Brian Kidd is triumphant. He’s just received a letter from Number 10. It’s not about the NHS, rail fares or the national deficit. It’s about potatoes. Chris Owen reports.
The man who is the most respected public gardener in the south is furious about the imminent banning of the fungicide Bordeaux Mixture, which prevents potato blight.
Brian wrote to David Cameron in protest. ‘I wanted him to know the potential ramifications,’ he says.
‘I asked him if he realised that by withdrawing it from sale we could potentially end up with a potato famine similar to those in Ireland in the 19th century.
‘I’ve just had a letter back from him saying he is taking this very seriously. So perhaps we might get somewhere.’
Brian is so disillusioned with the withdrawal from sale of the mixture that, as regular readers of his column in The News will know, he has stopped growing many varieties.
Brian enjoys going to the top.
In 1994, when Portsmouth hosted a dozen or more world leaders for the 50th anniversary commemoration of D-Day, he was hugely impressed by the effort US president Bill Clinton made to engage with the people of the city during his weekend stay.
‘I decided to write to him to thank him. It was just a short note and I forgot all about it. But a week or so later the postman knocked on my door and said he had a letter for me from the White House.
‘I was puzzled because I wasn’t expecting any mail order gardening items from a White House Nursery.’
That tale epitomises the 76-year-old, who has just celebrated six decades as a professional gardener – 60 years in which he has brought joy to tens of thousands of people admiring the city’s parks and gardens.
Through his column in the Weekend magazine of The News and his weekly surgery on BBC Radio Solent, he has become THE authority on all things horticultural in this part of the world.
How many of us are now sprinkling our compost heaps with a solution of seven parts water to one part urine to speed decomposition?
Another of his mantras comes with advice for those who garden on sites which are a tad breezy. ‘If you suffer from the wind...’ goes the oft-repeated refrain, bringing his gentle humour to a column which has assumed almost biblical respect to those with soil under their nails.
Such is the esteem in which he is held that when he retired from Portsmouth City Council in 2003 after 49 years cultivating and designing the city’s 1,600 acres of open space, he had a road named after him.
The passion – and it really is an all-consuming passion, coming second only to his family – started in the Second World War.
He was born in April 1938 at St Mary’s Hospital, Milton, Portsmouth, but when the war and the blitz began his family was evacuated.
Brian recalls: ‘We went to stay with my grandparents at Shinfield near Reading and my grandfather grew nothing but vegetables in his garden and on his allotment. I was transfixed by the whole process. How, from a tiny seed, you could grow enough veg to feed a family.
‘I’ve never lost that sense of wonder and still aim to be self-sufficient in veg to get Pam and me through the year.’
Pam, his wife of 53 years, is ‘the head gardener’ in the couple’s 181ft-long garden at their Waterlooville home. The allotment and its two greenhouses and polytunnel are Brian’s domain.
‘After the war we returned to Portsmouth and my father, who belonged to the Royal British Legion, got us a prefab in Phoenix Square, Hilsea.
‘Ours was one of 12 prefabs. They were wonderful places and I can remember it as if it were yesterday, the gas fridge. I used to sit on the floor staring at this little pilot light trying to figure out how a flame could make something cold.’
But it was his talented father Len who, carrying on the family’s green-fingered tradition, inspired the young Brian to pursue a career in gardening and landscape design.
‘My dad had two greenhouses at that prefab, one in the back garden, another in the front. Three years running he won the Best Garden in Portsmouth competition.’
By trade Len was a stonemason and in later years the two would find themselves working on the same site – his father renovating the stonework of Southsea Castle and his son designing the gardens leading up to the 16th century fortification. It’s that stretch which is now called Brian Kidd Way.
‘Like many boys I wanted to be a pilot in the RAF, but that didn’t happen so, having left St Luke’s School at 15, I joined the city’s parks department as an apprentice at 16.
‘I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been. I’ve worked with marvellous people, but best of all I hope I was able to put a smile on people’s faces when they saw the displays around the city.’
Brian Kidd has never looked back since winning that coveted apprenticeship with Portsmouth City Council in the 1950s.
‘It became the defining point of my life and convinced me that horticulture was really what I wanted to do with my life,’ he says.
‘Every six months I was sent to work somewhere else, from Southsea Common to Leigh Park; from Victoria Park to the Rock Gardens on the seafront. It was a marvellous way to learn the job.’
Brian will never forget many of those with whom he worked; aptly-named people like Ernie Flowers, Bill Hedges and a Mr Hayday.
But it was his boss, the fearsome John Studley, who most influenced Brian’s career.
‘I was responsible for growing 86,000 wallflowers from seed in the council’s nursery at Creek Farm, off Peronne Road, Hilsea.
‘One day I looked out of the shed and noticed what looked like litter everywhere. Mr Studley hated litter, so I went to pick it up and then realised it wasn’t paper but foam from the sea.
‘There had been an exceptionally high tide which had flooded my 86,000 wallflowers.
‘All Mr Studley could say was: ‘‘Mr Kidd, how could you let this happen?’’.’