Head gardener retires after 37 years at site

A major tourist attraction is searching for a new expert following the retirement of the National Trust’s longest serving gardener.

Tuesday, 5th October 2021, 2:09 pm
Updated Tuesday, 5th October 2021, 3:32 pm

A major tourist attraction is searching for a new expert following the retirement of the National Trust’s longest serving gardener.

Michael Ridsdale, Head of Landscape at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, retired this week after 45 years with the Trust, and 37 years of transformative conservation work at the World Heritage site near Ripon.

Studley Royal Water Garden is a masterpiece of landscape engineering famed for its canals, ponds, follies and vistas – the greatest of these being the ruins of the Fountains Abbey itself.

National Trust Head of Gardens and Parks, Andy Jasper, said: “The beauty in the gardens today is largely the result of Michael’s dedication to shaping and restoring this unique place not just for visitors today, but for many generations still to come.

“Michael leaves a legacy of continuity in the art and practice of world-class horticulture at Fountains and we are indebted to him for his attention to detail, his commitment to training the next generation of horticulturists and for his pragmatic, kind and great personal approach to his work.”

During a long career at Fountains Abbey, Michael oversaw an ambitious programme of conservation work to restore the garden and its buildings as they would have been in their heyday in the late 18th century.

He overcame major challenges including severe flooding and the foot-and-mouth disease crisis which threatened the garden’s large deer herd in 2001.

Key projects during Michael’s tenure included conservation of follies, bridges and paths throughout the site, silt removal from the Skell river and Studley lake, restoration of the monastic precinct wall and ongoing conservation of Fountains Hall and the Elizabethan garden.

When the Trust took on care of the site in 1983, the formal canals were undefined and severely damaged, and many of the buildings were derelict.

Among Michael’s achievements was the four-year restoration of the tranquil Moon Ponds, whose formal shapes had been almost completely lost.

Michael said: “That early project set the tone for how we would look after and care for the site.

“The confidence in our restoration began to build and we created something magical, recreating what visitors would have seen in 1781. It’s one of my proudest achievements.”

Three years after Michael’s arrival, Studley Royal and the ruins of Fountains Abbey were inscribed as a World Heritage Site, designating them of international importance.

Michael continued: “It was the most wonderful recognition for all the hard work we’d done, and recognition from the international community that this place was on par with other cultural sites around the world.”

Michael wishes he had another 50 years to complete the ongoing restoration of the garden, but cherishes the part it has played in his working life.

“The gardens here are transient. They don’t stand still like stonework, like the abbey, they are forever changing and that is what inspired me.

“The year 1781 was an important marker in the garden’s history and I wanted to restore the garden back to that point, so that what people see today is what they would have seen in 1781.”

“The fact that one or two individuals had the foresight to create such a multi-dimensional garden on this scale is so inspiring. I love to sit in the Temple of Piety, looking out over the Moon Ponds through the columns and seeing the connections between the natural world and this fantastic, designed landscape. I truly believe it’s the most beautiful garden in the world.”

Another member of the Ridsdale family continues to work at Fountains Abbey – Michael’s youngest son Christopher, is employed by the National Trust as a stonemason to work on the historic fabric of the abbey.

As recruitment for his role continues, Michael advises his successor: “Be hungry but be patient. You can’t do it all at once. There will be some things that you’ll never get to do. But you’ll have an impact on the quality of people’s lives which is so very important.”

Post-retirement, Michael plans to stay on at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal as a volunteer.