Sally Beamish obituary

Visionary gardener who made it her life’s work to recreate Brantwood, John Ruskin’s Lake District home

My colleague Sally Beamish, who has died of a brain tumour aged 54, was head gardener and estate manager of Brantwood, John Ruskin’s former home in the Lake District. Sally was a visionary gardener who recognised and restored the hidden treasure that is Brantwood’s gardens and estate, revealing the extent of Ruskin’s contribution to the practice and understanding of people’s relationship to nature.

Sally joined Brantwood at the age of 24 and made it her life’s work. She found an overgrown estate of 250 acres ripe for rescue, and could see that beneath its surface were clues to a former existence that was as important to Ruskin as his writing and painting.

With determination and infectious enthusiasm, she motivated a young team which set-to to tackle the huge task of reclaiming historic features, restoring Ruskin’s landscaping and his cousin Joan Severn’s gardens, and returning the woodlands and grazing of the estate to healthy management. Almost all this work required problem solving on an epic scale.

The daughter of Patricia and William Beamish, Sally grew up in Plymouth. Her father, a former naval officer, was employed in the civil service with the Ministry of Defence.

She studied horticulture at Askham Bryan College near York, then taught sailing back in Plymouth before getting a job with Cumbria county council managing tree-planting teams. On discovering Brantwood she became a volunteer, and in 1988 an employee.

The 'Zig Zaggy path'
Sally Beamish recreated Ruskin’s ‘Zig Zaggy path’ through Purgatory, based on Dante. Photograph: Howard Hull

Sally quickly became a native Cumbrian, effortlessly absorbing local wisdom on all matters pertaining to the land. This respect for local tradition deepened in her over the years and Brantwood became an exemplar of traditional rural skills in practice. With Ruskinian instinct, she fused the practical and scientific with the philosophical and spiritual, evolving a richly holistic management style which quickly became a central principle of the gardens.

Like Ruskin before her, Sally was not content to rest on a conventional reading of nature, and it was a natural step for her to explore more radical horticultural alternatives. She devised a number of experimental projects to look at different management regimes – a project that yielded seven years of meticulously gathered data and a wild flower meadow of infinite beauty and diversity.

Perceptive and thoughtful to the end, Sally leaves behind an astonishing legacy in the Brantwood gardens, one of the jewels of the Lake District. Her work has been recognised in a book, The Gardens at Brantwood: Evolution of John Ruskin’s Lakeland Paradise (2014) by David Ingram, former keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and in an award for loyal service by the Professional Gardeners Guild and the lifetime achievement award of Cumbria Women of the Year.

Sally is survived by her brother, Harry.

Howard Hull

The GuardianTramp

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