Molly Walker – Founder member of PHNE
Molly Walker, one of the founder members of Plant Heritage North East, moved earlier this year to join her daughter in Hampshire. Before she left, Bryan and I were fortunate to be able to join David Goodchild on a visit to her home and still-beautiful garden in Forest Hall. After we’d talked indoors, Molly sat comfortably in a garden chair while we keenly examined the plants and hidden corners of the garden.
Both Molly and her husband were fern specialists, Trevor being particularly interested in Pteris and Blechnum. He studied botany at Leeds University under Irene Manton and stayed on to do a PhD in fern cytology. After her first degree in Aberdeen Molly did a doctorate on Polypodium at Leeds, staying on afterwards as a research assistant with Prof. Manton, and thus she and Trevor met. They married in 1956, and honeymooned in the West Indies, then spent 1957 there, Trevor at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica on an exchange while Molly taught Biology and Genetics in several schools (she remembers being ferried from school to school by a VIth-former who could drive). They also took the opportunity to go on plant collecting trips with a local botanist. Trevor took on a lectureship at Newcastle University in 1959, getting further funding to collect plants abroad, and he and Molly continued to work on ferns. He even made a fern stumpery in their garden, remains of which are still visible.
Plant Heritage (then NCCPG) was introduced to the North East as the result of a request from Wisley to RHS judge Ron McParlin at Kirkley Hall College. He initiated a meeting that Molly and Trevor attended, along with Steven Anderton, Head Gardener at Belsay. As a result of Steven’s involvement, early PHNE plant sales were held at Belsay, and the practice of colour coding prices – which we still use – was started. At first the group met at the Walkers’ house where they planted and potted up a range of material, and she provided tea. Molly reports that Trevor (then Chairman) liked unusual plants and used to receive seeds from various organisations. She used to prick out the seedlings, bring them on and plant them out in the garden if they were any good. David remembers that Trevor grew a free standing Wisteria.
The primary aim was at that time to reproduce plants. David remembers propagation sessions in Molly’s large greenhouse. As a group they dealt with plant records in winter and propagation in summer. Molly was label-writer-in-chief and remembers that one year the production line achieved 200 plants. Eventually Belsay became too expensive and the plant sales moved to Kirkley Hall. Molly remembers the battle over pot shapes between Trevor and David – Trevor liked stock in square pots for efficient packing, whereas David preferred round. Trevor won. When David joined, the Collators’ Group already existed and had been Molly and Trevor’s idea. At first, members listed plants found in garden centres until Plant Finder started in 1987. They then concentrated on listing plants in members’ gardens and all those donated for the annual plant sale, but this became an impossible task.
National Collections developed later. The idea came from Wisley, and Molly “vaguely remembers a young man at Kirkley who was very hands-on” and carried the idea forward. She remembers too that Lord Ridley was one of the first to register a National Collection, and she acquired some of the things he didn’t want.
When the PHNE group was too big to meet at Molly’s, they started to meet at the Hancock Museum, in what Molly describes as “a difficult-to-access room where even getting a cup of tea was a problem”. Meetings became more formalised and Steven Anderton became chairman. The group moved again to Durant Hall when the Hancock closed for renovation.
Molly regretted that she couldn’t remember more details, but it didn’t matter: she gave us a real feel for the enthusiasm, hard work and camaraderie of the early years, and a sense of how Plant Heritage (the North East group included) has fine-tuned its aims and activities since its inception.
Bryan, David and I then had the pleasure of exploring the very large garden Trevor and Molly had so lovingly and effectively designed and planted, though Molly feels her best memories are of how much her children loved growing up and playing there. Note the photograph of our intrepid plant hunters David and Bryan casting a keen eye over . . . who knows what, as there was so much we couldn’t identify. David was particularly taken with a Lonicera standishii x L. Fragrantissimum. Molly,
like us, can only hope that the next house-owners appreciate what they have and are prepared to work with it. We wish her well in her new home in the south.