Celebrating International Women’s Day: An Interview with Painshill’s first Director

In the late 1970s, Janie Burford climbed over a fence and stepped over into an overgrown secret garden.

“The very first time I saw Painshill, the history of which I had been studying for some time, was when a colleague and I climbed over the fence. We had a great adventure exploring the jungle, discovering the sad remains and thinking this was the last chance to see the site before the end of its life.

It was a dark, dense jungle. But then, covered in trees and grown, we stumbled upon the Gothic Temple and a plinth which I realised must have held a statue.

‘It was one of those life-changing moments. It was an incredible experience, and it became embedded in my mind”

The first time she saw Painshill she had no idea she would later become the first Director of the Painshill Park Trust and a leading female figure in the world of heritage and garden restoration.

Janie started her career working with the Home Office drawing up plans for historical buildings. However fate took her down a different route when a neighbour spotted an advertisement in the local newspaper. A job opportunity for a land agent at Painshill. Not realising Janie already had a strong interest in Painshill, the neighbour cut out the advertisement and posted it through Janie’s door.

Janie was appointed to the role in 1981 and Painshill Park Trust was born.

Elmbridge Borough Council had bought the land but the task of restoring the landscape to Hamilton’s 18th century vision was handed over to Janie. The challenge was huge and would involve vast amounts of time and skills. The small charity had no other staff at first and no money. Volunteers needed to be recruited and research undertaken. Janie proved herself an expert fundraiser and in her 20 years, raised £20 million for the project. The tasks the Trust needed to start with were enormous and included surveying and clearing trees, moving huge Victorian rock steps that covered the vineyard and extracting large amounts of silt to re-create a 14 acre lake. That was all before the Trust could get to the follies and buildings. A plan to open Painshill to the public needed to be put in place later in the process, starting with a few open days and a small hut serving tickets and tea.

I asked Janie if, being a woman in charge of this project in the 1980s, brought with it any particular challenges;

“It was no problem for me to be appointed. I had the right experience as I had been to art school and then spent 7 years in the Home Office on existing landscapes.

I started at Painshill on 1 April 1980 and I turned up with my wee son Caio in a papoose on my front!

I heard about the potential to save Painshill and I wanted to be involved – so that was that!”

During Janie’s time as Director, the Waterwheel was restored and the lake re-instated, the vineyard and Amphitheatre were replanted and follies like the Gothic Temple, Ruined Abbey, Turkish Tent and Gothic Tower were all restored or completely rebuilt.

After working for so long in a ‘jungle’, restoring the Gothic Temple was amazing. Standing in there, looking at the reopened views, gave us confidence and helped us realise why we were there. It was a very important moment and showed the conservation world that we could do the job

Painshill became known for exemplary restoration practices and won the Europa Nostra Award for rescuing a landscape from ‘extreme neglect’.

Janie herself was given an MBE in 1998 for services to the Conservation of Historic Landscape. She was chosen as a Women of the Year for the Millennium Festival of Women’s Work. Janie was also one of the few women who, at the time, were Fellows of the Landscape Institute.

In the long list of amazing achievements, is there anything Janie is particularly proud of?

“At the time, university graduates were leaving with no jobs to go to. So the Government set up the Manpower Services Commission. It enabled young people to work on heritage projects. I was very proud of the young people who came to work at Painshill. They became very skilled and the Painshill restoration was helped enormously over many years.”

Janie retired from Painshill at the end of 2003 leaving an incredible legacy.