Riviera People – Anita Newcombe meets Ali Marshall, Head Gardener at Torre Abbey

Posted by: on Apr 30, 2015 | No Comments

 Philosophy and Gardening at Torre Abbey – Anita Newcombe meets Ali Marshall, Head Gardener at Torre Abbey and delves into a world of philosophy, horticulture, vegetable gardening and Agatha Christie.

Ali Marshall 1I met Ali in the pretty café at Torre Abbey and settled in for a chat over a nice cup of tea on a rainy winter’s day. I was interested to find out how one becomes a Head Gardener, imagining an early interest in horticulture and a life filled with planning, planting and pruning.

“My first degree was in philosophy and linguistics,” said Ali rather unexpectedly. “I didn’t think about gardening when I was younger and worked as a Business Consultant in Paris for many years.”

So how did Ali transform herself from a Business Consultant in Paris into a Head Gardener at Torre Abbey in Torquay?

“My family lived in Chelston and my uncle had a beach hut at Corbyn Head so I spent many happy holidays here on the English Riviera,” reveals Ali. “I moved to the Bay from France in 1998 determined to spend more time with my second child. My first child had a French nanny and I did feel that I had missed out at times.”

“I have always loved Torre Abbey and there was a secret entrance at the top of the Woodland Walk that was special and very dark. I always came in that way and I used to hunt tigers, with my uncle supplying the tiger sounds. That’s why today there’s a ‘Beware Wild Animals’ sign on the Childrens’ Trail; I want our young visitors to have as much fun as I did.”

Ali told me that she heard a radio programme extolling the virtues of vegetable gardening and the importance of not filling your child with chemicals. Inspired by this, she took up an allotment at Sherwell Valley and this sparked off her love of gardening. She then decided to study horticulture at Dartington and Bicton and started volunteering with Torbay Council’s Parks Department.

Ali Marshall 2“I learned gardening skills and efficient ways of working, such as how to plant 2,000 bedding plants in one day. When the job came up as Head Gardener at Torre Abbey in 2008, I managed to convince the interviewers that I had lots of wonderful ideas.”

And so she did with one of her proudest achievements being the creation of the Agatha Christie Potent Plants Garden, which is filled with plants used to make the Queen of Crime’s famous poisons.

“I read all the Agatha Christie novels and quickly discovered that the recurrent theme was poisons,” recalls Ali. “I had already done some research on medieval plants and once I had noted all the plant references from the stories, I started to design the garden.”

The area chosen was the Old Rose Garden, which couldn’t be replanted with fresh stock due to ‘rose replant disorder’. The garden is quite self-contained and Ali decided it was perfect for her plan. She’s created a central square of planting, which contains the potent plants plus four sides, which contain clues to four of Christie’s short stories. One of these is a Hercule Poirot story and the other three are Miss Marple. It’s the sort of lovely cottagey English garden that Agatha Christie who was born in Torquay would probably have enjoyed, especially as the idyllic scene starts to give up its darker secrets. Having visited the Potent Plants Garden for afternoon tea and heard Ali give talks during the Agatha Christie Festival, I saw her passion for the subject and in-depth knowledge first-hand – absolutely fascinating!

Ali told me, “It may be the philosophy background but I am very interested in the stories behind plants and like to design gardens with multiple layers of meaning.   We put in interpretation wherever possible to reflect this so it’s interesting to both adults and children.”

Ali is particularly involved in children’s activities. “I want people to come and feel that sense of wonder that I felt when I was younger. It’s not just about looking pretty, we create interactive trails that are fun for everyone.”

The whole garden is managed sustainably without chemical products, pesticides or herbicides, relying instead on old-fashioned manual labour to keep the weeds down. Much of the gardening is done by hand using traditional techniques, although Ali admits to using a mower rather than a scythe to cut the grass!

So where does Ali live and does she still have a vegetable garden, I wondered? Well she lives in the cottage next to Torre Abbey with her family and Ella their 6-month old Newfoundland puppy plus some chickens and rabbits. And yes, there’s a vegetable patch and the family is currently enjoying home grown carrots, kale, swedes, parsnips and all the brassicas. The cottage was originally built for the Torre Abbey gardener by the Cary’s and is rather low beamed which can be challenging for Ali’s rather tall family!

“Gardening is such a good antidote to the fast-moving world. Nature moves at her own pace whatever you do. You become quite accepting of things like the weather and life is never boring with the demands of both long term and seasonal planning. If something doesn’t quite work out, well there’s always next year!”


Ali Marshall 3