Gardening for Merchant Bankers

A Guest Post by ‘Blodyn Tatws’

(Illustrations supplied by ‘Green Fingers’ Jac showing some of the gems you might encounter at the Garden)

The National Botanic Garden of Wales germinated as an idea in the 1990s and opened its gates to the public in May 2000. In common with so many of the other projects which saw the light of day under Tony “Things can only get better” Blair, it was sold to the public on an entirely unrealistic prospectus that it would become financially self-sustaining and shower economic benefits on Wales. It has never come close to achieving either of those objectives, and it never will.Common Flim-flam Flower

To what extent the Garden can claim to be a national garden for Wales is also debatable, and it bears all the hallmarks of those countless third sector charities and trusts whose primary purpose seems to be to find something to do for members of the British establishment now that the market for sahibs and memsahibs has dried up.

Faced with low visitor numbers and dependent on annual subsidies from the Welsh Government and Carmarthenshire County Council, the Garden is now attempting a new throw of the dice to reverse its fortunes with a £6.7 million scheme based on a truly weird reading of Welsh history, which on closer inspection seems to have rather more to do with celebrating the history of merchant banking and the arcane world of the City of London.

UP THE GARDEN PATH

In June of this year, Carmarthenshire’s county councillors were treated to a 30 minute Powerpoint presentation by Dr Rosie Plummer, Director of the National Botanic Garden of Wales, as she took them on a whistle stop tour of claims, few of which were backed up by evidence and some of which simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Dr Plummer is nothing if not enthusiastic, and after a few words in Welsh (Rosie is proud of the O Level she took when she moved here), the rest of the spiel sounded like a games mistress addressing the Roedean junior lacrosse team with a sideline in corporate bullshit-bingo doublespeak. Our Rosie is very fond of words such as terrific, fantastic, cutting-edge, collaborative, strategic, tremendous and massive. “We are strategic!” she exclaimed at one point in what she obviously considered to be a slam-dunk argument, and the councillors duly gave her warm applause.

In an oblique reference to an earlier row about the Garden’s attitude towards the Welsh language, Dr Plummer declared that the Garden was massively respectful of the Welsh language, but failed to explain why her marketing manager had effectively told a well-known local broadcaster to bugger off when she asked politely for a bilingual version of a newsletter, or why the Garden had taken to putting up English-only signs to advertise various events.

MORE DOSH, PLEASE

Rosie was clearly much too well brought up to mention to rank-and-file councillors that she would be heading back to County Hall shortly to ask the council’s top brass for some of the cash for the £6.7 million scheme, an extension of the garden’s £1.3 million interest-free loan and a commitment to renewing the council’s annual subsidy.

By the by, there is also an interesting arrangement with the council whereby if the local authority ever sells three farmhouses currently occupied for free by the Garden, the capital recOffshore Orchideipts will go to the Garden, rather than the council.

And so, a couple of weeks later the Executive Board of Carmarthenshire County Council sat down to consider Rosie’s request. To its credit, and for the first time in recorded history, the word “consider” did not mean “rubber-stamp”. The council decided that future funding of the Garden should be dependent on a less cavalier attitude to the Welsh language, and that Dr Plummer should consider offering all-year discounted entry tickets to the local peasantry rather than allowing them in once a year for free in January when there is nothing to see.

If that was not embarrassing enough, the council also opined that the Garden needed to become more financially self-sustaining by attracting families and improving its marketing.

WELSH NOT

For several weeks all went quiet, but the leopard was not about to change its spots, and at the end of July it emerged that Dr Plummer had refused to meet representatives of Cymdeithas yr Iaith unless they provided their own interpreter at their own cost, adding that she would be willing to participate in such a meeting only as long as this process did not restrict the free exchange of ideas.

Separately, Dr Plummer told Cymdeithas that they should stop sending her e-mails in Welsh as English was her preferred language. When it was pointed out to her that the garden was committed to providing a service in Welsh under its language policy, Dr Plummer replied that the policy had been entered into voluntarily.

When the BBC tried to interview her about this, they were told that Dr Plummer’s busy schedule meant she had no time.

Cymdeithas has now written to Carwyn Jones to remind him that his government’s agreement on continued funding of the Garden contains conditions about the use of the language, and asking him to take steps to make the Garden meet its commitments.

Being the National Botanic Garden of Wales does not extend to paying anything more than lip service to the Welsh language or culture, and in reality it is much more interested in marketing itself to visitors from England.

WEEDS AND STALE BARA BRITHLaburnum

Visitor numbers have been on the slide since Dr Plummer took over the running of the Gardens. The Garden is understandably reluctant to publish details, but according to a council report there were just 147,000 in the year to March 2015, despite 2014 being an unusually warm summer. That works out at about 400 per day. Back in 2009-10 income from admission fees was £445,000. In 2013-14, the most recent year for which published accounts are available, it was down to just £368,000. In 2013-14 the Garden received subsidies and grants from national and local government to the tune of £1,335,000, and without that and dipping into its reserves, the Garden would have to close its gates for good.

The closest Dr Plummer got to talking about visitor numbers in her pep talk to councillors was a picture of a little girl skipping for joy, but she was in no doubt that the Garden was vital to the local economy.

A more realistic picture of what visitors think of the Garden can be gained from Tripadvisor. Some enjoy their days out, and some are positively ecstatic, but then they would probably have given rave reviews to Basil and Sybil after a weekend at Fawlty Towers.

More worrying for the Botanic Garden is a thread which runs through most of the less positive reviews: this is a Garden which suffers from a distinct shortage of plants, with vast areas given over to grass, and a surprisingly shabby entrance area.

“It was all rather drab, and that was on a bright day,” said one visitor, while a couple of others noted their disappointment after a trip in March to see what the Garden’s promotional literature said would be 50 kinds of daffodil. Others complained of stale bara brith and weeds in the vegetable garden.

As amateur gardeners in Carmarthenshire know, unless you have a very favoured spot, most of us won’t see daffs in our gardens much before the end of March.

Mawrth a ladd, Ebrill a fling (March kills and April flays), says the old Welsh proverb. And they knew what they were talking about.

But Dr Plummer and her board have a big idea to transform the Garden’s fortunes.

A VISION

Dr Plummer’s presentation did include a reference to a £6.75 million project called “Middleton: Paradise Regained” (geddit, all you readers with English A Levels?) which has won initial funding from the National Lottery and a pledge of around £1.4 million from a businessman called Richard Broyd, the Mercers’ Company in the City of London and a couple of other charities.

The lottery grant was awarded in 2014, but the Garden is still about £5 million short of its target, and Dr Plummer warned that if the additional funds could not be found, there was a risk that the dosh could go to Kent.

If the project does get the go-ahead, it will join the once state-of-the-art bio sciences centre aPetuniat the site in Llanarthne, now unoccupied and looking for new tenants. It was built under the Welsh Government’s disastrous Technium scheme which was enthusiastically overseen by Cllr Meryl Gravell, the veteran former leader of the county council. Technium may have gone the way of Nineveh and Tyre in an orgy of what in some cases amounted to large scale fraud, but Meryl is still with us and is enthusiastically backing her new friend Rosie.

Dr Plummer was pretty miffed about the first round of criticism of the Garden’s attitude towards the Welsh language in April, and issued a regal statement at the time to tick off the ungrateful locals:

“It is therefore enormously disappointing to be subject to such vigorous approaches that largely seem to overlook the very wide range of ways in which the garden actively contributes to bringing the unique importance of Wales to everyone who visits”, she declared.

So how Welsh is the garden and its vision for the 21st century?

CARMARTHENSHIRE OLD SPICE

Rather than spending a bit of time and money on those planty things and weeding, the great and good who run the place have hit on the idea of putting a lot of the site under water and doing a bit of archaeology to recreate a vision of Regency England Wales which will somehow incorporate the massive glass and steel dome designed by Norman Foster when he was in his glass and steel dome phase (see the Berlin Reichstag).

This historical justification for this is set out in a gushing press release to celebrate the backing of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project aims “to tell the story of more than 250 years of East India Company influence that shaped the landscape of this part of Wales”, it purrs.

According to Rob Thomas, the Garden’s Head of Development, this is an “incredible story of pirates, plague and plants for health”, set at a time “when nutmeg and mace were worth more than their weight in gold”.

As we shall see, this is indeed a truly incredible yarn.

The chair of the HLF’s Welsh committee added that the project would help people learn about the history of the site and “the little known links the East India Company had to the area”.

So little known that they had escaped the attention of everybody else, including the late Dr John Davies, whose magisterial History of Wales does not contain a single reference to the Company or its influence on Wales.

A HISTORY LESSON

As far as the Garden is concerned, the history of the site began in the first half of the 17th century when the estate was bought by a Mr Henry Middleton.

The Middletons, or Myddletons, were municipal bigwigs in Chester under the Tudors, possibly originally from Oswestry, and a couple of them spotted an opportunity to cash in on the burgeoning spice trade under Elizabeth I. The most famous of these was Sir Henry Middleton whoSassafras led a series of very lucrative and often violent expeditions to Asia. Sir Henry died childless after his final adventure, and his money was distributed among the large Middleton brood.

The Middletons’ association with the East India Company appears to have stopped at the death of Sir Henry, who as far as we know never went anywhere near Llanarthne. The Henry who bought the estate was probably a nephew.

The extent of the estate’s links with the East India Company up to the end of the 18th century was therefore that it was once owned by someone whose uncle made a lot of money out east.

Henry built a house on the site, and eventually the Middletons fizzled out. The Gwyns of Gwympa succeeded, but they lived beyond their means and the estate came up for sale in 1789 when it was acquired by William Paxton.

MONEY BAGS

Paxton was a Scot who rose up through the ranks of the East India Company to become Master of the Bengal Mint. In common with other Brit officers of the company, he amassed a huge fortune while running bits of India, and he ran a very lucrative sideline in helping other ex-pat plunderers to transfer their money back to Blighty.

Thus, it is claimed, Paxton laid the foundations of what was to become merchant banking, a branch of the banking industry which eventually morphed into investment banking, or as it is sometimes popularly known, casino banking.

Paxton’s main hobby was money, and there is nothing whatsoever to back up the Garden’s claim that the story of the estate is a tale intertwined with nutmegs, cloves and cinnamon.

East India Company men who made lots of money were known as ‘nabobs’ back home, and were about as popular with people at the time as investment bankers are today, although unlike their modern counterparts, they tended to wreck only the economies of other countries.

Nabobs generally liked to spend a few years out in India accumulating as much cash as they could before heading for home, where they would build mansions and buy their way into politics. Just like many modern Conservative Party donors, in fact.

This is exactly what Paxton did. Although he had never set foot in Wales before, he ended up buying the estate at Llanarthne in 1789, and shortly afterwards work began on a new neo-classical mansion.

The old Middleton Hall was turned into a farmhouse and then demolished, with much of the fabric being recycled for use in Paxton’s building projects. A study a few years back by the National Botanic Garden concluded that very little of the old house Cedar of Libornonremained to be uncovered apart from some foundations and bits of rubble, and yet uncovering what is left is one of the ideas behind the £6.7 million project.

Having built himself a house, Paxton turned his attention to the grounds, which he improved with a series of lakes and waterfalls.

His attempts to break into politics were less than successful, and he notoriously spent £15,000 (almost £500,000 in current values) on food and drink in the 1802 election trying, unsuccessfully, to become MP for Carmarthen. His investment paid off the following year, however, and he held the seat briefly until 1806.

To the horror of the National Dictionary of Biography, Paxton was the subject of scurrilous leaflets written by one of Jac o’ the North’s spiritual forbears in the 1807 election. There he was described as “an upstart nabob heedless of the interests of our native land”, a description which could be applied to a good many modern Tory and Labour MPs.

Paxton died in 1824, and the estate was sold on to a family which had made its fortune in the slave plantations of the West Indies, although that’s a bit of the garden’s history we are unlikely to be told about.

Architecture is a matter of taste, and Paxton’s house was relatively modest by the standards of the day. It was joined in the 19th century by a large number of other mansions of varying degrees of architectural merit dotted around Carmarthenshire, most of which are now long gone, ruined or in the advanced stages of decay.

Carmarthenshire proved to be not very fertile soil for the imported landed gentry, and Llanarthne was no exception.

Paxton’s house changed hands a couple of times before it was destroyed by fire in 1930. Only the servants’ wing survived, with the shell of the main house being bulldozed in the 1950s. The carefully restored servants’ quarters are, of course, out of bounds to the visiting public and now the domain of Dr Plummer.

The lakes were filled in just over a century after they were dug, and the county council became the new owner. There were no Meryl Gravells or Mark James’s around at the time, and so the estate was parcelled up into seven small farms which were then leased to families who wanted to get a foothold on the farming ladder.

PARADISE LOST AND REGAINED?

For just over sixty years, the Middleton estate reverted to being just a piece of rural Carmarthenshire, home to Welsh-speaking families who no doubt all had their own veg plots and modest gardens, only for the lot to be swept away in the New Labour era.

The life and work of the Welsh families who farmed on the site of the Garden will not featA Verr English Roseure in the “Paradise Regained” project which will instead celebrate colonial exploitation and the debt the world owes to merchant bankers.

Or as the Garden’s Head of Development, Rob Thomas, so eloquently put it, this “incredible” story spans “a period of 250 years of international trade from the times of barter and exchange to the establishment of international lines of credit and investment banking; the forging of the blueprint for our current capitalist system; and, in the hands of Sir William Paxton, the formation of modern investment banking.”

For any visitors wondering why the garden does not invest more in plants, the answer would seem to be that there is not enough money left after paying the salaries of all those spin doctors and heads of development.

It is no doubt purely a coincidence that the Garden’s trustees are headed up by an investment banker, Mr Rob Joliffe, who is currently Head of Emerging Markets for UBS, the Swiss banking giant, or that the funders include the Mercers’ Company, one of those arcane City of London old boys’ institutions.

Quite how any of this bears out Dr Plummer’s claim that the objective of the garden is to bring “the unique importance of Wales to everyone who visits” is anyone’s guess.

14 thoughts on “Gardening for Merchant Bankers

  1. The connection between the Garden and the spices of the Orient is tenuous in the extreme. Making this – as ‘Blodyn Tatws’ says – just another rip-off to support the sahibs and the memsahibs. Which I suppose gives us a certain symmetry, seeing as the inspiration for this scam, the East India Company, made its money by robbing the indigenes so those wishing to celebrate that page in history plan on doing the same thing here.

    It would be criminal if the ‘Welsh’ Government funds this scam while wrecking the chances of genuine Welsh businesses such as Ideoba http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-32591409, and dropping the plans for an investment bank http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-33761237. Yet more evidence that Wales is run by civil servants taking orders from London, not Cardiff Bay. And one of the guiding principles in London’s strategy for Wales is, ‘Keep Wales poor, keep Wales dependent, don’t let them think they can do things for themselves’.

    Predictably we see at Llanarthne the involvement, as at Castell Aberteifi, of the English Heritage Lottery Fund. This is now one of the most blatantly colonialist organisations operating in Wales. Just look at the ‘Wales Committee’. http://www.hlf.org.uk/about-us/who-we-are/committees/wales-committee. The top three are all English, and one even worked for Morgan Stanley!

    1. dafis

      Ah, but had it been Stanley Morgan then one could argue that it sounded Welsh ! you see.

      I tend to agree that, as you say, “It would be criminal if the ‘Welsh’ Government funds this scam…….” but am sure there are much better examples of deprivation of support than the recent failure of Ideoba, which seems to have bumped merrily along the ground without much semblance of taking off.

      I have recently written elsewhere ( can’t remember which site – I tend to get around to offending a few people everyday ! ) that the real problem is that the Assembly’s various funding mechanisms and sources attract many risky,vulnerable ventures and many of these fail as they are built on unsound assumptions and poor/ over -optimistic forecasts. This is further compounded by the Assembly’s lack of sufficiently skilled resources to review and critically assess the various bids before deploying finance and grant aid. Thus, many ventures fail despite having received tranches of funding. Arguably many of these should not have been given support in the first place.

      Now none of this excuses the antics of that Botanic Garden and its stewardship. That it has been allowed to deviate so far from its original template again reflects badly on the assorted agencies of Government that have some remit in this area. Failure to stick to the original objects of the exercise, and its repeated delinquency on the place of the Welsh language are just 2 major breaches that should be addressed as a matter of urgency. If the matter is dealt with in a dispassionate and professional manner it should lead to the eventual replacement of the Director and some of the nonexecutive on the Board. That would serve to reinstate appropriate priorities for the venture and place the use of Welsh at the centre of its conduct of day to day business.

  2. Ian Perryman

    If it’s the National Botanic Garden then it should try to live up to its name. Not try try to turn itself into into some sort of museum.
    It should be leading on botanical research and education, producing relevant media, encouraging the Welsh language and promoting the image of Wales by trying to make a name for itself globally.
    As far as I know it does none of these things.

    I’ve been there a couple of times and been very under-whelmed. If you exclude the grass I’ve seen more plants in my local garden centre.
    It is in no way ‘National’; it’s about as deserving of the word ‘Botanic’ as your local B&Q plant section; and it’s not a ‘Garden’ – it’s a big lawn.

  3. Brychan

    After Paxton the estate was sold to Edward Adams (Abadam).

    It is recorded that he and his family were the owners of a slave plantations in Jamaica and Barbados. The purchase was financed from a cheque finally collected at the time, paid to them as compensation by the British government upon abolition of slavery. Compensation was paid to the slave owners to lavish on country estates, not the slaves themselves.

    The slaves where actually recorded as the chattles of the wife and daughters (sisters of the 17th Lord Clinton).
    See here…
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2804
    It was £4400, 8s and 7d (=£10m value today) the purchase/usage value at the time of dispensing 216 enslaved negroes.

    If the Welsh Government and the Labour Party would like to fund this gem of history in this pet project, rather than ignore the truth, then I suggest they ship in two hundred naked negroes in chains along to the opening ceremony of the garden extension. To add authenticity Dr Rosie Plummer has conveniently laid on a nearby greenhouse containing ample shoots of tropical sugar cane ready for chopping.

    Note – Payments for Slave Compensation were collected in person from the Commission of Slave Compensation at Whitehall Gardens, Westminster, London SW1. Any guesses who occupies this building today?

  4. The Earthshaker

    Interesting and depressingly familiar insight into the blight of ‘welsh’ tourism and third sector leeches, this time at the Botanic Gardens.

    I visited when it first opened, it was little more than a glorified garden you’d find at stately homes the length and breadth of the UK even back then, I’ve never been back.

    Yet with the right leadership, some vision and political support it could potentially be world class venue promoting the full range of welsh natural history (indigenous flowers, grasses, planets, wildlife, fossils etc), putting on exhibitions, linking with our Universities to undertake medical, agricultural and education research and produce content for TV, education for starters. Done properly it could earn money, drawn down grants funding and create decent jobs in an area like many in Wales that desperately needs them.

    It’s all the more frustrating when you see that Wales has been the best performing part of the UK securing small science grants since 1999 http://slowe.github.io/STFCSmallAwards/ for things like 10000X Rays, Crystals and Dinosaurs – Exhibition at the National Eisteddfod of Wales 2015 (National Eisteddfod of Wales) which the Gardens could link with.

  5. Gareth E Williams

    I went to the Gardens back in 2006 with college, as part of a field trip week. I am pretty sure they had (or were developing) an exhibit linked to the physic garden about Myddfai. It was certainly mentioned by the education officer who spoke to us. Although, that’s nine years ago now and staff, exhibits and emphasis may well have changed in the mean time.

  6. Regarding the ‘mock herbal’ pharmacy at the NatBot, we published a book by Terry Breverton on Meddygon Myddfai / The Physicians of Myddfai and have spent nearly three years trying to get this stocked in their shop to no avail despite this book being sold and distributed all over the world (except the NatBot and the other posh ‘garden’ of cobbles at Aberglasney). If they can’t even bother to stock books that relate to Wales and Welsh herbalism which is of international and historical scientific interest then it suggests something akin to what you have written above.
    There used to be a duck (a good looking mallard) wandering around the entrance which was named by locals ‘Paxton’. I suppose Paxton has now been ‘stuffed’ by now.

  7. Being a boring pedant it has always annoyed me that they call themselves a ‘Botanic Garden’ rather than a Botanical Garden. As you say the incorporation of the word ‘National’ into the name smacks of arrogant anglo hubris by senior management that has ranged from ‘away with the fairies’ to Eden Project rejects to martinet nanny.

    1. Brychan

      The whole concept of a ‘Botanic Garden’ smacks of old pith helmet British Empire types. A sort of poor mans Kew. In it’s original bid for public funds it pitched itself on what should be called an Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. A scientific and research role. This could be self-financing by being an international institute of research drawing in funds from academic, private finance agriculture and conservation. What’s it’s ended up as is a Bodnant with tropics and candyfloss. It’s basically a repository for second-rate academics that can’t hack it with Imperial Collage sucking off the tit of Welsh public funds. They are tasked with mowing lawns on the weekend, with a cast-off DNA computer for use on weekdays. If anyone who works there with letters after their name is reading this, then welcome to Wales. There’s a job available that doesn’t involve a subsidy, stacking shelves at Tesco in Carmarthen. If you’re any good at your fancy job, please establish the ‘Institute’ mentioned above. You have the real estate already paid for, so stop sponging. If Aunty Delyth wants to look at some fancy daises, then send her to Powis castle or Bodnant.

  8. jones

    There is a section on Meddygion Myddfai. Interestingly this project was doomed for failure from the start as predicted by a local county councillor at the time, who was ostracised by his colleages for pouring cold water on the vanity project with facts and figures and was one of only 2 who voted against it in chamber. Anyway he has been proved right. Of course the WG and CCC will do all in their powers to kkep the good ship Middleton afloat in order to save face. By the way last autumn was searching the area for locations and stumbled across many of those ex-council farmsteads which used to house working famers and smallholders. Those houses all lie empty and half derelict – this is a scandal – people who want to get on the farming ladder could have still farmed them and provided a rental income to the Gardens. But no another dodgy financial dealing whic has left the area bereft of local families and undermined a sustainable Welsh speakign rural community

  9. Brychan

    I see that Dyfed Archaeological Trust in league with the National Botanic Garden has managed to snaffle £43,000 to educate schoolchildren about the peat bogs at Brachia and Llanfynydd. This burst of funding, it is said, is because of recent “Bronze Age Finds”.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-west-wales-34294389

    Strange. When I was in school, I learnt that in the bronze age, which officially ended 500BC, these areas had not yet accumulated a peat build up. The areas consisted of birch and pine forest. The peat build up only occurred after all the trees were felled, and the majority of the stratification of peat started around 1000AD after ‘Norman’ type agriculture was introduced. Even stranger, the ‘finds’ were inside prehistoric round barrows, and these are actually date from the Neolithic to Bronze Age historical boundary some 2500BC.

    Perhaps it’s the Dyfed Archaeological Trust should stop sponging cash ‘for educational purposes’ and start taking lessons in archaeology from former Welsh schoolchildren. Also, it appears the National Botanic Garden are falsifying their pollen date chronology in a desperate search for cash.

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