Ken Hills - head gardener at Chidmere House
Anyone who has driven past Chidmere come rain or shine, or been lucky enough to have been to one of the many National Garden Scheme Open Days held within the grounds, will have seen Ken Hills busy at work. Born in 1950 in Birdham he had an early interest in horticulture having helped his Uncle, a market gardener at Batchmere, from the age of 8. Ken left school at 15 to become a glasscutter. This was followed by several other jobs including working as a baker but finally returned to his first love of gardening in 1977. His life was then to change.
Tom Baxendale, who owned Chidmere House at that time, hired Ken to work with Mick Betteridge his Head Gardener. Mick took Ken under his wing & for the next 8 years they worked together on the many acres within the grounds. This would include opening regularly for the national yellow book ‘Gardens Open Scheme’, something Ken has actively supported since joining Chidmere, rewarded 6 years ago by receiving their much coveted ‘Long Service Gardening Medal’ for 21 years contribution. The scheme has always a good fund raiser for St Mary’s as people come from far & wide to see the gardens. More recently it has been one of the star attractions in the St Mary’s own local ‘Garden Open’ bi-annual event.
Ken resided initially in the White House, Chidham Lane with Jenny his wife (born & bred ‘Chidhamite’). He then moved to his current home, Chidmere Cottage in 1984 when he was promoted to head gardener, together with their 2 daughters Lisa & Joanna. His job has meant being being featured in many magazines over the years including Country Life and Home & Gardens. He also has appeared in the TV programme ‘Grass Roots’ together with Monty Dom & presenter Richard Jackson when they filmed the gardens. Ken said that this brought in a record 2000 people that day to view the grounds of Chidmere.
When the village fete was held within Chidmere, Ken was always at hand. This he recalls, also meant having to do a ‘pear patrol’ within the orchard areas as some attendees saw this as an opportunity to relieve the trees of their fruit!
Over the years Ken has taken the fruit from Chidmere to the RHS annual show to compete with the best in the country & has received many awards. This includes getting ‘best in show’ for the apples, pears & plums & one year a record 8 ‘firsts’.
Tom Baxendale left Chidmere 2 years ago & such was the bond with his employer, he was naturally apprehensive of the future when a new family took over the reins of Chidmere House. These fears were soon proved unfounded as Jackie & David Russell quickly worked out what an asset he was, & remains, to Chidmere. They have put his experience & skills to work in the current long-term garden & pond refurbishment plan. This has included producing & sorting the apples for the recent Chidmere Farm Apple Juice project, planting 960 apple trees (many of old varieties), & also 400 plum, 300 pear & 200 cider apple trees. He has also built new fruit cages, & been responsible for the new greenhouse propagation & bedding plant programme. His skills have also spilled over into the poultry area, supervising the raising of the newly acquired feathered Chidmere flock for the Russell family.
Whether it is to know more about the 100-year-old white rose, or the shrub taken from a cutting, from a cutting, from a cutting of Queen Victoria ’s wedding bouquet, seek out Ken if you are ever at Chidmere. He will always be able to give you some of the more interesting Chidham horticulture history
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