Peter Thoday - 1934 - 2023

  • 29th Jun 2023

It is with great sadness that we share news of the passing of Heligan Lifelong friend, Peter Thoday. We first met Peter in 1991, very early in the discovery of The Lost Gardens of Heligan, and he made a major contribution to researching the old glasshouses and associated heating technologies that we were then discovering - within tangles of laurel and clouds of bramble. He helped to define our purpose as restoring the productive gardens not simply to original structure, but as much as possible to their original function.  

Born in 1934, Peter was the son of the head gardener at St. John's College, Cambridge. After national service with the RAF, Peter joined the Cambridge University Botanic Garden as a horticultural student in the 1950s, eventually entering academia himself and rising to Senior Lecturer in Landscape Management at the University of Bath.

Sometime later, Peter became the voice of the muchly loved BBC television series, The Victorian Kitchen Garden. His wonderful presentation style and warm narration of the horticulturist inspired so many, including some of today’s Heligan gardeners. Shortly afterwards, he set up his horticultural consultancy, Thoday Associates, while staying on as a visiting lecturer at Bath until the course closed in 1993. He became a champion of the relationship between horticulture and landscape architecture.

Peter Thoday Melon Yard

In 1991 Peter joined us at Heligan as a recommended expert to research the old productive garden technologies, which subsequently enabled us to bring the gardens back to life in the fullest possible sense, traditionally. This included serious consideration of the three Ram Pumps which historically had supplied spring water to the Reservoir at the top of the Gardens… which were restored to function.

The old glasshouse heating technologies then became his focus, leading to an epic Boiler Week-end that we hosted in 2005, bringing together most of the key remaining specialists and enthusiasts in the subject. His passion led us to commit to conservation of our ‘old boilers’, the oldest of which dates back to the 1840s... There’s the Old Britannia still smiling mournfully down a flight of steps in the Head Gardener’s Office and the Weekes’ outside the secondary door into the Flower Garden. There also a very old relic down a flight of steps behind the Melon House.

The marvellous spin off from such occasions is the interesting new friendships always made.

Not only a fundamental and hugely influential part of the Heligan restoration project, Peter became part of the inspiration for the Eden Project. He initially joined the Eden Team as a consultant, and later became Horticultural Director. There are many who will not forget his dogged determination and natural leadership skill. At Heligan we celebrate acquaintance with such personalities who contribute so much to our direction of travel and in due course there will be a fitting memorial here, to an unique friend.

Peter was president of the Institute of Horticulture 1994-96, an external examiner at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and was created a muchly deserved honorary fellow of the Kew Guild in 2014. Other roles included helping set up the Federation to Promote Horticulture for Disabled People in the 1980s and pioneering hospital environment design. He was until recently trustee and chair of the Sensory Trust.

In 2003 he was awarded the RHS Veitch Memorial Medal and in 2022 the Victoria Medal of Honour.

Peter Ralph Thoday, horticulture lecturer and TV presenter, born 30 October aged 88.

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