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March 7, 2014 / Apley Estate - Hamiltons

Apley Archive interview: Michael Coombes, son of the last Head Gardener of Apley Walled Gardens

25 Aug 2012, AWG, with Michael Coombes & Geoff Phillips 10Back in 2007, I began interviewing people with links to the Apley Estate. At last I’m writing up those interviews & will publish one a week, starting today with Michael Coombes, with his special memories of the Apley Walled Gardens.

I’ve interviewed him 3 times now. On the 1st occasion, he’d hand-written out 7 pages of notes for me; the 2nd time, he told me about the gardens & on the 3rd time, we talked more about the gardens & the Estate water supply.  Here are a few notes from our first interview. It’s incomplete, but at least it’s a start. I know there are many facts here I must supplement with more detail.

We’ve not many archive photos of the gardens, but at least 10 of them are Michael’s. He’s 4 in one here, taken in 1936 with his Aunt Ethel in the Gardens. In the other, he’s photographed with Geoff Philips, the son of the last Assistant Head Gardener. They met up again in Apley Walled Gardens with me in August 2012, for the first time in 50 years.

Walled Garden - archives 25 - Michael Coombes aged 6 in 1938 & his Aunt Ethel CoombesChildhood

Michael is the son of the last Head Gardener at Apley. Born at Chatsworth in 1932 in the Gardener’s Cottage there & still has the most brilliant memory, recalling his childhood at Apley in immense detail – something he puts down to his happiness there. He’s been a tenant on the Apley Estate all his life, until 2011 when he moved to Bridgnorth.

Norton School

Michael began at Norton School (opposite the Hundred House Hotel in Norton) in 1937.

The school children wore gaiters – brown leather boots & laces. They had “drives” at school, eg warship week (for the war effort), when they drew posters for the classroom. There was a football field was next to nursery garden in the 1950s. At Christmas, Major Foster gave presents to the school children, though some of them, Michael said, didn’t even know who he was.  School sports days were held at Stockton House (Rector Hyatt resident in Michael’s time) then South Lodge, the agent’s house, in Norton.

The Walled Gardens

Michael’s father (1902-1966) worked as indoor foreman gardener at Chatsworth. He married Michael’s mother Doris in 1930 & heard of the job at Apley by word of mouth (NB. there was no email, internet & mobiles then).

Many fruits, including cucumbers, melons, nectarines, figs & grapes were grown in the Walled Gardens, but no pineapples (as sometimes cited) during Michael’s time there. They were only for the consumption of Major Foster, his guests & some for Mr Coombes’s family.

Who lived & worked at the Walled Gardens

Michael lived in the Gardener’s Cottage above the Walled Gardens, with his parents & his sister Rachel.  It had no electricity until 1944. At the time, ‘journeymen’ lived in the garden bothy, from where they learned the trade [gardening], travelling from place to place. He remembers a Mrs Davies going to cook & clean there for them. He also recalls sons sent by their fathers to learn how to garden, including Lord Hertford of Ragley, Warwickshire, Mr Ripley of Bedstone Court, South Shropshire & even some Scottish lairds.

Apley Estate vehicles

As a boy, Michael was particularly fascinated in cars & even remembers the Estate vehicles’ number plates. Until car manufacture began in the early 1900s, people got about by train, on foot, by bicycle, in ponies & traps or in carriages, either closed or open.

Major AW Foster was one of the first people to own a car in Shropshire, which was obviously very exciting for the Estate. Michael remembers that the first number plate in Shropshire began with AW1 & belonged to James Foster of Woodcote (AWF’s Uncle). That was either a coincidence or an early personalised number plate ! In 1946, when Spratton Grange, Northamptonshire (where AWF was born) was sold, Bob Ridge (Major AW Foster’s chauffeur at the time) took Michael & his father there in his lorry to collect plants, garden ornaments & gardening kit.

The Apley vehicle fleet included:

  1. 3 Rolls Royces
  2. An estate car Ford V8 – 1937
  3. A Morris Commercial personnel carrier – a People Carrier in today’s language – for transporting 12 members of a shooting party from one drive to another. Registration number JW7880. It went to the Western Front during the Second World War & returned amazingly in one piece, but a different colour – brown to blue !
  4. An ex-army kharki coloured American vehicle for the forestry department.

In 1862, the railway line was built & a Linley Station House constructed. Along the road from the station up to Apley [Hall], there were gas lampposts every 50 yards, approx 8 in all. The gas was produced from coke, coal & wood in a gas works which after approx. late 1920s became an electricity generating power station for the Apley Hall & surrounding buildings.  This change from gas to electricity had already occurred before Michael arrived in 1935.

The station closed in 1963 (due to Dr Beeching’s cuts). Train trips from Shrewsbury, to seaside destinations of Rhyl, Aberystwth & Llandudno, took all day. Michael went for a week’s seaside holiday with his mother every year in the 1940s. His father Mr Jim Coombes always had to stay behind to supply Apley Hall with produce & flowers for the 100 patients convalescing there, injured in the Second World War, cared for by the Red Cross. Mrs Coombes accommodated officers’ wives, sometimes for several weeks at a time, visiting their husbands in the Hall.

Apley Bridge could be closed for one day a year, the Fosters chose Good Friday.

Also from the 1950s, for the Foster family visitors, there was even a landing strip, near the entrance to Apley Park on Cheswardine Lane. The field was 70 acres (very big) called the Big Turf. Michael remembers a plane overturned in Cheswardine Lane & seeing it on his way to school. They had to walk through the fields to get round it !

Life in & around Apley Hall

Rather confusingly (as it was James Foster who originally made his fortune as owner of the Bradley Ironworks in Stourbridge), Major Arthur Foster was known as Jimmy. Born 8 Feb 1884, he was the last Foster to live at Apley (he died 29 June 1960) & was there when Michael’s family arrived in 1935.  In Edwardian times, 17 grooms were employed, who lived in the Apley Park [Hall] stable blocks. In 1901, the census for Apley Hall reports 25 people living there.

The Fosters owned several estates & other properties, other than Apley, including Woodcote (near Newport), Spratton Grange (Northamptonshire), Chapel Street in London, Lane End, Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, an Austrian golf hotel & a yacht on Mediterranean. Prince Weikersheim of Austria stayed as the Foster’s guests on Isle of Wight. Before the war, Michael recalls playing with Princess Cecilia Weikersheim in the gardens at Apley – getting frog’s spawn out of the garden pond.

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