Ah… Nature. In gardens and parks, most of us take its abundance - and variety - for granted. Seldom do we consider where it came from though… and how it originally got here. So it might not be too well known, even to the green-fingered, that quite an anniversary approaches. Surprisingly, it connects with a popular Middlewich tradition.
We are talking horticultural heritage. Not just looking local but going global. Throughout the 18th century – especially the second half - the nation’s gardening landscape was transformed. Plant introductions poured in from travels to the New World. Cheshire’s many grand estates, and gardens both public and private everywhere, have been massively enriched as a result.
One particularly daring voyage of discovery set out for ‘the South Seas’. On board was the botanical team led by wealthy young plant enthusiast Joseph Banks (pictured). They were to collect as many ‘Productions of Nature’ as could be spotted, gathered, then identified and scientifically classified. Somehow, on a pitching ship, these often strange and beautiful specimens were to be sketched and painted too. All that before being preserved, transported and finally, if very lucky, delivered to an astonished Britain. Their tiny ship Endeavour launched in August 1768. That’s 250 years ago to the month.
Before that epic journey began, there is a nice local aside. During the cold January of that year, and then intending only a future visit to northern Sweden, the 24 year-old Banks was returning home from Wales. He passed through an obviously wintry Cheshire. A friend’s letter noted ‘the perils of snow and ice (would be) a good foretaste of your Lapland Journey’.
Instead, it was three years sailing the world’s hotter climes, the Endeavour bringing back an incredible 1,500 new species of flora. So prolific was the plant haul during the stay in Australia’s ‘Sting-Ray Harbour’ that the captain, James Cook, re-named it Botany Bay.
Later on, around the year 1800, came the inspired idea for an official organisation to showcase all discoveries, recognise gardening achievements and award prizes. This became the Royal Horticultural Society, or RHS. A founder member? Joseph Banks, of course. Continuing that spirit on a community level is Middlewich & District Show Society – an institution for over a century and a half. Its annual Show date next falls exactly within this anniversary window, on 1st September. A remarkable 162 years!
Plant-wise, for so much of what we now cultivate, admire and display, it’s thanks to adventurous sea trips and pioneering naturalists. That’s surely a happy anniversary.
©Julie Elizabeth Smalley 2018