July 25, 2017
“You’ll just have to press ‘Go’, they said. ‘He’ll do the rest’. Interviewing a broadcaster as eloquent as Roy Lancaster could be a challenge. How do I press ‘Stop’? I interviewed Roy on the Mound at Boughton House (a uniquely visible spot for an interview) about his latest book, My Life with Plants. The title I would have given it is The Education of a Plantsman, in reference to Russell Page’s masterpiece, The Education of a Gardener. In a sense it’s a plantsman’s equivalent.
I read it (or most of it) at one long sitting. Roy recounts in his unmistakable voice, and in a degree of detail that once or twice reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s total recall of events 40 years ago, how his schoolboy passion for ornithology was converted one day to botany (or at least plant-spotting) by seeing something strange growing in a potato field. His schoolmaster didn’t recognize it, nor did the Bolton Museum curator, nor the Botany Department at Manchester University.
It was sent on to the Natural History Museum, where it was declared a Mexican species of tobacco plant by no means routine in Britain. Young Roy got a letter from London. ‘Dear Mr Lancaster….’ Roy had found his calling.
From the Bolton Parks Department he was decanted into the Malayan Jungle to do his National Service. The picture of a young man with Bren gun and vasculum studying natural history while confronting the commies sums up the quintessential Lancaster.
Perhaps the most fruitful part of his career was his years at Hillier’s Nursery in the 1970s, as amanuensis to Sir Harold Hillier, and its fruit: the almost incredible Hillier’s Manual, detailing some 7000 woody plants, readably, learnedly, and all too temptingly. In those days you could actually buy the great majority from Hilliers. It was an opportunity some gardeners leapt at. Arboreta were born (including mine at Saling Hall). Then commercial reality broke in; happily in 1977 Hillier’s Arboretum was accepted by the Hampshire County Council as a charitable trust and thrives to this day. Roy’s story goes on with travels to (and books about) China, to Japan, the Americas..….collecting (and converting the plant-blind). Television followed; Roy and Sue made a garden…… It is a lovely story, and a faithful portrait of a lovely man.