It all started with a little boy on a bike…

We have to start back in 1949. Picture a bright-eyed little eight year old lad on a rusty old bike peddling through Carshalton.

The wretched war is over though rationing is still making life very difficult for everyone.

The Hovis boy may spring to mind in this scene, but this is someone different. This little laddie is a bit of a green-fingered entrepreneur. He just loves digging around in the family garden. He grows his own fruit and veg – the manure come free.....he spends half an hour every day collecting it from behind the horse pulling the milkman’s cart.

That’s not all he picks up. He’s also picked up a few tips from the newsagent, Nobby Clarke, on how to rear chickens! Hail the start of a gardening enterprise. When his wares are ripe, ready and plump, he’s off to Mrs Jones up the road, and Mr Findlay down the lane, to sell them a spud or three. He doesn’t know it yet, but Alex Martin is beginning a journey of a lifetime in love with nature and delighting in every minute of serving his friends in the local community. And so the seeds of Chessington Garden Centre are sown.

The swinging sixties hit – Beatlemania abounds. By this time Alex has studied horticulture at agricultural college, and though he takes a job with an engineering firm, he always has his eye open for something to feed the green entrepreneur.

Each day he drives past the deteriorating, bankrupted nursery on the Leatherhead Road. It used to be called Digger Nurseries.

He ponders, though not for long, on what he could do with it. By 1966 this man with vision has purchased the lease; perhaps not the most attractive building with its corrugated shack as an entrance, nevertheless he opens up retail in March 1967, selling roses and market produce.

1967 - 1976

It’s 1969 and Alex’s wife, Ruth, joins him in the business which continues to bloom, along with her first pregnancy. Just the two of them cope, with a bit of casual labour here and there. They broaden their range of produce and become dab hands at cultivating roses – at their peak they’re growing around 100,000 roses, along with bedding plants, plants, potatoes, eggs etc. Think massive farmshop!

As the centre steams ahead, Alex manages to purchase a second-hand prefabricated house – they were going cheap at £100 – this signals the welcome demise of the aesthetically-challenged corrugation. From here on in, we see the rather solid, permanent signs of a serious business beginning to build. In 1976, the organisation becomes a limited company, Chessington Nurseries Limited.

So the first decade, seen as the most difficult period in a company’s growth, is done and dusted. Time certainly flies for a fledgling business.

1977 - 1986

The old nursery site on the Leatherhead Road has been salvaged by Alex and Ruth Martin; their business has been plentiful in roses and market garden produce for the past 10 years, and they begin their second decade in business.

Alex takes the big step of buying two massive greenhouses. In 1981 the large warehouse is erected and in 1986, came the first pine cabin – that’s the main building you can see from the road and the entrance to the garden centre.

By this time roses are big business, not just for Chessington Nurseries – they’re being sold all over the place, in supermarkets and garages; Alex realises they are going to become more difficult to sell and a less important part of the product line up. So the birth of the true nursery takes place as shrubbery is the latest addition to the family.

And chrysanths step into the limelight. At Christmas the Martins trundle up to Covent Garden to sell these gorgeous flowers which they spend six months cultivating! Chrysanths can be a stressful, risky business it seems. Alex and Ruth explain how the growing starts in July, and these sensitive flora have to flower at just the right time! Not too early or too late – if it’s not spot on for Christmas you’ve lost your investment and a huge amount of time! They’re up at 3.00 am some days, tending the flowers before sunrise and the weather forecast is crucial to what can only be termed as a serious “care plan”! The Farmer’s Weather Forecast on a Sunday is the best – the children have to be deadly silent as mum and dad take in every detail about the weather for the coming week. Alex sometimes calls up the Met Office and speaks directly to Bill Giles (the TV weather presenter) who gives him a personalised weather report about the potential frost spots, even down to the individual towns. What a service!

1987 - 1996

With the hurricane behind them, Alex and Ruth Martin are still heavily involved in the business and moving into their third decade. It’s now becoming even more of a family concern with their three children all helping in some way. At the end of the 80s, Rebecca, 9, loves to work the cash till (apparently she’s far better at it than mum), but she can’t quite reach, so Harry, her 90 year old colleague, lets her stand on a box. Ruth reckons they make the best team ever! Her elder sister Rachel, 16, serves coffee to customers at weekends and son Jolyon, 18, works on dry goods and helps to run the business when he’s on his school holidays. So it really is a family affair and holidays are non-existent for the Martins as they continue to give their all to making the business a success.

1990…… the financial markets take a massive hit as Lloyds of London crashes. The shockwave travels far and wide and Chessington Nurseries is caught in the ripples. The sales of exotic and tropical plants have been healthy up until now with wealthy customers buying them by the lorry load, but the crash means that demand falls dramatically, as money becomes tight even at the top. That is just one example but a general recession also starts to take its toll on businesses everywhere. Chessington Garden Centre manages to weather the storm through an aggressive approach to marketing, hard work and, not least, gritted teeth. Alex is driving their lorry back and forwards to Holland and Belgium to buy shrubs and bulbs directly, while Ruth keeps the plates spinning back home running the Garden Centre and looking after the family.

As the markets begin to recover, Chessington Garden Centre is beginning to see the fruits of many years of labour and good, prudent management to such an extent that the bank manager is extremely impressed at how they’ve come through and mentions this to the Department of Trade and Industry who are interested in how businesses have coped with the recession. They too are impressed and select the garden centre as the subject for a special business report. This is to be the launch pad for the next decade as it flags up the options open to the Martins for future growth. One overriding direction is calling – retail. The report shows that retail is really going to be a massive growth area and that Chessington Garden Centre can take advantage of that. So with their son Jolyon joining the team full time, it’s again time to push on for the Martin family.

Ruth reckons that Alex always has “a nose for business” and, as we have seen before when he stays ahead of the game by diversifying, she seems to be right. Alex decides to go for full retail garden centre status and applies for planning permission to redevelop the site and formally changes the name to Chessington Garden Centre. More greenhouses arrive in 1996, and the second log cabin marries the first, to make a very large entrance.

The business is still relatively small with only around 30 staff, but this is just the beginning of a growth period which in the decade to follow, is to become one of the biggest community supporters and employers in the area.

1997 - 2006

The fourth decade in business and Chessington Garden Centre is still going strong and looking forward to more development and growth. Planning permission is finally granted after 3 years of waiting and its full steam ahead as a retail garden centre.

A key development is to open a restaurant which is a mammoth task and certainly not a piece of cake! The “Citrus Restaurant” opens in 1999 serving hot and cold meals as well as snacks and refreshments and, of course great cake. Further development follows, with improvements and the extension of a decked seating area into the houseplant area, giving a new and more modern look to go with a new name, the “Chessington Bistro”.

Alex and Ruth, ably assisted by Jolyon, who has now taken over the day to day running of the site, also undertake a second major addition to the site with a specialist Aquatics Centre. As is typical of their approach to business they won’t do it unless they do it well and plan to set this up at a highly professional level. This means recruiting knowledgeable staff and carrying a wide range of fish of all types – tropical, cold water and marine. However, without the perfect environment the fish would not be at their best so they invested in sophisticated equipment and quarantine tanks to ensure, to the best of their ability, that all the fish sold are healthy and in good condition. Having such equipment also means that they are able to buy from all across the world including specialist Koi from Israel where the buyers hand pick a great variety and choice of size and patterning of fish. So in 2002 the Aquatics Centre is up and running and drawing enthusiasts and hobbyists from all over the South of England.

With an ever growing team at Chessington the demands for a proper Human Resources system have never been so great. So following her successful time at Law School, Rebecca rejoins the business in 2003 for a year, to put in place the much needed system, which she still helps to maintain and advise on, from her position of a successful Employment Lawyer.

As well as continuing to offer a wide range of high quality plants the third major retail initiative is Christmas. Garden Centres are the perfect places to present exciting Christmas ranges as they have the space for great displays and selection following the end of summer, and Chessington is no exception. Each year the pine log cabin at the entrance has been transformed into a premier Christmas destination with an ever growing offering of decorations, gifts and ideas. By 2007 the demand for all things Christmas, lead it to be extended further throughout the site and include for the first time a purpose built Santa’s Grotto. With its “Gingerbread House” theme Santa’s Grotto was an instant hit with all children be they young or old, setting the standard for Chessington Grottos for the years to come.

It’s not however all about business for Alex and Ruth. They have always prided themselves on Chessington Garden Centre’s attitude to environmental issues and sustainability. Never just a PR exercise, or a “one-off” effort, but a sustained investment in time, money, enthusiasm and dedication during the lifetime of the company, Alex and Ruth’s commitment has never wavered.

A dedicated environmental program was started in 2000 and after lots of hard work by the whole team, Chessington became the first Garden Centre in the Country to gain International recognition for environmental management, by gaining ISO 14001 accreditation.

2007 - Present

Not ones to stand still, Alex and Ruth continued to grow and develop the total business, with a focus on both retail opportunities and the Garden Centre site itself.

Christmas has become an institution with an ever growing offer and spectacular Santa’s Grotto’s. The “Gingerbread House” being followed in 2008 by a “Dickensian Village” and an “Enchanted Ice Palace” in 2009. Now Surrey’s biggest and best Santa’s Grotto and a must see destination in its own right, 2010’s “Santa’s Winter Wonderland” has again raised an already high bar.

With their environmental plans growing ever larger in mind and deeds, a major project was conceived and implemented with the installation of a 1000m2 Reed bed for the future purification of all surface water produced on site. With the Reeds in the three ponds of the Reed bed becoming fully established, it has also developed into a thriving aquatic habitat for all the local and treasured wildlife.

With their lifelong love of all wildlife and being the owners of all number of Pets over the years, Alex and Ruth again managed to combine one of their passions with an ever growing demand by their customers, with the opening of an all new Pet & Wildlife Care Centre. Opened in September 2009, in its own purpose built unit linked to what was by now one of the South East major Aquatics & Reptile Centres. With its combination of knowledgeable, friendly staff and vast product range, the Pet & Wildlife Care Centre Alex & Ruth envisaged, not only offers all the produces their customer were asking for, but helps to promote the ever growing importance of caring for our valued Wildlife.

With a new decade underway and at the end of a long and sometimes painful progress, the latest and largest redevelopment project to be undertaken at Chessington Garden Centre was started on 1st July 2010.

The first part of this exciting development saw the dismantling of the old out dated and inefficient glasshouses, which subject to planning permission are to be moved to a new location and reused for a new and more suitable purpose.

The space created has in turn allowed for the construction of an all new, state of the art, eco friendly building. With its innovative design incorporating features such as a “Sedum” based nature roof, with green roof technology improving insulation and energy efficiency, Ground sourced heating system for self produced under-floor heating and an integrated drainage system linked to the reed bed purification ponds.

With work well underway, but the final Spring 2011 opening date still many months away it was once again time for Alex & Ruth to put their thinking hats on. How to ensure that the loyal Chessington Garden Centre customers and in particular their children were not let down during the festive season?

And so a plan was hatched. Make the new building water tight and safe for all and open the “Biggest and Best Santa’s Grotto”, Chessington if not Surrey had ever seen.

So after many a late night by all the team, headed by their son Jolyon, a partial opening of the new and innovative building was undertaken. Not only housing the much desired and planned for “Biggest and Best Santa’s Grotto” yet, but also an expanded selection of seasonal products including Artificial Christmas Trees, Christmas table decorations and their much loved Poinsettias.

With festivities over for another year and the “Biggest and Best Santa’s Grotto” at Chessington having not only wowed the children, but made it on to Breakfast TV it was full steam ahead with a new year and decade.

Following the careful removal of Santa’s temporary home, work recommenced at full speed on the new development with the installation of the energy efficient glazing and lighting, plus the laying of the finished flooring.

It was time now for the biggest job of all; the fitting out of the all new, state of the art, “Sedum” restaurant. Designed and planned in-house by Chessington Garden Centres own in-house designer. The “Sedum” restaurant with its combination of contemporary design and modern facilities mixed with a vintage twist and antique food related statement pieces has been designed not only to deliver the expected level of service, facilities and convenience, but wrap it up in a unique, stylish and customer focus environment.

As well as the all new “Sedum” restaurant, the development was designed to accommodate an exciting new shopping experience including Home, Leisure and Giftware products.

So April 2011 saw not only the opening of the new and much anticipated “Sedum” restaurant but also a whole new retail experience for the expectant Chessington Garden Centre customers to enjoy.

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