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The Departure of Andy Willoughby

September 12, 2020
by the gentle author

Andy Willoughby is stepping down as head gardener after more than fifteen years creating the spectacular gardens at Arnold Circus on the Boundary Estate. The Friends of Arnold Circus are seeking a replacement. Click here for details

Andy Willoughby

Over recent years, I have always made the detour up the steps through the park whenever I walk through Arnold Circus, in order to admire the planting. I like to see the native flowers on the slopes here, especially the bluebells, cowslips and foxgloves that combine with the tall trees arching overhead and the ivy garlanding the ironwork to create the effect of a piece of woodland transported to the city.

Most intriguing is the inclusion of non-native species, particularly a fine range of diverse hellebores, which complete the planting in a garden alive with detail at every season of the year – clearly the product of a sophisticated horticultural sensibility. So it was a pleasure to meet Andy Willoughby, the shrewd gardener responsible for the lyrical planting that has enriched this corner of the neighbourhood so attractively.

When we shook hands in Arnold Circus, I immediately noticed Andy’s intense steel-blue eyes, trademark guernsey sweater and direct manner, which is disarming at first because he requires you to connect with him at the same level of open-ness that he shows to you, but which quickly establishes a mutual understanding that allows an ease of discourse without requirement for small talk. The latter is especially useful when there is a job of work to be done and permits dialogue to be restricted to, “Are you warm enough?”, “Take this coat”, “Pass me the fork” and “Hold this bag.”

It is impossible not to respect the strength of character and physical constitution of a man who works fifty to sixty-hour weeks in all weathers outdoors from Easter to Christmas, and keeps very busy with other tasks in between.

“About twenty-five years ago, I was at a bit of a loose end,” revealed Andy quietly, as he worked, introducing his brief account of how gardening came to take over his life. At first, he did grounds maintenance work and cut lawns, but then a job gardening at a hospice for the terminally ill offered the chance to show more creativity. “I learnt most at St Joseph’s Hospice – they liked to keep everything neat and tidy. A friend was a gardener there, so I worked with her and took over when she went on maternity leave. I have no qualifications as a gardener, I learnt from observation – and, by looking up in books, I learnt how things grow.” Andy told me.

Nowadays, as well as his duties at Arnold Circus, Andy gardens at couple of schools, Blue Gate Fields in Cable St, Bangabandhu in Bethnal Green, plus at children’s nurseries, George Green on the Isle of Dogs and Harry Roberts in Stepney, as well Lady Mico’s Almshouses in Stepney and another senior nursing home in Rotherhithe. Andy spoke passionately of his work with children, “They come and help, because they see me doing the work and I explain to them what I do. It is very important that children get an education in plants, otherwise they trample them without knowing what they are doing,” adding, “My mother had a garden and she liked plants,” in explanation of his earliest education in horticulture and revealing the origin of his own green fingers.

It is apparent that Andy loves gardening, derives fulfilment from it and is held in great esteem too. So I was completely astonished when, as we said our goodbyes, he casually revealed all his other previous jobs and accomplishments that filled his life before he arrived at that loose end fifteen years ago – including being a trained nurse, a Buddhist monk, a qualified carpenter and joiner, a bricklayer, a musical instrument-maker specialising in early woodwind, a dustman, a bicycle courier and a skilled rock climber and mountaineer who scaled peaks in the Rockies, the Cascades and the Alps. Travelling widely, Andy was the last European to catch smallpox in India before it was eradicated  forty-five years ago and has the scars to prove it, when I had merely assumed that his ruddy complexion was the result of years weeding in East London.

Now I understood something of the source of the natural authority that Andy possesses and his insight that sees right through you. I recognised that he carries a wealth of experience which he chooses not to tell, and I was fascinated  that gardening brought him into contact with people at all stages of life, from the youngest children at nursery school to senior nursing homes and the dying. Although into his seventies now, I have never met anyone more vitally and physically present in their body than Andy Willoughby, who after experiencing a great deal of life has discovered happiness in cultivating plants.

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    September 12, 2020

    I was relieved to read that the “departure” was not from this life (which seems to happen so often with the people, gentle author, who you meet, given their ages). He sounds like a fascinating soul and would probably be worth looking up in another few years. Thanks for this interesting profile.

  2. Annie S permalink
    September 12, 2020

    What an interesting life! I assume such an active person is not going to ‘retire’ yet a while.
    Good luck for the future – the beautiful gardens at Arnold Circus are a credit to you!

  3. Amanda permalink
    September 12, 2020

    Andy has the kindest face
    and a truly fascinating, worthwhile life.

  4. RiaSunflower permalink
    September 12, 2020

    Pleased to see the lovely garden which must be so uplifting for everyone to behold. The few times I was there it was all barren what a transformation.

    I hope Andy considers writing about his varied life and experiences in the future.

    Thank you.

  5. Richard Smith permalink
    September 12, 2020

    Thank you for telling us about Andy. I enjoyed the read very much, what depths that man has!

  6. paul loften permalink
    September 12, 2020

    What a life ! One thing for sure they will have a hard time trying to find a replacement gardener with the equivalent experierence . The only thing I dont envy is him being the last European to catch smallpox in India. I am eternally grateful to Edward Jenner for that little childhood scar on my arm.

  7. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 12, 2020

    I always take a detour through Arnold Circus when I am in the area and have found it to be a lovely leafy oasis (and very soothing if I have been driving and have had traffic, parking and road closure issues on my way in!)

    I have always admired the planting in the Boundary Estate – so much nicer than the usual corporate park type planting.

    So it is lovely to find out who is behind it all and to read his back story…

    Thank you Andy for all your hard work and the pleasure you have given us all, and good luck for the future.

  8. September 12, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what an uplifting piece about Andy Willoughby and his storied career.

    You write: “I like to see the native flowers on the slopes here, especially the bluebells, cowslips and foxgloves that combine with the tall trees arching overhead and the ivy garlanding the ironwork to create the effect of a piece of woodland transported to the city.”

    Makes me feel as if I am in the English countryside again. Sigh.

  9. Robin permalink
    September 12, 2020

    Thank you, Andy, for bringing such beauty into our lives. And thank you, GA, for the intriguing history of Andy’s remarkable career.

  10. Adele Lester permalink
    September 12, 2020

    Good luck Andy on your next endeavor (or two). GA, how do you find these interesting people to write about??!

  11. September 12, 2020

    I enjoy reading about the Circus as though I lived in London for more than 50 years and still visited [pre-COVID] I’ve never been there.

  12. patricia lewis permalink
    September 12, 2020

    We first discovered Arnold Circus when it appeared in a television series. I forget the name

    We visited soon after and loved it An amazing and very interesting life story.

    Thank you for posting the beautiful photographs. A great tribute to Andy Willoughby

  13. September 12, 2020

    I’m always drawn towards the loving nurture of a gardener, but other aspects of Andy’s life sound fascinating. All best wishes for retirement, although I can’t imagine it’s going to be a sedentary one.

  14. September 12, 2020

    Lovely to read of the garden and Andy’s varied and interesting life. After watching The Secret Life of our Streets and reading your blog, I visited Arnold Circus a few years ago. I was struck by how very peaceful it was. An oasis in the city. Ian Sinclair has written that it is considered to be the end the London ley line. I can quite believe that.

  15. Ros permalink
    September 13, 2020

    Who will have a say in the appointment of a new gardener, and in the kinds of planting that are undertaken? Will the Friends of Arnold Circus play a significant part? Who actually owns the site? Andy has created a place of beauty and delight, that’s for sure.

  16. September 13, 2020

    Mr. Willoughby is a Wonderful Gardner. The pictures are Gorgeous!! Thank You Sir So Very Much!!???????

  17. Caroline Cartwright permalink
    September 13, 2020

    Another wonderful insight GA, thank you. Could a publication be considered for Andy’s tale, as a ‘brother’ publication to Joseph Markovitch? As always, a joy to read your eloquent words, thank you

  18. Valerie permalink
    September 13, 2020

    Successful life with chances taken in ways that many would not have the flexibility to undertake. It requires a lot of trust and stamina. He looks to be at peace with himself & life. That is success to me & the lovely (but demanding at his age) gardens reflects that too.

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