UK Skills Landscape Finals

Last week saw the "Grand Final" of the UK Skills Landscape Gardening competition, organised to help the short listing and team selection for teams to be entered in the equivalent competition at EuroSkills 2008 , to be held in Rotterdam during September of this year. Staged at Reaseheath College near Crewe in south Cheshire, the competition had originally been planned for late October 2007, but had to be postponed at short notice. Sadly, the rescheduling meant that some of the competitors were unable to take part, and so only three teams were present on a cold, wet and breezy Cheshire morning last week as the event finally got underway.

Each two-person team had been given a 6x5m plot on which a patio garden design was to be constructed within the three days. The design incorporated three different types of paving: a block paved circle, a running-bond block paved path and a flagged patio area, along with a rectangular pool, an elevated timber bridge/walkway, loose aggregates as mulch and decoration and a fairly free hand with the planting. To build the patio garden in the time available would be a serious challenge for a professional contractor; the fact that these were three teams of relatively young and inexperienced lads meant that it really would be a severe test of their abilities, not just in construction and planting, but also in planning, time-management, logistics and sheer determination.

The three teams that were able to make it to the re-scheduled final were…

  • Plot 1 ~ Matthew Wood and Craig Wilmot from Reaseheath College
  • Plot 2 ~ Andrew Mitchell and David Cockerill representing Derby College
  • Plot 3 ~ empty
  • Plot 4 ~ Steve Williams and Tom Ironmonger also from Reaseheath College
team 1 start
Matthew and Craigh excavate their plot

Despite weather conditions that, at times, were truly atrocious, and a site that turned into a quagmire over the course of the three days, the teams achieved near miracles in constructing as much as they did, and to such a high standard. As one of the judges (along with Mark Law from sponsoring company Tobermore Concrete Products and Ann Picot, the award winning garden designer behind the Spaced Out project) I found it fascinating to watch the different approaches of the teams.

Two of the three teams elected to lay the edge course of the circle first, and then make the circle kit fit inside, which I think they now realise was not the best idea they've ever had. One team charged at the initial dig-off with such passion, determination and vigour that one lad suffered a muscle strain and it was 'touch-and-go' whether he'd be able to partake in the rest of the competition. A couple of the teams risked the Wrath of Tony as they spot-bedded the flag paving while I watched on, desperately trying not to scream.

team 4 circle
Reaseheath's Steve chose to start with the outer edge course....
team 2 circle
...while Andy from Derby College preferred to start in the centre and work outwards

The final day started at 8:30am with a 3pm finish, and the sheer amount of work achieved during those 6½ hours was staggering. Plots that looked as though they'd never get anywhere near completion were transformed as the judges and the team from UK Skills watched on from beneath three layers of waterproof clothing while the rain lashed down amid light levels would have seen cricketers resolutely and immovably dug-in around a roaring fire inside the pavilion.

The last half-hour was manic, with teams frantically attempting to complete elements that would gain them valuable points. The sight of lads sweating profusely as the sky emptied its seemingly infinite bladder all over them and the wind skirled around threatening to rip the covering canopies from their restraints was a testament to the endeavour and perseverance of these young men that represent the future of our trade.

The judging took far longer than anticipated, and it was almost 7pm before we were able to confirm that Tom Ironmonger and Steve Williams from Reaseheath College were our winners. Dave Cockerill and Andy Mitchell from Derby College claimed second place, while Matthew Wood and Craig Wilmot, also from Reaseheath, finished third.

team 1 complete
Team 1's garden was missing the curvy path and finished third
team 2 done
Team 2's hard work earned them second place

As judges, we discussed at length how we should reward the teams. Normally, a Gold Medal would be awarded only to completed projects, and none of the teams had managed to finish every element of the design. However, given the filthy weather conditions, the poor light at this time of year, and the fact that the start had been delayed due to technical problems with the plots, it was agreed that Gold would, indeed, be awarded to the winners, with Silver being given to the second place.

team 4 complete
Steve (on the left) and Tom put the finishing touces to their Gold winning effort

During the de-brief and feedback that followed, what struck me most was the sheer determination and passion of all of the participants. They displayed an enviable dedication and doggedness to do the best that they can and such effort deserves reward. It's a pity there wasn't wider support for the competition. It would have been great to have students, tutors and indeed contractors visit the site over the course of the competition to show their solidarity and support for these lads. Those of us battling to improve the image of our industry should be proud that there are young men and women out there who want to devote their skills and hard work to the trade, and more of them should be encouraged to participate in the future. As I commented to the winning team, if they represent the future of our trade, we don't have much to worry about!

Congratulations to all involved. Thanks to Reaseheath Collage for looking after us for three days, to UK Skills for organising the competition, and the students for their damned impressive display of everything that's best in the paving and landscaping trades.