abbey was converted into a retirement village by the late Mary Cornelius-Reid, a pioneer of retirement communities back in the Fifties. “All the residents love the gardens, they are so important to their wellbeing,” says Mary’s daughter, Naomi Cornelius-Reid, who now runs the family business with her two siblings.
“There is so much space for our residents to enjoy; there’s the river, woodland, and acres of grounds. We put on lots of events in the summer: picnics, barbecues by the river, fetes, fairs and a Proms in the Park.
“Many owners have had gardens which they miss more than their houses, but here they have all the benefits of a big garden without having to look after it. People can also have their own little gardens if they want.”
At Danny House in Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex, owner Richard Burrows holds two summer picnics for his retired residents who rent apartments in the Grade I listed former home of Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
Burrows has installed a grass tennis court and croquet lawn in the 20-acre grounds and revived a historic cricket pitch in a bid to keep the residents fit and active.
“We have one of the oldest cricket grounds in the world,” Burrows boasts. “Sandyfields was first documented in 1717 and in July we will mark its 300th anniversary by playing a match with 18th-century rules – two stumps, a hockey stick shaped bat and underarm bowling – and dressed in 18th-century costume.”
Burrows lives on site and runs the estate like a colonial country club. He has even banned wheelchairs and walking frames from the public areas. “All our residents are active and mobile, even though some are well into their 90s,” he explains. “We don’t want them to be reminded of the negative aspects of old age.”
He takes them for drives around the grounds in his vintage Bentley, on boat trips around the pond and on wildflower walks along the kilometre-long drive.
For retired historian and author Joanna Bastin, 77, moving to Danny House three years ago was like coming
‘We do live a sybaritic life. I grow clematis, dwarf roses, daffodils, and geraniums too’
home. Quite literally: her ancestors used to own the place. “My mother was born here and I remember coming here as a child during the war – but I never imagined I would end up living here,” she says.
One of the big attractions for Bastin was Danny House’s garden. “I grew up with a big garden; we had a huge vegetable garden and picked everything that was edible. My husband and I also had a large garden at our home in Gloucestershire.
“I have my own flower bed here and my apartment looks out onto a walled garden which is lovely. I love gardening. It is so satisfying watching things grow. It is nice to be outside too – and having help with the heavy work.”
Help is provided by groundsman John Foster-Spink, an Australian stockman who also keeps the 250 sheep, 15 chickens and 10 pigs under control.
“Gardens and outside space are just as important in retirement developments as indoor facilities,” says Neil MacKichan of the property website retiremove.co.uk.
“People can miss their gardens more than their homes. Fortunately developers are realising this. They are landscaping gardens with seating areas for people to socialise, planting flowers that produce bright, cheerful colours, and incorporating paths so people can walk their pets, keep active, engaged and in better spirits which improves their health and wellbeing.”
At Brunlees Court, McCarthy & Stone’s assisted living development in Southport, John and Alex Bynon, 70 and 72, have planted 1,500 daffodils, 200 snowdrops and more than 100 pansies since they moved in 18 months ago. Their two grandchildren have contributed more than 1,000 bulbs in raised beds, so neighbours in wheelchairs can enjoy them too.
“We have a wonderful gardener who does a great job here, but who also gives us the freedom to work on our own sections of the garden,” John says. “There’s a real sense of team work and for us it’s all about turning the garden into a home.”
At Anchor Retirement’s flagship village in Hampshire, a sensory garden and a gardening club have blossomed since Celia Cummins, 69, moved in after selling her large house in Dorset two years ago. “I’ve been a keen gardener for over 40 years and I was attracted to the open green spaces at Bishopstoke Park,” she says. “The sensory garden has been very intelligently planted and provides a lovely space in which to relax and lift your spirits.” Cummins is currently organising a regeneration of some of the communal garden areas. “We are hoping to establish allotments so we can grow our own fruit and veg; the chef likes to use fresh produce grown on site including herbs grown in the sensory garden and wild garlic from the nearby woodland.” A sensory garden is also in the works at Hanover Gardens in Bicester, which was awarded £8,000 from Tesco’s community grant scheme Bags of Help following a flood. It will feature polywood arches, lowered brick planters, seating and sounds created by a solar-powered fountain.
Rowena Hingle of Hanover Housing is helping to create sensory gardens designed to help residents who need extra support as part of a new project called Walk This Way. “We have different themes depending on the location,” she says. “Hanover Court in Cinderford is near the Forest of Dene which has a famous sculpture trail, so we have incorporated a life-size deer made of willow which is tactile and soft and people can touch.
“The main thing is to get people outside in the daylight and fresh air; it is good for social interaction with family members and other residents, and good for rehabilitation and wellbeing.”
The Royal Horticultural Society, which organises the Chelsea Flower Show later this month, is investing £100million in the future of horticulture with the aim of improving the nation’s health and wellbeing.
“Domestic gardens and cultivated plants are a public ‘natural’ health service,” says director general Sue Biggs. “Gardening helps people to be healthy and is good for us physically and mentally. Gardening relaxes us, eases stress, provides exercise and improves psychological wellbeing. More than 90 per cent of us in the UK say that just looking at a garden lifts our mood.”
‘More than 90 per cent of us say that looking at a garden lifts our mood’
Sun’s out: a picnic at Danny House, main; Marigold Routh at Amesbury Abbey, left; flower beds at Brunlees Court, right
Regal: the willow deer in the garden at Hanover in Cinderford
Light bulbs: Joanna Bastin and Richard Burrows with the Danny House daffodils