Alastair Gunn: Roses, wildflowers and tending ‘to the manor’s thorn’

Apr 17 2020

In this, the final episode of a "Castle Howard Trilogy", David Oakes talks to Alastair Gunn, the head of garden and landscapes at Castle Howard.

David Oakes

David Oakes


Alastair Gunn


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About this episode:

In the third and final episode of the Castle Howard trilogy, you’re introduced to head of gardens and landscapes, Alastair Gunn. Starting in one of the estate’s rose gardens, we meet a stunning, rare, white china rose, thought to be a devoniensis, planted over 40 years ago. Alastair has been on the team for just over two years, coming from managing the gardens at Hatfield House, but he’s very much committed to bringing life back to the gardens with a mandate to renovate, restore and ‘zhuzh things up’ – a challenge he’s clearly than risen to. Alastair explains the challenges of working in a different parts of the country, with different soil and vastly differing seasons and conditions. From roses to rhubarb and Read Dead Redemption 2, this conversation is full of interesting and funny moments, including an idea to pioneer Japanese Knotweed Gin, or crumble (for the under 18’s).

Episode 1: Nick Howard
Heritage, home and honing the Howard’s way

Episode 2: Nick Cooke
Beneath the boughs with bluebells and brambles


David's thoughts:

In the years I’ve spent making period dramas in stately homes, castles and the like, I’ve never failed to be amused by people’s reaction to filming. Tourists and locals alike flock to a chateaux or schloss to admire the architecture, the parterres and the heritage of a space – but if an actor or camera crew were to galavant across a Capability Brown garden or stand in front of a Louis the XVI Chaise Voyeause veneered with tulipwood, amaranth, holly, and sycamore and upholstered in a moiré silk, then the real wonder is often eclipsed by the artifice forgetting his lines in the foreground.

The Castle Howard estate is truly spectacular. Yet, due to the perversities of large stately homes being opened up to filming, its spectacle may be sidelined by its familiarity. Castle Howard is better known to many as “Brideshead”, but the house, grounds and surrounding forests have far more to offer than Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick – “how on earth can that be possible?!” I hear you ask! Well – I offer up three episodes of Trees A Crowd as supporting evidence, to take a quick look behind what may be to many a very familiar veneer.

EPISODE 3: Alastair Gunn

Through listening back to my interview with Alastair, I’m reminded that “the only constant is change”. Whether it be from rain to sun, or brassicas to roses, or indeed something darker, we humans are always confronted by change. Some changes we control, and others are enforced upon us.

But whereas listening to our Politicians tell us of all life’s uncertainties feels me with doubt and fury, there’s nothing like listening to a gardener – lord knows I find “Gardner’s World” perhaps the most reassuring show on television at the moment! With gardeners I find solace. They present humanities perseverance and adaptability. They are farmer, propagator, feeder of communities. Monty Don knows what and why and how, and here you hear Alastair’s incandescent calmness despite facing days full of endless horticultural challenges. True he’s chosen many of these challenges, such as annuals instead of perennials, Howard instead of Hatfield; but also those he hasn’t – old dry soil, slugs, changing weather patterns, slugs, and slugs. I find great pleasure in listening to him take me back around Castle Howard’s beautiful gardens. And to think I only reached out originally to Castle Howard to nab a cutting of his devoniensis!

But it’s more than that. Gardening provides endless surprises, and I’ve yet to meet a gardener who isn’t still entranced by these charms as they were when they started. I’m taken back to the pleasure of Terry Gough showing me Hampton Court’s national collections. And here, one of my favourite moments is hearing Alastair’s reaction to my tale of the apple blossom. Despite having seen these trees, indeed this tree blossom before, he seems positively surprised at the beauty he may have missed this season, yet delighted to be surrounded by so many spectacles that no man could witness them all.

Change may be the only constant, but that certainly isn’t always a bad thing.


Castle Howard –

The History of Castle Howard –

Jim Russell (horticulturist) –

Devoniensis –

Folk by the Oak –

China Rose (Wikipedia) –

Tree Peonies (Wikipedia) –

Red Dead Redemption 2 –

Ash Dieback –

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