Bennetts Water Gardens
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Three years after the war years of 1914-18, Norman was born
in southeast London only a few miles from the centre -- nowhere
near fields, ponds and streams. Even in those days London was
houses, streets and cars for 30 miles (48 kilometres) from north
to south and 40 miles (80 kilometres) from east to west. His
local river, the Ravensbourne, is a tributary of the Thames.
Before the First World War, Sydenham Gas Works seriously polluted
the Ravensbourne, so much so that it killed all the fish in it.
Many miles downstream, Deptford Power Station that provides electricity
for the electric trains was put out of action. Dead fish, particularly
sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) had clogged its
cooling water intake.
Continual pollution resulted in London area rivers being completely
devoid of plant and animal life in the 1920s and 1930s. Norman
can vouch for this. As a teenager he spent many hours in his
local river with a net. All he ever found alive was one large
black leech. Fortunately fish are now plentiful again in the
Thames thanks to strict anti-pollution regulations.
It was prophetic that he was christened in a robe, handmade
and embroidered with waterlilies by an aunt. His mother was born
in the depth of Suffolk on Lord Bristol's 4,000-acre (1,600-hectare)
estate at Ickworth near Bury St. Edmunds. The family home was
a gamekeeper's cottage, which was a mile from a road. It was
at this cottage that Norman spent every summer vacation from
an early age, which resulted in his interest being in the country,
not London Town.
As a grammar school boy he won his one and only prize, "The
Natural History Prize", for establishing three aquaria,
each measuring two feet x one foot x one foot (61 centimetres
x 30 centimetres x 30 centimetres). His best exhibit was a young
six-inch (15-centimetre) pike, Esox lucius, which he caught
in a pool in a dried up river, at Ringwood in Hampshire. Next
to the pike was an aquarium with a healthy shoal of perhaps 20
three-inch to four-inch (eight-centimetre to ten-centimetre)
minnows, Phoxinus phoxinus. They were a splendid sight
with their mackerel-like markings. After a few weeks the pike
was thriving and actually growing. The minnows were healthy but
greatly reduced in number. Norman's classmates demonstrated how
the introduction of a large minnow into the pike's tank resulted
in a spectacle to remember -- a stalk, a lightning-fast grab
and 20 minutes to swallow a prey half its own size.
Norman was in both the RAF and British Army during the 1939 to
1945 war (World War II).
We now move forward 60 years.
Take eight acres (three hectares) of beautiful Dorset countryside,
introduce a couple with a lifetime interest in aquatic plants,
and you have the formula for a wonderful tourist attraction combined
with thriving business. At Bennetts Water Gardens near Weymouth
there's an added bonus of viewing a national collection waterlilies.
Moreover, of course, with shrubs, flowers, undergrowth and
water everywhere, the whole place teems with wildlife. It was
all started by Norman H. Bennett, born a Londoner, who taught
science and gardening for 15 years at Westham Secondary Modern
School in Weymouth.
Norman in 1942
In 1958, at the age of 37, he retired from teaching and, with
his wife Pam, set up a business based on a lifelong interest
in aquatic plants. They were already propagating aquatic plants
and bunching pondweed for sale from their home in Coombe Avenue
when they started to rent disused clay pits from Weymouth Brick
& Tile Company in 1957. Norman created many of the ponds
from excavations made by the brick makers, who had dug out the
good clay and left the stuff they didn't want.
Their selective extraction formed the basic irregular shape
of the site - hills from what they could not use and the pits,
which are now ponds, where they followed the useful clay as far
down as they could. The excavations measured up to 50 feet (15
metres) below the original ground level and way below the water
table. The brick makers used pumps to remove the water, which
must have made a hard job even more difficult.
Norman planted expensive waterlilies in what had become by
then an inaccessible wilderness. Brambles and thorn bushes overgrew
the steep sides of the deeper pits while reeds and rushes occupied
the shallow water areas. To get to the other side, workers had
to use a boat. The whole area had to be reclaimed from nature
by hand or herbicide. Norman reclaimed one totally reed-infested
pond by covering it with black polythene for two years.
As Norman needed more and more room for plant-growing, he
oversaw the gradual addition of about 60 more small ponds laboriously
dug out by hand each winter for the next 15 years or so. Water
came out of the ground and flowed from pond to pond by gravity.
Water voles were a nuisance as they bored through these dams
and let all the water out.
Norman at work.
Picture taken by his father
Albert Edward Bennett
Bennetts pioneered the marketing of polythene sheeting specifically
for pond lining in Britain. They were the first to produce a
catalogue with true colour pictures of waterlilies, and introduced
a floating pellet fish food for domestic garden ponds. All drums
of the most popular fish food, Pondpride, for the whole country
were packed there for more than 20 years.
They were lucky, for in 1959 there were only 10 growers of
waterlilies in England. The advent of pond making with plastic
sheet or molded fiberglass led to an upward-spiraling demand
for plants for these garden ponds.
Norman bought his waterlily plants directly from the Marliac
nursery near Bordeaux in France, where most hardy waterlilies
originated in those days. He maintained stocks of these waterlilies
and the gardens enjoy the official status of a national collection.
Swans were a problem and protection was attempted by spanning
the pond with miles of army surplus green-coated wire with Hessian
flags tied along the spans.
Bennetts became a major supplier of waterlilies in Britain
and exported thousands of them to Germany, many delivered in
a Ford Escort van -- the plants were precious and the lilies
inside were worth twice the cost of the van.
Bennetts Water Gardens
The Imperial Gazebo -
the wedding venue
Monet Bridge with the Imperial Gazebo in the
Pam Bennett's favorite spot - the seat inside
the gazebo dedicated to her
The couple's son, Jonathan L. Bennett, was brought up with
pond plants in tins, tubs and all sorts of makeshift containers
in the back garden of the family home in Weymouth. He also spent
a great deal of his spare time waterweed-bunching at the kitchen
sink with his mum, dad, sister, and a neighbour or two. It was
hard and messy work extracting bits of plants from their muddy
habitat and putting them into plastic bags carefully labeled
for posting to the mail order customers. He started working full
time at the waterlily farm in 1968 and took over in 1986 when
his parents retired.
With an interest in landscape gardening and building, he has
supervised the transformation of an aquatic nursery into a unique
and beautiful water garden. A museum was created on the site
from an idea, and the result of a lot of work, suggested by his
James Bennett, Norman's grandson, joined the family business
in 2002, bringing computer literacy and website design expertise
just in time for the boom in internet trading.
Today's visitors are welcomed from around the world to enjoy
a woodland walk, view the famous replica "Monet" Japanese
bridge, and, of course, the waterlilies. They also enjoy exploring
a tropical house, museum, family nature trail, tearooms, shop
and plant centre.
In 2008, to celebrate 50 years, Bennetts Water Gardens are
opening their new "Café Monet" seating 50 to
complete their wedding facilities. Numerous couples asked if
they could have their wedding photographs taken in the water
gardens. This has resulted in obtaining a wedding license two
years ago and actual weddings are now conducted in the gardens.
Large gatherings require a Marquee (largest so far for 260) but
smaller numbers are now held in the "Café Monet".
From a nursery mass-producing thousands of waterlilies and
pond plants wholesale to a beautiful waterlily garden for tourists
and weddings is a big change. Waterlilies remain the central
attraction on which the whole enterprise is based.
Norman is very proud of the way his son Jonathan, daughter-in-law
Angela and grandson James have developed what he started. His
daughter Anne, who has lived with her family in the USA for 23
years, helped to produce this article.
Jonathan, James and Anne
with Norman in Bennett's
Tropical House, 2007
In 1984, Norman went to the USA, met Charles Thomas, and helped
him to found the International Water Lily Society. His job was
to persuade his waterlily contacts in England to join. The first
he asked was Bill Heritage as he was the first person to welcome
him into the trade some 30 years previously. They are still friends
after another 23 years as are the many others he asked and many
others he did not ask in the UK, USA, and Germany.
The old WLS. (now the IWGS) was remarkably successful. All
the right people got together at the right time. Many new varieties
of waterlilies were produced. Public gardens in the UK were persuaded
to upgrade their displays. Real friends were made and knowledge
spread. Norman was proud to be associated with this success but
a little disappointed the IWGS is not as active now as it was,
particularly in his own country.
In 1987 he was flattered to be asked to be the first member
from the UK to be President of the IWLS. He was amazed to be
elected to its Hall of Fame in 1996. In his opinion he did his
best job after he was elected to the Hall of Fame. He got the
German Gesellschaft Wassergarten Freunde (German Society of Water
Garden Friends) to hold a joint Symposium with the IWGS in Munich
The ancestors of Charles Thomas came from Speyer in Germany
circa 1730. He suggested that he would like a symposium in Germany
so that, among other things, he could look up his ancestors.
Both of Charles's wishes came true. The President of the German
Society was Karl Wachter who spoke no English. Norman only had
his very rusty German learnt at school 50 years previously. The
two became very good friends but it took three years and three
visits to Germany to finalize the arrangements for the Munich
Symposium. After Munich the Germans started attending the USA,
British and French symposia in larger numbers and organized a
very successful symposium of their own in Kassel in 1999.
The saying goes, "Behind every great man is a great woman,"
and this is certainly true with Pam and Norman. They met while
in their teens and still at school; they lived in the same road.
Towards the end of World War II they moved from London to Weymouth,
a unique place on the southwest coast of England. They made it
Pam and Norman's 42nd anniversary,
Pam was very supportive when Norman left teaching and started
Bennetts' Water Lily Nursery, working with him during the day
but still caring for their home and children; a family dinner
was always on the table (no take-outs or pizzas). During the
infancy of the business Pam and Norman renovated the old farmhouse
adjacent to the nursery. Rose Farm became the much-loved family
In 1986 it was discovered that Pam was in the early stages
of Parkinson's disease; she bore her illness privately and bravely
and to her many friends always remained cheerful and uncomplaining.
As her illness progressed Pam was still able to run the household
but more and more daily tasks around the home became Norman's
job. Norman accepted his new role, sadly, but willingly and devoted
himself to keeping her happy.
In July of 2008 Norman turned 87 and has been a widower for eight
years. He still enjoys his Rotary Club, having served as its
president in 1980. He derives great pleasure from his waterlilies
and fish. He devotes countless hours to his National Collection
of Water Lilies. He lives in the family home adjoining his beloved
Norman grows new and untested or unnamed varieties in large
decorative pots by his back door so that he does not have to
walk far to keep them under constant surveillance.
His swimming pool, also by his back door, is now home to a
few varieties of waterlilies including 'Pam Bennett', and is
home to about 60 golden orfe (Leuciscus idus). He hopes to continue
this for many more years, enriched by visits from waterlily friends
from all over the world.