AKKERMANS - a family history...
Akkermans family circa 1905
This photo shows the Akkermans brothers and sisters of the generation previous to Wil. Wilebrordus Akkermans, Wil’s father (born in 1889), is second from the left in the back row. He was the first of the Akkermans’ to move the nursery business away from Breda in the Netherlands to settle in the south of the country in Maashees. His two eldest sons took over the business (they each took a half), and now his grandsons run what have become highly successful nursery and export businesses. His youngest son Wil was more interested in the arts, and moved to Wales to create a garden, rather than to grow trees commercially. The garden was opened on the centenary of his father’s birth, in 1989.
CAE HIR - a farming history...
Akkermans is an old name in Dutch horticulture. Johannus Akkermans, born in 1791, was the first to set up a nursery near Breda in the Netherlands. His descendants carried on the tradition. While several stayed in the Breda area, others spread across the Low Countries, and in 1983 one settled in West Wales; this time not to start a nursery but to make a garden. Wil Akkermans had obviously inherited his forbears’ love of plants, and although a French teacher in his native Holland, he couldn’t escape the call of those green fingers.
Wil had married the beautiful half English, half Welsh Gillian Davies (who, incidentally, he had met whilst on holiday in Aberystwyth), in 1974, and they had settled in a rural part of the Netherlands, about 6 miles from where Wil had grown up. However after visiting the RHS garden Wisley whilst on a visit back to the UK, Wil’s dreams of creating his own garden open to the public took hold.
Unlike most, Wil decided to follow his dreams and make them a reality and, with the blessing and backing of his wife Gill (who of course didn’t have the benefit of hindsight to stop her!), left Holland for good, to settle in the middle of rural West Wales – in a small-holding called Cae Hir.
The wheelbarrow Wil used for the first 15 years in Cae Hir is one of the last items to be put in the removals lorry in Holland in 1983. It was given to him as a wedding present 8 years earlier by his school pupils.
Leaving Holland, 1983
The bottom field of Cae Hir (now the Water Garden) as it was when it was still a small holding. The land on which the school (seen here in the background) now stands was once a part of the much larger Cae Hir estate, before it was divided into three separate properties.
In the more distant past Cae Hir was a relatively large farming estate in the local community which, in the later half of the 1800s, was split into 3 segments. Two sisters (named Nel and Sarah) each took a portion, and built a second dwelling house which they also called Cae Hir. To distinguish between the two houses, they were known locally as ‘Cae Hir Nel’, and ‘Cae Hir Sara’. ('Cae Hir Nel' has since been renamed, and became home to the Cribyn School of Motoring, now closed.) A third segment of the old Cae Hir estate now houses Cribyn Primary School, built in 1878.
Until 1980 the remaining part of the original estate of Cae Hir ('Cae Hir Sara') was a working small holding, with 5 fields of rough grazing for a small number of cows, milked and otherwise housed in the stone barn attached to the cottage. The old road side milk stand still stands proudly on the corner. Until 2014 it stood tall under the ancient and venerable Conker Tree which guarded the entrance. Sadly this magnificent tree was dying and had to be removed in 2014 for safety reasons. A village landmark thus was lost.
One entrepreneurial previous owner of Cae Hir sought to increase the farm’s income by exploiting a niche in the local market – namely that of coffin builder! This work was undertaken in several small corrugated iron sheds situated along the roadside where the car park now lies.
In 1983, Cae Hir was bought by Wil and Gill Akkermans who, along with their small herd of 3 young children, would change the face of Cae Hir again.
CAE HIR GARDENS - the story so far...
For the first couple of years Wil walked around the 6 acres of rough pastureland designing and visualising the garden he would create, before tearing out old hedges, holding mammoth bonfires and digging out the shapes of the beds: all by hand, all with just a spade. Then in 1985 he began to plant. He began to build dry stone walls. He ran out of stone he had found whilst digging so, after talking to a local farmer, began fetching by wheelbarrow stone from a dilapidated cottage in a field halfway up the hill across from the garden – a good 1\4 mile away. He laboured and toiled and was mended by his physiotherapist wife on many an occasion until, in 1989 on the centenary of his Father’s birth, the garden was first opened to the public.
3 flags fly at the opening in 1989 - British, Dutch & Welsh
Wil’s first customer, ‘Ianto’ Davies, who had become a faithful friend and ambassador, opened Gerddi Cae Hir Gardens in 1989. Unfortunately Ianto passed away several years ago, but the plaque commemorating the date still adorns the standing stone at the old entrance to the gardens.
Wil Akkermans & Ianto Davies
The view in 1983 from the top field of the small farm called Cae Hir (Long Field) - the cottage and some old sheds are visible down in the valley. This land would be opened as Cae Hir Gardens 6 years later in 1989.
Work didn’t end here though, and Wil continued to add to and improve the garden. Most of the dry stone walls began to crumble and had to be rebuilt using cement. New ‘features’ were added yearly, and work began in earnest on the water garden across the road. What had been a marshland became a series of ponds, which have been developed into the wonderfully peaceful water garden, teeming with wildlife. The ‘white garden’ was also built here, and later, the rose garden.
The day to day upkeep was the part Wil liked least, and different years have seen various ‘pests’ and problems arise which have tested Wil’s perseverance to the limit and kept him awake night after night. One year saw a seemingly unstoppable invasion of dandelions, another of buttercups, and more recently of ash seedlings. Honey fungus has also been a major threat, and rabbits, badgers and once even a couple of stray cows, have all done their share of mass damage. However Wil continued to get up and out by 9 o’clock every morning (much earlier during the particularly weedy moments!), and kept on going.
Perhaps the most astonishing part of the history of Cae Hir is that the whole garden has been envisaged, designed, created and maintained by just ONE man – Wil Akkermans, using only traditional hand tools (apart from a mower of course). Unlike many successful gardens, Cae Hir has never had the benefit of financial support or backing by anyone other than immediate family. Wil has received no grants, no financial donations, and there is no trust in the name of Cae Hir. It is a testament to him and his wife Gillian that, through thick and thin, success has prevailed.
In 2004, after having been featured many times on national and local TV, local radio, in national and local newspapers, magazines and gardening publications, Cae Hir was invited by the Royal Horticultural Society to become one of its Partner Gardens.
The dream had become a reality and an outstanding success!
3 flags fly at the opening in 1989 - British, Dutch & Welsh
Cae Hir Gardens - the future...
Wil retired in 2009 when he passed Cae Hir on to his son Stuart and youngest daughter Julie (his other daughter Lucie having moved to America in 2000). Stuart is now the main force in the garden while Julie runs the office and tea room. Cae Hir is assured of a bright future with the new energy and ideas a new generation brings, and Stuart and Julie have spent the past 10 years growing the business and putting their own stamp on their father’s garden.
With yet another generation (Julie’s children) now to be seen regularly playing in the sunshine during school holidays, the future for Cae Hir looks to be a long and happy one.
Passing the garden on to the next generation has not been easy for Wil. As he has said, “Every plant, every stone, has passed through my hands”. However his children grew up at Cae Hir and love it as much as he does, and although their ideas might sometimes be different from those of their Father, with give and take and understanding the transition has gone remarkably smoothly.
Wil Akkermans & Ianto Evans
If you look closely among the flowers at the top of the garden just below the summer house you will see a small grave, headed by a beautiful natural grave stone. Wil, in his morbid humour, has built this to house the future ashes of himself and Gillian!
Wil Akkermans in 1989
Stuart and Julie Akkermans in 2012