Philippa Ashley meets 89-year-old William Podmore whose passion to create a beautiful garden from a former colliery site has taken half a century to realise.
Despite his 89 years, Mr William Podmore is not a man you imagine standing still. He zips around on a quad bike at an alarming speed, handles a golf buggy like Lewis Hamilton and has the OBE for helping Sir Frank Whittle develop the jet engine.
Yet his real passion has taken a painstaking, slow-growing half-a-century of vision, hard work and determination. He's spent the past 50 years transforming a former colliery site into a landscape garden that's also a genuine work of art.
Consall Hall Landscape Gardens nestles in three valleys on the edge of the Staffordshire Moorlands. It has been created from three huge pit banks, based on the remains of mining spoil that once surrounded the Podmore family home.
Today, the site include six lakes, several follies, summer houses, a packhorse bridge, a tower and a romantic 'ruin'.
They've all been designed to compose a series of pictures 'to surprise and delight the visitor at different vantage points'.
For decades, the gardens were largely the private domain of their owner and his family, only unveiled on occasional charity days. All that changed in 2006.
"The open days were so successful and so many people told me I ought to open up the garden to the public that I decided to share them with more people," says Mr Podmore.
You can now visit on Wednesdays and Sundays or as part of a group by arrangement. You can also book a tour of the grounds in a golf buggy and if you're lucky, you might get Mr Podmore himself as your guide.
While the gardens are fascinating and beautiful in themselves, sitting alongside their creator really brings them to life and uncovers their remarkable story.
Now in his 90th year, his memory is still crystal clear. He seems to know where every plant and tree is, and even where the stones used to build the follies, have come from - even the plants and monuments have stories of their own.
While driving round in the buggy, he points out a fossil tree, a species once only known from fossils and thought to be extinct until the 1930s.
"A specimen was actually discovered in the garden of a monastery in China and cuttings were brought back to England. I was delighted to get one for Consall and we've also managed to grow a second tree from our own cutting," he says.
The garden is like a fantasia on the English countryside, complete with archetypal features - a tiny thatched cottage, a romantic ruin, and a watchtower - all interpreted in Mr Podmore's artistic style.
"From the start I wanted to use materials that emphasise the Englishness of the scene. For example, I put in a packhorse bridge rather than a Palladian style as it was more in keeping with an English landscape.
"When I began the actual development in the sixties, there were lots of old country houses being demolished so I looked around for statues, terraces, towers and steps.
"My main eye-catcher (a grand terrace) came from four different demolition sites. The summer house was from Oundle, the towers from Ellesmere, the steps from Nantwich and the stone terrace from India."
As if the gardens weren't enough of a challenge, he also decided to redesign Consall Hall itself, relocating the front entrance to a different aspect.
"One of my main problems was finding a portico for the 'new' front of the house. A builder told me it would cost £800 which was a lot of money that I didn't have so I asked some friends at a dinner party if they knew of a portico that was going spare. Amazingly someone did.
"I found it lying in a farmer's field, offered him £20 and he agreed. The problem was how to transport it back here as you couldn't just get hold of heavy lifting equipment back then. I had to borrow a friend's fire engine and lift the portico using the revolving ladder."
Smiling wryly, he points out other various other stone features picked up for a few pounds and transported back to Consall in the days when health and safety laws were slightly less stringent.
While the actual development work started in 1958, the story of the gardens originates in 1918 when Mr Podmore moved to Consall Hall as a newborn baby. His parents William Senior and Alberta owned a Potteries firm spe-cialising in glazes and colours and wanted the 19th century hall as a family home.
At the time, the 70-acre estate was still feeling the effects of former mining work that had taken place since medieval times and finished in 1870.
William Podmore Senior had developed the original formal garden to a degree but the bulk of the estate was screened off by a shrubbery and trees.
After leaving school, Mr Podmore trained as a mechanical engineer at Loughborough University. Through the Second World War he
worked with Sir Frank Whittle on the development of the jet engine and received the OBE for his achievements.
It was during this time that he also met his late wife, Edna, who was working as a French mistress at the local grammar school.
"She was very interested in the planting side of things and a great help to me. We travelled the world and used some exotics in the garden but largely the planting is native to England," he says.
After the war, his brother ran the family ceramics business, while he set up his own engi-neering company, using the profits to develop the garden.
He was already 40 when he first began seri-ous work on the site - the huge pit banks proving both a hurdle and an opportunity.
"It's such an unusual site with three inter-connecting valleys that create a bowl which is ideal for landscaping," he explains.
"The problem was the banks were made up of more than 250,000 tonnes of shale which I needed to get rid of but no one wanted so I decided to use them to create dams that would flood the old mine workings.
"The water hid the spoil and added to the beauty of the landscape while the pools also provide habitats for wildlife."
A large screen of trees had been planted around the building to block out the unattractive pit banks. These trees had to be cleared as they obscured the landscape that was going to emerge.
They were replaced with 10,000 new ones that created a windbreak and shelter belt around the whole site. In addition to the dams, new ridges and roads were constructed to create the vistas you can see today. Plants, shrubs and trees were added to encourage all forms of wildlife, including owls and many species of waterfowl.
Then there are the follies. As you make your way around the gardens, almost every twist and turn opens up a new scene, each carefully framed and equipped with a bench or seat to make you linger and look closer.
"I was very interested in landscape photography as a child and even had some photos exhibited in London. I built up the gardens just like an artist painting a picture," explains Mr Podmore.
"Before I even started work, I made paintings representing what I wanted to achieve. I aimed to create an ever-changing picture that alters with the seasons."
In the little thatched cottage folly, is a desk opposite a window which opens out to frame another stunning view. Mr Podmore used to sit there and draw the scenes but now keeps the desk stocked with paper and crayons for young visitors.
"Children love playing in the gardens. One little boy told me he'd spent the whole morning defending the castle from invaders," he says.
Parts of the site are still being developed and there are two new features for the 2008 season. They include a Camera Obscura which is designed to draw the eye to a favourite view over the pools.
There is also a new owl house to attract barn owls to the gardens - tawny and little owls are already in residence.
The gardens also make a popular backdrop for weddings.
There's now a function suite which Mr Pod-more converted from farm buildings some years ago - initially, he jokes, to avoid hiring a marquee for his daughter's birthday party.
"I wasn't much of a farmer and the buildings were disused. My daughter came to me and said: 'Daddy before you hire a marquee for my 21st, I think you should know that I'm getting married next year too.
"So I decided to build my own function suite and we were still adding the final pieces of roof the day before her 21st birthday."
He now has two grown-up children, six grandchildren and a great grandchild but is not sure whether they will take over the running of the gardens one day.
Besides, he's far too busy to retire.
Pointing out undeveloped parts of the site, he's brimming over with ideas for new projects. Will he ever stop? He smiles and says: "Maybe in another 10 or 15 years' time."
* Consall Landscape Gardens are open every Wednesday, Sunday and Bank Holiday between 10am to 5pm from Good Friday to the end of October. They are situated off the A522 from Cheadle to Leek, three quarters of a mile beyond Consall Village.
* For more details of the gardens go to www.consallgardens.co.uk