Obituary from ‘The Times’ – Tuesday 17th February 2015

The following obituary was published in The Times and on their website on February 17 2015, and we wanted to share it with you. 

Businessman who created a cricket ground from farmland and dreamt of bringing the game’s biggest names to the Isle of Wight

Brian Gardener built the cricket enthusiast’s fantasy ground. Not dissimilar in appearance to Sir Paul Getty’s creation at Wormsley, Newclose on the Isle of Wight was hewn and flattened from agricultural land. A £900,000 pavilion took in the sweep of the land towards Ventnor, while the white benches were replicas of seats used by MCC members at Lord’s and the electronic scoreboard matched that at the Oval. Gardener also had grand ambitions for the fixture list.

With his planning adviser, Robert Griffiths, QC, a long-serving MCC committee member, he was hoping that Newclose, which is independent of the England and Wales Cricket Board because it is privately owned, might become an English outpost for the Indian Premier League with the best players in the world playing Twenty20 matches during Cowes Week.

Gardener’s dream was to entice Hampshire to play county matches on the Isle of Wight, which they had not visited since 1962. Rod Bransgrove, the Hampshire chairman, was impressed by the facilities at Newclose and keen to take matches around the county, but Gardener had to be content with hosting MCC XIs, local teams and the star-studded Lashings side made up of former international players.

The ground harked back to the days of cricket festival weeks when county teams would up-sticks from their headquarters and decamp to play at club grounds. From Weston-super-Mare to Folkestone, the decline in the use of these grounds was interwoven with that of the bucket-and-spade holiday at English coastal resorts. Newclose possessed something of the banking of the Crabble at Dover, the hilly splendour of the Recreation Ground at Bath and the arboreal environs of Dean Park, Bournemouth, which are all festival venues where first-class cricket is no longer played.

The possibilities grew once Gardener, who made his money in engineering and property and owned a 340-acre farm on the island, had received a grant from the National Sports Foundation. The playing area he created was larger than Lord’s and there was greater scope than at Basingstoke, like Bournemouth an out-ground discarded by Hampshire, for corporate hospitality, parking and development. He spent about £2 million on levelling the ground and building the pavilion.

Before work started, an archaeological dig revealed hundreds of flint implements. Drainage was installed and the square, where the pitches would be, was constructed of Ongar loam. The road that bypassed Newclose and wound on to Newport was widened and provision made for the parking of 2,600 cars. Beyond the boundary, alpacas grazed on the grass of a 15-acre site.

“As first-class cricket has not been played there, it is an under-exploited asset,” Griffiths complained. “The playing area is superb and it would be ideal for Twenty20 cricket.”

The groundsman, Andy Butler, who had worked at the ground in Cowes on which Hampshire occasionally played, reckoned the pitches had the pace and bounce for first-class cricket.

The comparison with Getty’s ground was accentuated by Gardener owning a house that backed on to his estate. “I was inspired by Wormsley,” he said. Wandering around one day, casually dressed, he was mistaken by Brian Johnston, the cricket commentator, for Getty’s groundsman. “So I played along with him.” Johnston praised him for keeping the playing area in good order.

Gardener also loved going to matches at Lord’s. As a businessman who would often take an unconventional view, he considered buying the head lease on the disused railway tunnels at one end of the ground when these came up for public auction in 1999. The lease was purchased instead by the property developers Rifkind Levy.

Brian TelegraphBrian Edward Francis Gardener was born in Isleworth, west London in 1941. He disliked his education at Chiswick County School so much that he left at 15. In later life, he paid little heed to qualifications when employing people. His father, Archibald, had had a tangential role in world affairs in that he had driven Neville Chamberlain to Buckingham Palace when the prime minister returned from his meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938. He was standing close to him at Heston airport when the paper declaring “peace for our time” was waved before the cameras. “Like the prime minister, my grandfather was hopeful this would bring about peace,” Gardener recalled.

Above; Gardener at Newclose, where he spent £2 millionon levelling the ground and building the impressive pavilion – image by Graham Morris 

A born organiser, Gardener started his own cricket and football clubs at the age of 11, calling them “The Wimpeyonians” after the company that built the house where he lived. His younger sister, Julie, was employed to move all the equipment, serve drinks and keep score. He married his first wife, Dawn Brain, when he was 20, living initially in a caravan while working as a draughtsman. They had a son and a daughter.

As a draughtsman, Gardener helped to design the black background and white perimeter that can be seen on traffic lights. He then founded his own agency for draughtsmen and engineers, Design Facilities, employing nearly 150 staff.

He was involved in Liberal party politics at Heston before switching his affiliations to the Conservatives. When he moved to the Isle of Wight, he bought a farm and the Seaview Hotel, developing its restaurant into one of the best on the island. He renovated Beauchamp House, a run-down Regency property, only for it to be demolished when a road slip caused a huge trench outside.

His first wife, from whom he was divorced, died in 2012. He subsequently married and divorced Jane Pepper and Cathy Steup. Gardener’s son runs Design Facilities, now Techaid Facilities; his daughter became a teacher of children with special needs.

Gardener’s love of cricket never left him. “I have been a member of all the long-established Test grounds and cricket for me is a far more subtle game than football,” he said.

Brian Gardener, businessman, was born on June 3, 1941.                                                                  

He died of cancer on January 19, 2015, aged 73