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Alan Payling asks whether including more garden visits in coach holiday itineraries to the west country could attract some welcome business, given the popularity of gardening amongst one of the coach holiday trade’s major target markets

The Apple Arches at the Lost Gardens of Heligan – proof that garden visits sell. Lorna Tremayne


I’ve been thinking about gardens lately. Not just because the sun is shining in Torquay, which it is. But I’ve been thinking about all those people with green fingers, and whether operators could profit from including visits to gardens in their itineraries when they visit the west country. Over the last few years, many operators have brought groups to the south west to visit the impressive sights at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Quite possibly during the same tour they coupled a visit to Eden with an excursion to the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Most offered those trips on separate days, but I did meet one driver staying in Torquay who was visiting both places on the same day. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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While many people have now ticked the Eden Project off their ‘places I must visit before I die’ list, one lesson that could be drawn from the Eden and Heligan experience is that visiting gardens sells – well, possibly. Maybe it was just the experience of visiting Eden that was of interest to some, but I am left with the feeling that people knew exactly what they were going to get at Eden and Heligan – a visit to a garden.

Despite the popularity of the Eden and Heligan trips, garden visits don’t feature very often on itineraries these days when coach parties visit Torquay and Paignton. Unless it’s an organised group, gardens visits are not generally included in coach holidays. But, are operators missing a trick here? That’s what I’ve been wondering about: whether an included garden visit to some of the other gardens in the area could put a few more bums on empty seats when coach operators head into the west country sun. The other gardens in the area might not be as spectacular as Eden, but if you put a few biodomes over RHS Rosemoor at Great Torrington, for example, I feel sure that coaches would be lining up to head up to north Devon for the day.

I raise this issue because a recent visit to a garden centre in Somerset – Sanders Garden World – got me thinking about the people who frequent garden centres and the popularity of gardening. What I noticed was the age of the customers picking up their bedding plants. As I’m a bit of a gardener myself, now that the weather has allowed me to get out into the garden, I’ve also visited a couple of garden centres near my home in Torquay. Again, when I looked at the average age of the people I saw stocking up on compost, shrubs et al, they were, again, in the same age group. Many of my fellow gardeners were happily spending their grey pounds to get their gardens into colourful shape for the summer and some of them clearly had quite a few grey pounds to spend as well. So what age group am I talking about that spends their time hanging about in garden centres? Coach holiday age, that’s the age range that’s of relevance here.

As a gardener, over the last few years, I have also started to visit gardens that open under the National Garden Scheme (NGS). If you haven’t come across the NGS, it’s a nationwide scheme whereby the owners of private gardens open them to the general public for varying periods of time during the year, mainly in their garden’s colourful months. The owners of gardens large and small charge visitors a few pounds to enter and the proceeds go to charities like Macmillan Cancer Support who received £500,000 from the scheme in 2017. Other charities to benefit include Marie Curie, Hospice UK and the MS Society among others. The owners of the gardens also provide tea and cakes, and again, the proceeds go to charity. It means that you get to visit the private gardens of some pretty impressive properties that somebody like me wouldn’t normally get to see. Yes, that’s right, I’m nosy. Also, I just love sitting in somebody else’s impressive garden – in some cases make that ‘grounds’ – for the afternoon without so much as having to lift a trowel. I can also sit there in the sun enjoying some cheap but delicious cake. I even heard the immortal words said in English country gardens when the local reverend was paying a visit to one participant in the NGS: ‘More tea, vicar?’ However, it’s my fellow NGS visitors that are of interest here and could well be of interest to coach operators. Again, they look like the same people that I see down at the garden centre. The reason for this may be that the handbook promoting the NGS in Devon is circulated at garden centres in my neck of the woods. Hereabouts, it’s that little yellow book at the checkout. This connection suggests to me that the people who spend lots of grey pounds in the garden centre are also happy to visit gardens. Of course, to visit a garden locally they are only spending a few pounds on admission, petrol and cake, but my point is that the interest in garden visits is clear. Also, with £3m raised for charities via the NGS scheme in 2017, that’s an awful lot of garden visits at £3.00 and £4.00 a pop. Operators might want to do a bit of their own market research here. The NGS is a national scheme so there will be private gardens that will be open henceforward throughout the UK. It might be an idea therefore to pop along to one or two on a free day to see what sort of conclusions operators draw from the sort of people they see swooning among the herbaceous borders and guzzling the tea and cake. It’s all for a good cause too – and the cake is superb.

The grounds of Mardon, near Moretonhampstead, Devon, opened as part of the NGS scheme. Taken with permission of NGS Devon. Alan Payling

Garden centres are themselves popular amongst coach passengers when they’re en-route to and from their holiday destination or while in resort. In some cases, anything might have been better than a stop at a motorway service station, but when I used to stop at Webbs of Wychbold just off the M5 near Bromsgrove, it always went down well with the passengers.

Other evidence of the popularity of gardening is to be found in the media. TV shows for the green fingered are popular evergreens, while Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, which was first broadcast in April 1947, reveals again, the popularity of gardening. So if you could get Alan Titchmarsh to drive your coach, then you would have a lot of bums on your seats. Methinks he might be just a bit on the dear side, unfortunately.

Gardening magazines are also very popular sellers and at least one operator has cottoned on to this. I was thumbing through a copy of The Garden magazine for March recently looking for ideas for my own grounds. This is the house publication for the Royal Horticultural Society, the organisation that runs places like RHS Wisley. And lo and behold, amongst the ads for flower shows and weed killer was a full page ad for Lochs and Glens, the Scottish hotel and coach holiday group. Great minds think alike? Somebody in the coach trade thinks gardeners are worth chasing. Lochs and Glens were the only coach operator advertising in the magazine, it must be said, so perhaps they’re trying to keep it quiet. In which case, please forget I mentioned it.

Of course, the above might only be anecdotal evidence so it might not be entirely persuasive. But it got me thinking and made me investigate further how many gardeners there are in the UK. Was there any other evidence that would support the view that gardeners and coach passengers could be largely one and the same group of people?

Rooting about on the internet I came across the website This included the statistic that some 27 million people in the UK partake in gardening with the market being worth some £5 billion a year. The site said that the typical gardener is female, middle class and aged 55 plus. With average life expectancy said to now be 81 years of age, it was noted that more people aged 65 plus will be picking up trowels and secateurs in their later years. I also came across a report by the Kings Fund into gardening and health. While this looked specifically at the positive impact gardening in later years could have on one’s health and happiness, some of the findings were of interest here. The Kings Fund report said that some 49.5% of the population garden. It also said that some 40.2% visit gardens as part of a visit to a historic site. In terms of who is gardening and when, the report found that the interest in gardening increases as we age. By the time we are 65 to 74, some 70% of us will be digging out the weeds. This does fall to 60% by the time we are 75 and over for what I would have thought are pretty obvious reasons. However, these are big numbers. One of the reasons for the big numbers taking up gardening is because we oldies can do it and it’s good for us. The report found that as we age, gardening becomes relatively more important as we reduce the range of activities we participate in. Yup, that’s me. Whereas at one stage I would have been off on my push bike across Dartmoor or walking on arduous stretches of the South Devon coastal path, now, my knees – and the NHS – are grateful for a peaceful afternoon pruning in the garden.

The refurbished temperate house at Kew Gardens will no doubt increase garden visits. Kew Gardens

In terms of people actually visiting gardens, the numbers are blooming in certain places. An article in Horticultural Week for March 2017 that I came across might make a few operators sit up and smell the roses. This reported on the increase in visits to some of the country’s popular gardens in 2016. Visits to the arboretum at Westonbirt were up 15.5%. Visits to Cliveden were up 17%. Visits to Lanhydrock in Cornwall were up 17%. Visits to Kew Gardens were up 18.6% and I can’t help but think that now that the refurbished temperate house is open that number will continue to grow.

So, what can operators draw from the above? Napoleon dismissed the English as a nation of shopkeepers. It would perhaps be more accurate to call the English a nation of shoppers and gardeners these days. No wonder garden centres are popular. All too often though, the itineraries that I come across in this part of the world only give passengers the chance to shop, shop, and shop again. OK, it’s popular – but for everybody, all of the time? Not with some of the numbers on coaches I hear about, it’s not. If those coaches were full when they get to the end of the M5 then operators could say that everything in their brochures was coming up smelling of roses. If it is, and for some it is, then fine. But for all too many it’s not. Given the above, is it not time to start digging into the question of garden visits a bit more? I’m not saying that the whole of a tour should be made up of visits to gardens. After all, there are places and features of a visit to this part of the world that will remain popular evergreens. I can’t see people getting bored visiting Dartmouth for example. Nor can I see that the popularity of a drive across Dartmoor will decline. Sidmouth will long retain its 1950s English charm. But if itineraries are not selling, and operators accept that they need to start planting the seeds of growth and change, might it not be time to include a visit to one of the many other gardens we have in this part of the world?

And speaking of dropping passengers off to have a look round the shops, in the not too distant future, which shops will they be, exactly? I was writing this article in the week that Marks & Spencer announced that they will be closing 100 of their stores over the next few years. For the town centres that will be affected, that is seriously bad news. One of the major reasons for that announcement and many like it from other big high street brands are clear: online shopping. In the not so distant future, operators, when they’re planning on visiting an urban high street might just want to check what’s left. Will passengers want to mosey round pound shops, betting shops and estate agents? That’s another change that slowly but surely suggests that operators might want to think again and think differently about the itineraries they organise.

Finally, just a suggestion. It might also be an idea to look at ways of reaching out to the gardening community. I have noticed that a number of operators sponsor groups in their local area. From what I’ve seen, many of them are sporting bodies. No argument with that. It’s great for operators to put something back into their local communities. But do any operators sponsor and or even attend their local flower shows, garden parties or village fetes? There are a lot of them in the UK. You know the sort of thing I mean: where all those older, retired people congregate…