Gardens & Art inspire Jill’s trips

Grand Cascade

Spectacular grand cascade at Alnwick Castle, a highlight of a trip to Northumberland in 2012.

Jill Donnelly has put her enthusiasm for learning about art and gardens to good use by becoming Visit Secretary for Huntingdon DFAS. Val Baynton discovers more about her role.

Jill Eltham

Jill Donnelly
Jill became Visit Secretary for the Huntingdon branch of the DFAS in 2010 after working for 40 years in the NHS, 20 of them as a Consultant Paediatrician. She is also a non-executive director of the Hinchingbrooke Hospital Trust, and as part of the DFAS she has been working with the Young Arts subsidiary group. This group encourages young people to be involved with art and has led to a collaborative project between local schools and the hospital, with youngsters’ art decorating the otherwise blank corridor walls.

Jill Donnelly has been Visit Secretary for the Huntingdon DFAS, a branch of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, based in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, since September 2010. (For information about NADFAS see panel below). To date, Jill has organised nearly 20 trips for her members, in groups of between 20 and 85 people.There are one or two more expeditions to come before she hands over to another member of the group, Valerie Gentry, as she only agreed to take on the role for a maximum of four years. Jill’s trips have comprised a mixture of day visits and longer breaks to explore the arts, architecture and gardens of England and she has enjoyed the challenge of creating interesting trips for her fellow DFAS members.

Jill was very much the ‘new girl’ when she became Visit Secretary as she had only just joined the Huntingdon DFAS group. Her introduction to NADFAS was an unusual lecture by Jonathan Hinden on Carmen, during which he played a piano and sang, and from this point Jill was hooked. ‘I realised how little I knew about the arts and I was impressed by the depth of knowledge displayed by Jonathan’ she says. At her first meetings a request was made for a new Visit Secretary and, gamely, she volunteered. Jill explains, ‘I knew it was a role I could do, as for over 20 years I had organised annual summer camps for 20 to 30 sick children. I was attracted by the thought that I could, to some extent, choose where we went and so include a number of places I wanted to visit personally.’ The then Visit Secretary, Elspeth Gibbon, also promised to help her with the first couple of trips.

Her first solo trip was to the New Hall collection of art by women held by Murray Edwards College in Cambridge, which is the largest collection of its kind in the UK, if not in Europe too. The impetus to view the collection was the imminent departure of the curator of the time. ‘The art was amazing,’ Jill says, ‘and it was a salient reminder of what is often on your doorstep and can be easily overlooked. In fact, the DFAS group may be returning for a ‘study day’ with the collection later this year.’



Of the 250 members of the Huntingdon DFAS, around 70 to 80 regularly support the trip programme, Jill estimates. She mixes local trips with ones further afield as this helps to vary the cost, and she usually books a 52-seater coach and plans on breaking even at 75% occupancy – so around 40 people. The visit programme is planned in advance of each season, and trips are advertised before lectures. Jill adds, ‘Trips that complement lectures and study days with a visit to the relevant collection are well supported, as members enjoy seeing the objects they’ve heard discussed in the lecture.’ One such trip in July 2012 to the Gold: Power and Allure exhibition at Goldsmith’s Hall followed a lecture by curator Helen Clifford.

Planning tips Jill has learnt during her time in office include, ‘be sure to follow up all expressions of interest and scrupulously manage any waiting list.’ Jill also uses an annual questionnaire to find out what worked well and to gather ideas for future trips.

Occasionally Jill has organised two coaches to cater for all who want to join the trip, but she says this is very much more hard work and it’s difficult to be sure the second coach will be full. She adds, ‘With two coaches I need more helpers to make sure nobody gets lost!

Huntingdon coach company, Dews Coaches, is used for each trip. Drivers are reliable and friendly. ‘Having a good coach company really adds to the success of a day out,’ Jill says. She recalls how one visit to London coincided with transport strikes and road closures, which made getting around the capital very difficult, ‘but the driver and the guide from City and Village Tours, (C&V) were amazing with their knowledge of how to avoid the congestion.’



Jill was keen to include more visits to gardens in the trip programme since prior to retirement she studied for the RHS entry diploma and this made her aware of the large number of RHS, National Trust and other gardens that were available for visits. As one of the sub-groups within the DFAS is concerned with Garden Conservation, and is affiliated to the Cambridge Historic Gardens Trust, Jill knew other members would share her interest. One suggestion made by members for the visit programme was for longer and overnight trips, so Jill decided to combine both ideas.

For these longer trips, Jill realised she needed professional help in planning the itinerary, booking hotels and with overseeing other logistics. Having travelled with Brightwater Holidays on personal vacations – to the gardens of the Loire and to the Patio Garden Festival in Cordoba, Spain – and liking the way the tours were tailored to each group, were well organised, had full itineraries and were not over expensive, Jill was happy to recommend the company to the society. The benefit of working with such a tour operator is that there are insurances and protection in place for monies as well as support for last minute hitches. A guide leader from Brightwater Holidays can also be booked to join the group, meaning GTOs like Jill can enjoy the trip too. Jill worked closely with Brightwater Holidays staff, including groups’ manager, Ellen Walker, developing itineraries for each of the breaks; typically Jill proposes a selection of attractions but the final programme is a collaborative effort.

In 2012, 20 members plus Michael Gill, the holiday leader from Brightwater, enjoyed the three-night Northumberland Garden and Castle tour. They were based at the four-star Marriott Hotel in Durham and visits were made to the Cathedral and the quirky, historic Crook Hall Garden in the city, as well as to Alnwick Castle. ‘This was a feast for the senses,’ Jill recalls, ‘the guide regaled us with horror stories of poisoners from history in the castle’s Poison Garden.’ The group also visited the remarkable quarry garden at Bide-a-wee where plants grow on vertical rock faces.

The Lost Gardens

Enjoying the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall.

Last year 32 members travelled to Cornwall to study the art and gardens of the south west, and this time they were led by Sara Hunter from Brightwater. Highlights included Hestercombe Garden near Taunton, a welcome stopover en-route to Newquay and the ocean view, Sands Resort hotel and spa, where the group was based for the four nights. The Newlyn school of artists, the work of potter Bernard Leech and the Tate Gallery in St Ives were all explored during the trip and visits were made to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, and the Eden Project. On the return journey the group called at the impressive 65-acre garden at RHS Rosemoor near Great Torrington.

Jill has much praise for Brightwater Holidays, she says, ‘they take the hassle out of organising longer trips, and ensure they run smoothly. Working with the friendly team at Brightwater has been personally enjoyable and has allowed the DFAS to be far more adventurous!’ In April, the DFAS will venture to Amsterdam, again with Brightwater Holidays. This, their first overseas trip for several years, will take in the refurbished Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House and the Hague as part of the five-night tour.



Royal Opera House

Learning ‘Back Stage’ at the Royal Opera House, London.

Huntingdon DFAS regularly visit exhibitions in London’s national museums and art galleries such as ‘Pre Raphaelite Avant Garde’ at Tate Britain and ‘Pompeii and Herculaneum’ at the British Museum. For these, Jill usually arranges a special tour of the exhibition by the curator, especially if the subject has not been covered by a lecture to the group already.

Visits to more unusual attractions within the city include the London Law Courts. This was somewhere Jill had never been, but hearing a good report of a similar visit, when she saw a ‘Legal London’ walking tour advertised in the C&V brochure she thought she would offer it. Initially Jill was concerned how the logistics and meeting up with the C&V guide would work, but it all worked very easily, she says. The tour, in October 2011, included a walk through the Middle and Inner Temple courts and gardens, the Temple Church and Lincoln’s Inn. Jill booked through C&V again for another visit that year to the Olympic Park prior to the Olympics, followed by a Thames River Cruise from Westminster Pier to the O2 Arena. Other trips have taken in the Backstage Tour of the Royal Opera House and the Globe Theatre.

Middle Temple Courtyard

Fabulous vaulting in the Middle Temple Courtyard on the tour of Law Courts, London.

Sometimes Jill offers members different options for the day, this is complicated to manage but it means several tastes can be catered for, and the outing is more likely to be viable. After the visit to Goldsmith’s Hall members could choose a tour at the Bank of England or opt for an exhibition about Livery Companies at the Guildhall. A third choice to visit St Paul’s Cathedral was inspired by the voluntary work of the society’s President, Isobel Lattimore, a highly skilled embroider and leader of Huntingdon’s Textile Heritage Volunteer sub-group. Every week Isobel travels to St Paul’s where she helps to conserve the cathedral’s historic vestments, and so the tour included the Textile Heritage Workshop to see the work she was involved with. Jill says, ‘Numbers were restricted to 15, but I jumped at the chance to join this group. It was eye opening to see the skill of the embroiderers and also to understand the talents of fellow DFAS members.’ So that more members could see the important work of the Volunteers, a study day at St Paul’s took place earlier this year.

A trip to Eltham Palace and Gardens and the Rangers House in Greenwich Park last June was popular with members; the itinerary included a self-guided audio tour of the palace and a guided tour of the Ranger’s House. There was time to explore the gardens at both sites too and because both buildings are part of English Heritage’s portfolio, it was a good value day out for those who had membership. Jill adds, ‘It was fascinating because the two buildings presented such contrasting architectural styles.’ After studying the role of women in history as part of a Workers Educational Association course, for which she read a biography about Bess of Hardwick, Jill was inspired to arrange days out to Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire and to Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, which has links to Elizabeth I. For Jill, these two trips are her personal favourites of all the activity she has organised because of the history and connections with somewhat ‘determined’ female owners.



Jill will remain a member of Huntingdon DFAS, and will provide whatever help she can to Visit Secretaries in the future; in the meantime she sees the trip to Amsterdam later this year as her swan-song. As part of Huntington DFAS Young Arts sub-group she is looking forward to developing the connections with the local hospital further and hopes it will lead to apprenticeships and other ideas that will further support and encourage young people to fulfil their potential and aspirations.