When I arrived at the Tea Rooms for a little meeting with representatives of the Garden Society, who were eager to help feature their group in the diary, Emma Harrison ushered me into the side dining room with a table set up for 8, and I wondered if I would face an inquisition. I shouldn’t have worried, of course, since Pauline Robson and Eileen Connor broke into broad smiles as I hesitantly moved forward. “We’re just waiting for Ian Stuart, the Chair,” Pauline said, “And we’ll probably all have tea — would you like some delicious cake?” I demurred in favour of tea that I could manage to sip, and the ladies slipped into the front room to look at the offerings on display. It was beginning to feel like quite a jolly meeting!
While they were out, Jane Stollery, the kindly proprietor, added an intriguing snippet to the diary’s collection of information about the Tea Rooms: her growing collection of artwork featuring the premises, in a variety of different media. One artist whose work hangs on the walls in the front room has already collected several commissions from the exposure, and Jane wanted me to know, and to publicise if possible, that other artists are welcome to try their hand at the subject matter. And then the tea pot and Ian arrived together, and we began to chat about the Dales Garden Society.
Unlike the long-established ‘Show Committees’ like the Allendale Horticultural & Industrial Show, which is celebrating its 165th anniversary this year, the Garden Society started in 1990 with an initial membership of 50, including organisers Dorothy Handcock and Nancy Curtis, as well as Ernie Charlton and Ivan Robson. Eileen Connor is also a founder-member. In those days, membership was £2 annually, which included attendance at each of the four meetings, typically held in the spring, autumn and winter months, but not during the intense summer gardening period.
The Garden Society’s format today (with membership at £8 annually which covers the four meetings, or non-members pay £3 per meeting) is much the same throughout the year, but the group has added special ‘summer trips’ (for which travel is often subsidised, but which have an additional fee), as well as their delightful Plant & Craft Fair held in early May (Saturday the 4th).
Everyone was eager to get this information out as quickly as possible for me, and we sipped tea with friendly lashings of laughter and good humour as I tried to get it all down in my notepad. It turns out that the meetings are quite a social affair, bringing some 20-30 members and guests out to hear such talks as how to garden vertically, or a speaker’s adventures in the Alps. At the November meeting in the run-up to Christmas, there’s even mince pies with the tea! And, of course, there’s always a raffle. The next meeting, for which this piece is somewhat appropriately timed, is Wednesday evening, 24th April, 7:00pm at Allendale Village Hall, with Mr. R. Barnes, Chartered Landscape Architect and Horticultural Consultant. It should be a very edifying evening!
So as these meetings progress throughout the year, the coffers of the society grow little-by-little, and the group is able to subsidise travel, in a lovely Baynes Travel coach, of course, to exotic locales during the summer months. There were a couple of places left a month ago, for example, for this May’s visit to Muncaster Castle, but the summer trip to Gardening Scotland is now booked full.
Pauline creates the programme for the year by perusing a variety of sources (often the Hexham Courant’s gardening pages, or the RHS list of speakers, or by careful combing for possible speakers online), and she does come up with some amazing and interesting talks. A perennial favourite is Professor Richardson, botanist retired from Newcastle University, who is expected to chat about his summer adventures in Tibet at the September meeting.
Members of the Garden Society are often members of both the Horticultural Show and the Leek Club, and these groups do cross-fertilise, as it were. This year the Society has had a new idea, which so neatly supplements the prize at the Horticultural Show for best domestic garden, underwritten by the Allendale Lions Club. I asked if the amazing hanging baskets on the Golden Lion last year might not have stimulated this competition, which is for a prize for the best ‘non-residential’ building display during the summer, and received some tentative murmurs of assent. I understand that some 27 letters of ‘invitation to compete’ have been sent out to establishments around Allendale, so if we see an enhanced floral presence in the village this summer, we might know why!
But the annual Plant & Craft Fair at Allendale Village Hall (this year on the 4th of May) is another venue where gardeners in the village get together along with some commercial outfits (eg Shield Green Nursery or Pennine Nursery from Garrigill, this year for the last time). It’s a lot of work to put these fairs on, and folks do pitch in to get things together. Pauline suggested that the ‘joy’ of organising is really a kind of a ‘joy of doing’ things, of giving time and commitment for community goodness, but everyone wanted me to know that the society, and gardening itself, is an ideal way to make friends — the society has been strengthened in recent years by new folks who have just moved in.
Gardening is a universal language, after all, and its practise gets people in the community going in many different and intriguing ways. By the time we’d reached this point in the chat, however, my throat was failing me, and I could scarcely ask anything further, so I bade my good-byes as jolly laughter at yet another anecdote, or remembrance, bubbled around the table. It had been a really good time, for me, and I’m sure anyone attending the Garden Society meetings would be in for a similar experience.