26 May 1995


DAVID Swan is no gardener, and he is quick to point that out.

His wife, Cynthia, takes care of their garden at Harelaw, Chirnside, the 243ha (600-acre) Berwickshire farm that David farms in partnership with his son Stephen.

But the welfare of retired gardeners is a matter of concern to David and was one of the responsibilities he took on as a result of being a district councillor. He has been on the Netherbyres committee since it opened and is currently its chairman.

Netherbyres, a mansion house at the fishing port of Eyemouth, Berwickshire, is the newest of the residential homes for retired gardeners run by the Gardeners Royal Benevolent Institution. But it is not a new residence.

The house, set in 16ha (40 acres) of land, was built early last century by Sir Samuel Brown, a marine engineer, and his nautical interests are reflected in the design of Netherbyres, particularly in its main hall.

The Furness family lived in the house for most of this century and Lt Col Simon Furness gave it to the GRBS in 1991. But he has not moved far away. He now lives in its walled garden.

This is even older than the present Netherbyres mansion. It was built during the 18th century and is in the form of a mathematical ellipse to take maximum advantage of the suns passage through the sky.

Lt Col Furness, built his house through the wall. His home overlooks the garden he has created there with roses and other flowers, shrubs and vegetables which he opens to the public twice a year through the National Gardens Scheme, a scheme which is an important source of funding for the GRBS.

The present residents of Netherbyres are accommodated in spacious double or single bedsitters with private facilities. GRBS residents may furnish their rooms as they wish, though each is already curtained and carpeted and has built-in wardrobes. They do not have private kitchens, as such, but a fridge and a worktop so residents can make themselves snacks and drinks and their breakfasts, too.

They are supplied with the necessities for a Continental style breakfast but their lunch and supper is served in the communal dining room. There is also a residents lounge, a laundry room (close to the room used as a salon by the visiting hairdresser) and guest suites for visitors, who include holidaying GRBS beneficiaries from other areas.

Though alterations to provide these facilities and external work such as a new front entrance to give wheelchair access have changed Netherbyres substantially, the house retains a sense of graciousness.

Sandy Stewart worked for the company of architects which carried out the work and stayed on as bursar when the home opened three years ago. Among his concerns is that of seeing residents get maximum help from the social services.

Most are on income support. Those whose savings do not exceed £3000 get full help with their fees from the local authority, he explains. Those with more than £3000 but less than £8000 get partial help and those with more than £8000 get nothing at all. But all residents receive a quarterly pension from the GRBS on top of their state pensions.

Sandy is also endeavouring to get full occupancy at Netherbyres. Though the other GRBS homes have waiting lists and a requirement that beneficiaries have served as professional gardeners for 20 years, Netherbyres is only half full so the qualifying period of service has been reduced to 10 years to encourage horticulturalists to make applications.

"One of our problems is getting the GRBS known in Scotland," says David, although the home is open to beneficiaries from England as well.

"People come and look round, say how nice it is and then say they are not ready to move yet," he says. "But if they do not move when they are in their 70s it becomes increasingly difficult to move."

The residents live busy lives. As well as in-house social activities they are much involved with life in Eyemouth and they still have gardening interests.

Most of Netherbyres garden is lawn leading to woodland set with naturalised bulbs and maintained by a gardener, but the residents have their house plants, a few small flower beds close to the hall and their individual greenhouses to attend to.

Resident John Turner has an extra garden in his care. That is the memorial garden to "Robert Fortune, plant hunter 1812-1880".

A local Berwickshire lad from Blackadder, Robert Fortune was the son of a hedge cutter, began work as a garden boy and went on to work at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh before going down to join the Royal Horticultural Society in London, explains Lt Col Furness.

"He was the first plant hunter to be sent into China after the Treaty of Nanking in 1835," he says.

The beds in the memorial garden are being filled with plants that bear the Fortune name and they are ranged in a white fenced area before a summerhouse which provides a seat in the sun for the gardeners who came after him.

RESIDENTIAL and nursing accommodation are just part of the help the Gardeners Royal Benevolent Society provides for its beneficiaries – retired gardeners, market gardeners, nurserymen and seedsmen, their spouses and their widows/widowers.

The society, which is a charity depending on voluntary contributions, pays pensions, has a Good Samaritan Fund which provides grants in cases of individual hardship and a clothing and linen service which provides parcels of linen and cheques to pay for clothes. It also runs holidays for pensioners who would not otherwise have the means to enjoy a holiday away from home.

Details from The Gardeners Royal Benevolent Society, Bridge House, 139 Kingston Road, Leatherhead, Surrey KT22 7NT (01372 373962).

There are gardens within the garden at Netherbyres, a mansion house at Eyemouth, Berwickshire. There are retired gardeners in residence and, two days a week, youll find a farmer there, too. Ann Rogers explains

Left:The communal sitting room. Above: David Swan talks to residents lunching in the dining room.

L to R:Bursar Sandy Stewart, Lt Col Furness who gave Netherbyres and chairman David Swan.

Netherbyres with part of the Robert Fortune garden in the foreground.

Simon Furness in his garden in early spring:He opens it to the public through the NGS and on July 1 opens it for Netherbyres summer fête.

The nautically inspired main hall pictured from the top of the stairs (above) and the view across the first floor landing.