He’s got a self-confessed “lifelong love of the Botanical Gardens” – which is perhaps only fitting, as he began working there at the tender age of 16.
But for David Hargate, Sheffield City Council’s head of parks and public realm, the gardens will now be strictly for pleasure, rather than work, as he retires after more than 40 years’ service.
To mark his last week, yesterday Mr Hargate planted a cherry tree in Meersbrook Park, where the council’s parks department is based, before enjoying a final get-together in the Botanical Gardens today (Friday 19 June), the very place where he began work all those years ago.
“I never really intended to go into working in parks”, he said.
“I grew up on the Manor estate and was due to start an engineering apprenticeship in the steel industry, where my dad also worked as an engineer.
“However, that year they decided not to take any apprentices on. That’s when my father pointed me in the direction of parks.
“I’d not had any interest in gardening before then, but I loved nature, birds, fishing, all things outdoors really.
“You could always find me with a mucky face and mucky hands from playing out in High Hazels Park and the local woods. So that’s how I ended up working for the council.”
Mr Hargate’s three-year apprenticeship began in 1971, based at the Grade Two-listed Botanical Gardens, off Clarkehouse Road.
He completed a horticultural qualification at Askham Bryan College, in York, and later went on to complete the Diploma in Parks and Recreation Administration. He then rose through the ranks quickly, becoming a manager when he was just 23 years old.
In his 37 years of management at Sheffield City Council, he has worked alongside colleagues to deliver major projects including the restoration of Weston Park, Norfolk Heritage Park and the Botanical Gardens, as well as enjoying some of the major events which have come to the city.
“I’ve got fond memories of bonfire and firework displays in different parks”, Mr Hargate said.
“Back when we had the budgets for it, we used to order around £12,000 worth of fireworks and I’d be responsible for the firework display at one of the parks on the night.
“One standout event was definitely the Party in the Park, which was held at Don Valley Bowl, which featured the Spice Girls in their very early days.
“Nobody really knew who they were, I certainly didn’t. It was so hot and I volunteered to throw water at the crowd to keep them cool. Getting paid to throw water at people – it was certainly fun.”
Mr Hargate added: “All of the parks in Sheffield are close to my heart, but the one I’ve got particularly fond memories of is Norfolk Heritage Park. It suffered a lot of vandalism but was restored in the late 1990s with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“It’s a great park with beautiful views over Sheffield city centre, and is perhaps a park that’s somewhat overlooked when compared to others in the city such as Endcliffe, Graves and Millhouses.”
Sheffield is famous for its parks, being the only major city to have a national park within its boundary, and also having more trees than any other city in Europe – around two million trees, four for every person.
And over the last four decades, Mr Hargate has assisted with some major restoration projects, such as at the Botanical Gardens, which were revamped in 2005.
Originally laid out in 1836, the Grade Two-listed landscape gardens contain a number of listed buildings, including the stunning glass pavilions which play host to weddings each year, as well as the annual Art in the Gardens festival.
The restoration project was carried out in keeping with the spirit of the original Victorian design, while rejuvenating the plant collections and protecting the gardens’ most famous landmarks, such as the Bear Pit – still home to a statue of a bear.
In 2006, it was then announced that the Heritage Lottery Fund were awarding more than £2m towards the restoration of Weston Park, which is home to Weston Park Museum.
The project involved restoring the bandstand, replacing the south east gates which had been stolen in 1995, and replacing all the paths, railings and gates. New trees were also planted and all seven of the Grade Two-listed monuments were refurbished.
Mr Hargate said: “Seeing the parks develop has been a real highlight of my career.
“And what I’ve been satisfied with during the latter years of my career is steering the parks through some of the deepest cuts we’ve seen, yet seeing the staff remaining so passionate and resolute about what we do.
“I really hope that there are sufficient funds in the future to sustain the magnificent range of parks that we’ve got, and that we can continue to restore this glorious heritage that we have here in Sheffield.
“I also hope that we can encourage young people into the parks service, through apprenticeships. I’ve been so lucky to get where I am. Due to the quality of the apprenticeship programme, I came to Sheffield City Council not knowing a great deal, but I was pointed in the right direction and got the very best training.
“Parks are so important to Sheffield. In the parks service we manage 70 parks and around 350 other green spaces.
“Parks help define Sheffield’s image nationally and internationally, and visitors always comment about how green the city is. I’ve always enjoyed working for the parks and countryside service, and I’ve been fortunate enough to lead a great team of people, which has made the job that much better.”
In his retirement, the 59-year-old, who has one adult son, plans to indulge in fly-fishing, improve his guitar playing – and spend some time in his own garden.
Mr Hargate added: “I’ll also be spending some more time with my wife, Helen, who hasn’t seen enough of me.
“She likes gardening too – but she’s often wary of mistaking the weeds and pulling up the wrong plant.”
Paul Billington, director of culture, sport and leisure at Sheffield City Council, said: “You too often hear people berate those who work in the public sector – and of course, this is unfair.
“David Hargate is living proof of a council employee who has given his whole working life to supporting and protecting Sheffield’s brilliant parks.
“For over 40 years David has offered the people of Sheffield a combination of extensive expertise, loyalty and good old fashioned graft.
“He is a great public servant and one who will be missed by his colleagues, the parks’ friends groups and everyone who has been involved in the city’s parks over many years.”