The Waumsley story, enhancing a county's landscape

Norman Waumsley MBE was Leicestershire’s horticultural officer in a lifetime career spanning the years 1948-1984. It was a period of intense activity and exceptional innovation. His legacy can be observed every day on roads throughout the county, but Norman is happiest when the fundamentals of his work are not too apparent.

Norman Waumsley MBE was Leicestershire's horticultural officer
Norman was born in 1922 in Barnsley where his father worked in the council parks department. Ten years later Mr Waumsley senior was appointed parks superintendent in nearby Cudworth, a colliery town dominated by a chemical factory – hardly the ideal horticultural environment. Job opportunities were scarce in the depression. Leaving school aged 15 Norman decided to take an apprenticeship under his father’s exacting direction. The next three years were ‘rather rigorous’.

Public parks are an essential green space in Norman’s view. He dutifully attended night classes to study a range of horticultural and commercial subjects. Here he met Nora Moxon, his wife-to-be. Now living in retirement in Shepshed, they have three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Their Diamond Wedding Anniversary was fittingly celebrated in 2005.

Continuing his training in the parks department at Pudsey, Norman found his progress inconsiderately interrupted by Adolph Hitler. For 4_ years he served in the RAF. Nora meanwhile had qualified as an electrician. Her ambidextrous skills were invaluable in wiring Lancaster bombers at Yeadon.

Norman Waumsley MBE was Leicestershire's horticultural officerReturning to Pudsey in 1946, Norman successfully applied for a studentship at Kew where he completed a two-year course in just twelve months. The summer of 1948 was fiercely hot and ironically he found himself consigned to the tropical section! Armed with the accolade of Kew credentials, Norman was duly appointed horticultural officer for Leicestershire.

R W Grigson, the county surveyor, was a visionary engineer with the determination and resources to get things done. He wanted closer liaison between horticulture and the highways department, and in consultation with the Ministry of Transport Leicestershire soon became a pioneer in environmental practice – then virtually unheard of but shortly to assume universal importance. In Norman, Grigson found the ideal qualified officer to realise and develop his aspirations.

Pre-war planning had provided the county with many miles of dual carriageway roads – the A6 Loughborough-Sawley, the
A46 near Six Hills, the A50 Leicester-Coalville and the Narborough bypass. In consequence the County Council found itself responsible for many trees in these areas as well as on other county roads. Trees had to be inspected, made safe and properly maintained. Neglected verges were to be reseeded and kept mown, with hedges to be installed in central reservations for anti-dazzle relief. Norman was going to be busy!

He established a depot at Thurmaston, appointed an assistant and decided to recruit ex-farm workers instead of relying on the existing labour force of road men. Farm workers had a grasp of horticulture and were familiar with agricultural machinery. Eventually a nursery was created at Thurmaston to supply trees and shrubs, and a pilot project was run at Husbands Bosworth in which a whole area was graded and effectively landscaped. The county surveyor approved. This would be the prototype for all future roadwork in the county, and the horticultural department would be fully involved.

Around this time R WGrigson mentioned to Norman that ‘by the way’ a 30-mile stretch of the new M1 motorway would be passing through the county. Landscaping the M1 turned out to be a five year undertaking requiring thousands of trees, hedges and plants. In comparison with other counties, the sides of the Leicestershire section of the M1 enjoyed a relatively gentle 1 in 3 slope, providing enough land for tree planting. This is a view near Junction 23. Regretfully an especially attractive planting was lost a few years ago when a fourth carriageway was added to the motorway near Kegworth.

Other bypass work was undertaken on the A46 at Syston, the A50 at Groby and the A426 at Cotesbach. Initially new roads were a scar on the landscape which had to be healed. Norman wanted highways to blend into the landscape. He felt that he had succeeded when his efforts were no longer noticeable and a natural effect had been achieved. Well maintained areas of grass improve the landscape, and large verges offer an opportunity for a spinney – as on the A512 crossroads west of Shepshed near the scene shown at the bottom of this page.

Over the years the demand for landscaping grew steadily. Social services and education were among many local authority departments to request advice. Major local government reorganisation in 1974 resulted in a new Department of Property within which Norman was designated Arboricultural Officer. He is particularly proud of a woodland planting on the A6006 Wymeswold to Six Hills road. Preparatory visits to local schools caught the imagination of many children. Planting every tree, the children were encouraged to maintain their interest as the woodland developed.

Norman’s professional enthusiasm spilled over into a range of related voluntary activities which benefited from Nora’s secretarial support. He was chairman of the Leicestershire branch of Men of the Trees, launched in the 1920s by Dr Richard St Barbe Baker and now retitled The International Tree Foundation. Convinced that trees are vital for our survival, the organisation works with communities in the UK and abroad on sustainable tree projects designed to benefit human posterity and the planet alike. And as a founder member of the Arboricultural Association, Norman served as chairman of the Midlands branch. This association aims to encourage effective and appropriate planting in town and country, and urges local authorities to accept responsibility for tree maintenance.

Norman Waumsley MBE was Leicestershire's horticultural officer
Voluntary work brought interesting contacts. Norman met Prince Charles and Princess Diana at the time of their wedding when Men of the Trees planted an avenue of limes at Highgrove House. Spotting the Leicestershire delegation, the Prince pointed out a fox’s den high in the boll of a tree on the estate. Norman was to encounter him again later when Prince Charles set the first tree in a replanting at the Outwoods near Loughborough, conceived by Norman as a national memorial to the life of Richard St Barbe Baker.

In retirement Norman Waumsley (pictured above) has the satisfaction of seeing his life’s work maturing in an enduring legacy to the county. “I was just doing my job,” he says with disarming modesty. But his family’s ecological passion continues unabated. Norman and Nora’s younger son Melvyn, with a degree in forestry from Aberdeen University, is currently advisor to the Highlands & Islands Development Board.