Organising travel is in Stuart’s genes!

The bulb fields near Volendam, Holland.

Stuart Wood is a second generation group travel organiser who learnt much invaluable expertise from going on trips with his  father, Jim. Val Baynton discovers how organising trips has changed in the last 50 years.

Stuart Wood is Vice-President and Life Member of Bexhill Horticultural Society and has been organising day trips and short breaks for his members since he joined the society in 1994.

For Stuart Wood, organising holidays and outings is second nature; he learnt the ‘tools of the trade’ as a young boy, accompanying his father, James (known as Jim), on the trips he organised for the Newport and County Horticultural Society in Monmouthshire in the 1950s. Now, for Bexhill Horticultural Society, he organises around eight one-day outings and one four-night break for his 450 members each year. Members of other local gardening clubs such as the Allotment Society and the Flower Arranging group, which Stuart is also involved with, often join the outings too. Whilst visiting gardens is a priority for his group, Stuart’s trips include historic properties and heritage attractions such as steam railways, and he has several tips to share with other GTOs looking to create varied and good value itineraries. For example, many horticultural societies and gardening clubs are affiliated to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), and membership brings many benefits such as special rates at RHS gardens.

Learning the ropes

After the Second World War, there was much interest in gardening as a result of the ‘Digging for Victory’ wartime effort and the Horticultural Society in Newport was well attended, says Stuart. The society had talks during the winter evenings from a variety of experts and nurseries such as Williamson Nursery in the Wye Valley (the pre-cursor of the national Wyevale Garden Centre chain). In the summer, the group would visit the places they had heard about in these talks and the trips were organised by Jim.

Jim was an assistant clerk in the goods department at the Great Western Railway and qualified for free tickets for his family for up to eight journeys a year, and discounted fares after that, so it was easy, Stuart says, ‘for dad to go to venues to check their facilities and to organise the details for the society’s visit later in the year, and I would often go along with him.’ In those days, Stuart recalls, days out took time to organise as they didn’t have a phone or a car, and so requests for information, and making and confirming bookings for coach hire and the attractions, all had to be made by letter. The society usually travelled on coaches hired from the Western Welsh Omnibus Company. He adds, ‘It was fun to go out and about, and I remember the delightful treat of being given an ice-cream during a visit to a cafe in Stratford-upon-Avon, made as part of our preparations for the society outing taking in Shakespeare attractions such as Ann Hathaway’s House.’ Gradually, throughout his childhood, Stuart learnt the ‘ins and outs’ of organising and, as a result, he says, ‘group organising is in my blood.’

Another difference Stuart singles out from organising today is the popularity of evening trips in the 1950s. Stuart explains, ‘So few people had a car and televisions were still rare in most households so people enjoyed going out mid-week on an evening coach trip.’ Popular destinations were private gardens and nurseries in the Wye Valley.


Beautiful blossoms at Highdown Chalk.

Stuart takes charge

Managing the Oakhaven Holiday Home in Bexhill, Stuart found he was organising many trips including theatre visits and days out at the races for his guests, who came for holidays in the seaside resort from their homes in Southwark, London. He was also involved in planning itineraries for the groups that visited Bexhill as part of the twinning towns scheme and this was how he met his first wife, Romanie. In 1976, she came to Oakhaven as the leader of a group of disabled adults from Deventer, Holland, and eventually moved to Bexhill and married Stuart. With such experience of, and passion for, organising outings, it was inevitable that when Stuart joined Bexhill Horticultural Society in 1994 – reflecting the interest in growing plants that he had developed as a boy and young man – that he began organising trips for the members, especially as this was an aspect of the society that had lapsed. He also became its Chairman, revitalised the finances and increased the membership of the group.

All in a day

The first trip Stuart arranged for the society was in 1996 to a private garden at Cobblers in Crowborough. This was very pleasant, he recalls, with ponds and herbaceous borders, and it was extremely successful with two coaches of members going along. Since then, Stuart has developed varied

­­itineraries for each year’s programme of eight trips. He works around a year ahead so the itinerary can be published in the diary at the start of each year with reminders in newsletters that are sent by email and by post to members. To add variety and to suit as many members as possible, he selects different days of the week for the trips, varies the start and finishing times and the direction of travel, and in this way the group takes in Hampshire and west of London, West Sussex, East Sussex, Kent, Essex and London itself. In spring 2009, for example, the programme offered Highdown Chalk Pit Gardens, Worthing, in March and Athelhampton House and Garden, Dorchester, in April whilst, in May, the group visited Chichester and the private Cookscroft Garden with a stop at the nearby Aldingbourne Trust Centre.

The group explore at Marle Place in Brenchley.

Stuart generally books a 53-seater coach through Ramblers of Hastings and it is usually full. The group finds the drivers are always friendly and helpful, and the service reliable. Generally, the society travels for around two hours and then stops for refreshments before driving on to the main attraction. The journey home is also broken into two segments. ‘I plan the comfort breaks very carefully,’ Stuart explains. ‘We like to support gardens that are run by disabled groups such as the Aldingbourne Centre and these make ideal short stops as do garden centres and RSPB wildlife reserves. I try to avoid motorway service stations as I think there are so many more interesting places to see and these breaks add value to our day out.’ Other good refreshment stopovers are National Trust properties as restaurants can often be visited without paying an entrance fee (although most of the group are members of The National Trust) and gardens in the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), which open to raise funds for charity (see panel on page 42). These, Stuart notes, include Marle Place in Brenchley and are often very unusual, with surprising gardens – sometimes the group can book afternoon tea or lunches, frequently with delicious home made food. ‘Supporting charity is very important to me and it’s great that, whilst we are enjoying ourselves, we can help others.’

A bird’s eye view of the gardens at Sissingshurst Castle, Kent.

Although Stuart ensures his itineraries always include fresh ideas, the society does have some favourite attractions such as Sissinghurst Castle, Sheffield Park and Garden and the gardens at Nymans, which are all close to Bexhill. Further afield, the beautiful chateau Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire is also popular. ‘There is so much to see in the gardens and aviary, as well as a good restaurant and garden centre,’ says Stuart.

Over the years, the group has been to just about every National Trust property in the south east. Stuart states, ‘We like to combine buildings and gardens. Some houses can only be visited with a guided tour but generally I don’t book a guide so that members can go at their own pace and focus on the parts of the attraction that interest them most.’ The RHS gardens at Wisley, Rosemoor, Hyde Hall and Harlow Carr regularly feature too. The group can make a complimentary visit each year to one of the gardens as part of the benefits of membership of the RHS, and Stuart makes sure the visits are timed for different seasons so that they get to see varying aspects of the garden .

Breaks away

The group’s annual four-night break is usually in the UK, although they have visited Holland twice (where Stuart’s Dutch connections were very helpful) and Normandy. Stuart masterminded the first trip to Holland in 2002, personally booking the whole itinerary including hotels and excursions. This was a complicated undertaking, he quickly realised, and now he uses a tour operator if travelling abroad, as this helps with currency and insurance issues. The trip was very successful though and, based at the hotel Avifauna at Aplhen ann den Rijn where there’s free access to the adjacent bird park, the group visited the Floriade, which takes place every 10 years, and many gardens including Keukenhof.The second visit was a cruise through the bulb fields and was part of the society’s 80th anniversary celebrations in 2009.

The memorials and gardens at the National Memorial Arboretum touched many members’ hearts.

Stuart continues to organise the breaks within the UK himself, as this gives good value for money, and he adds in as many visits as possible to make the itinerary interesting. Breaks have included Scotland, in 2009, where the programme started in Rutland at Barnsdale Gardens before travelling to Harrogate for an overnight stay, visiting the RHS garden at Harlow Carr. The route north took the society via Betty’s Tearooms in Harrogate and the Lake District. Once in Edinburgh, the Royal Yacht Britannia fascinated members and was one of many visits the group made, whilst the return journey allowed time for a call at Tatton Park near Knutsford.

In 2014, the extended break was to Derbyshire and Staffordshire with visits to Bolsover Castle, where the horse dressage was excellent, Lichfield and the National Memorial Arboretum.

The Future looks rosy

Stuart has been organising group travel for much of his life and his role looks set to continue well into the future. It’s something he really enjoys doing as, through it, he supports the local community and many charitable efforts. Sadly his wife, Romanie, died in early 2012 after a long illness but Stuart has found new happiness with Hazel, and they plan to marry soon. Hazel is an avid flower arranger and members from the local Ninfield Flower Group now join in with the Horticultural Society’s trips.


The National Gardens Scheme

Cookscroft Garden near Chichester has opened under the NGS scheme for 20 years.

As Stuart Wood notes, the private gardens in the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) offer GTOs opportunities for unusual visits to a range of private gardens. The small entrance fee charged is donated to charity. Groups should always pre-book.

The NGS developed from a 19th century movement to train district nurses. After the death of his wife in 1859, Liverpool merchant William Rathbone raised funds to recruit and train nurses to work in deprived areas of the city. This concept of district nursing gained the support of Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria, and it spread across the country as a voluntary organisation. In memory of its 20th century patron, Queen Alexandra, who died in 1925, a special fund was set up to support nurses who were retiring and one of the volunteer council members, Miss Elsie Wagg, suggested that money could be raised by asking people to open their gardens to visitors and charge a modest entry fee that would be donated. In 1927, the NGS was thus established with a suggested donation of a shilling (5 pence) per visitor. In the first year, 609 gardens raised over £8,000.

By 1931, over 1,000 private gardens opened nationally. Country Life magazine produced a handbook to list the open gardens and it became known as The Yellow Book because of its bright cover.

After the Second World War, the National Health Service took on the District Nursing Service but money was still needed to care for retired nurses and to invest in training. In 1980, the National Gardens Scheme Charitable Trust was established as an independent charity. During the 1980s and 1990s, charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Help the Hospices became beneficiaries of the funds raised. Since 2010, a different annual ‘guest’ charity is also supported, chosen from recommendations from NGS volunteers.

Since its foundation, the NGS has donated over £42.5 million to its beneficiary charities, of which nearly £23 million has been donated within the last 10 years.

Supporting community gardening

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is a UK charity, founded in 1804, and aims to encourage and improve the science, art and practice of horticulture in all its branches. Local horticultural societies and gardening clubs are encouraged to affiliate to the RHS to receive a range of benefits such as copies of the RHS magazine Grass Roots, to tap into resources and access a variety of support from expert speakers to insurance cover at competitive rates. Currently there are around 3,000 groups linked to the RHS.

As an RHS Affiliated Society, a group can make an annual visit, for up to 55 members, to one of the four RHS gardens – Wisley in Surrey, Hyde Hall in Essex, Rosemoor in Devon and Harlow Carr in Harrogate. Each garden has its own character and speciality but all offer a great day out. In addition, there are extra-special group rates for affiliated societies who also want to visit any of the other RHS gardens in the same year, and for RHS flower shows, as well as extra discounts on the normal group rate at a number of partner gardens throughout the country. These offers vary from year to year and must be booked in advance with each partner.

For non-RHS affiliated groups, there are special discounts for group visits including free places for GTOs and coach drivers at the four RHS gardens. Groups can explore at their own pace or book a guided tour.