Salford’s magnificent RHS Bridgewater Gardens, which opened in May 2021, are built on what was once the estate of the third Duke of Bridgewater and are bordered by the canal that bears his name.
The grand house that stood there gradually fell into disrepair and was finally demolished in 1949. Today, not much more than the gardener’s house and some of its kitchen gardens and potting sheds survive. But an exhibition occupying one of those potting sheds goes some way to telling the story of the years in-between the demolition of the once grand estate and the arrival of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
For 73 years, the grounds were home to the Middlewood Scout Camp. Young people came to camp and play in the woods and take part in all sorts of outdoor activities. With the RHS now the custodian of this land, in autumn 2021 a social media appeal was launched to gather crucial memories. The RHS was inundated with hundreds of comments, letters, photographs and films.
To tell those stories, the potting sheds have been decked out with bunting and tenting fabric and the legacy of the years that the Middlewood Scout Camp spent at the site has been restored.
At the exhibition, we learn that as early as 1948 the gardener’s house was purchased and turned into a garden nursery. Its owners allowed the scouts to set up their camps in the extensive grounds. The exhibition doesn’t precisely explain the legal basis for the relationship, but one can imagine it was done on little more than a scout’s honour.
There are lovely posters advertising 1960s garden fetes, photographs of scout groups across the decades, and memories from scouts and scout leaders both oral and written.
One contributor is Phil Rigby, whose personal story started as a scout and went on to see him become the last warden of Middlewood Scout Camp.
“I was just besotted with the place, I thought this was just tremendous and that started what turned out to be a very long scouting career,” says Rigby. “There’s a generation that would come and tell you that they were the best days of our lives.”
The scouts may no longer be here, but this exhibition is a living thing. Visitors can add their own memories by writing them onto blank pieces of bunting. My favourite of those added so far has to be from six-year-old Martha who manages to succinctly sum it up: “My Grandad used to come here.”
Come and visit this magical 154-acre site, which is truly a jewel in in the City of Salford’s crown. If you’ve already been, go again, as it changes with every passing day. And take the time to poke your nose into the potting sheds and relive a little bit of their scouting past.
At the end of the exhibition, we learn that the scouts have found a new ground at Hollinwood but still need to raise money to ensure that the facilities are as good as those they enjoyed in the Duke of Bridgewater’s former place. More details can be found here.
The Middlewood Scout Camp exhibition is at the Potting Sheds at RHS Bridgewater until May 20, 2022. It’s free to visitors but usual admission charges to the garden will apply. Salford residents can visit for free on Salford Free Tuesdays.