Nearly 80 years have passed and Almondsbury Garden Centre, Bristol is very different from its humble beginnings. Through War, crop shortages, inclement weather and even recession, Almondsbury Garden Centre still reverberates that “it’s not so much of a business as a passion for us” says Phil Hodges. The third generation of the Hodges Family to run the garden centre.
Keith Hodges, Phil’s father, ran the garden centre from 1969 until retirement in 1997 looking back over the years we reminisce about the History of Almondsbury and the Hodges passion for gardening.
“It all started in 1933 when my father, Fred, rented a 16 room house and 7.5 acres of land from the Hiatt Baker family in Almondsbury for 26 shillings a week. His father already had a nursery in Henbury and I suppose you could say gardening is in our genes! This was the kitchen garden, and father produced fruit, vegetables and flowers for the house and the community.”
This continued for a few years but things changed dramatically during the war. “Dad became a producer of vegetables as you couldn’t grow anything else. You were regularly inspected to make sure you were not growing flowers. In 1942, he provided fruit and vegetables for the Bristol Aeroplane company Canteen, who were serving lunch for 2000 workers a day. It was tough during the war and you would walk around Almondsbury and see all the cars up on bricks as they couldn’t afford fuel. We were lucky that we had Petrol coupons to help deliver our produce to the companies and families who needed it.”
“As a child in the war, we used to go hunting for Shrapnel, the Americans were based down at Overcourt, and so for me sometimes it felt like a giant adventure. I do remember one day during the war, when father was out hoeing the ground and he was shot at by a German Bomber!”
In 1946, the Hiatt Bakers moved to Oxfordshire to another estate they owned and he auctioned off the properties. In a rare act of kindness, Mr Hiatt Baker, had agreed prices with all his workers before the sale and ensured that the properties were sold to them at the agreed prices where Fred Hodges bought the house we see today and seven acres of land.
“After the war finished in 1945 you couldn’t build structures or anything because of permits and rationing. Father would even need his ration book to buy a piece of wood to raise a bed!” Towards the end of the 40’s, the government began to release pressure and Fred began growing things he liked. He built 4 greenhouses down the slope (in the same space they are today). “The greenhouses all had separate boilers and all needed stoking and constant care so there were around 5 people working for father at that time.”
When Keith was 15 he began working for his father, Fred for £1 per week. “I worked with Dad for about two years but we had completely different ideas. So I started a greengrocers on Gloucester Road, Bristol.” Keith called his business Park Garden Nurseries and he purchased a lot of produce from his Father Fred.
In 1969, Fred Hodges died from Chronic Asthma and Keith inherited the business which to all intents and purposes was on its knees. “I learnt so much from working in the retail game and really only the money made from selling the greengrocers and my bank manager Phil Jones, kept the nursery afloat. They were a tough few years. We began to develop the business by producing John Innes Compost and we also installed gas heating into the greenhouses to help streamline the activity.”
Access to and from the nursery was through the house. The lorries were getting bigger and more regular and in 1974/75, Keith built a new entrance, which is the same entrance used today. “The wall used to run the length of the road and as soon as we put another entrance in, customers started driving up asking us what we sold. We didn’t really expect that! The road was only mud path and customers used to get their cars stuck!
The composting side of the business was really taking off and they were producing around 1000 tonnes of bagged compost a year, but they were also getting asked more and more for dry goods and sundries and towards the end of the 70's.
Simon Yelland from Gibbs Palmer (which is now Solus Garden & Leisure – Park Garden Centre’s oldest supplier) got in contact with Keith.
“I remember Simon asking me to visit him to talk about retailing in the nursery. I was not at all interested in this as I really didn’t believe this was the way forward, but Simon was very enthusiastic and offered us tremendous support to set the shop up. We started by building a shop which was 4 bays long, I said to Simon how are we going to fill this? He was so reassuring and he told me not to worry, he would fill it for us and that we could pay him back monthly.”
Keith ensured that Gibbs Palmer were paid monthly and the retail side of the business began to take off. In the 80's Keith expanded the retail side of the operation to the size the store is today “Whilst it was great to maintain the nursery and composting side of the business, Wholesale and Retail didn’t mix and the site was not big enough for both and we made a decision to concentrate on the Retail side of the business.”
The shop expanded and the car park developed to enable customers to frequent the Garden Centre easily. Keith also developed a very successful Gardening Club. “We used to clear out the bottom greenhouse and fill it with 250 chairs. We had around 230 members with a large waiting list. It was so successful that it began to put a strain on my staff. We would host a night once a month on a Wednesday during the summer and staff would come in first thing and work right through. I think as an employer it was an important decision, but a sad one at the same time! We would love to get this going again.”
The Gardening Club at Almondsbury had some extremely interesting speakers and some even arrived by Police escort! “We had been alerted to a problem at the Garden Centre and the Police had closed Over Lane. The members started abandoning their cars and walking down. Nothing was going to stop them! The speaker had to come from Gloucester and they went into the Police Station and said can you help and they gave her a Police escort all the way to the garden centre! Imagine that happening nowadays?”
Almondsbury Garden Centre is steeped in tradition and family history and you can feel a sense of the family atmosphere when you walk in through the main doors. “We have always tried to look after our staff; they are such an important part of the business. Whilst the goods are there, it is your staff that the customer creates the relationship with and we want it to feel like you’re visiting family every time you come!”