Sir John Eliot Gardiner

John Eliot Gardiner at rehearsal in Wroclaw, PL

By Jeremy Miles

As he prepares for a night of inspiring hand-picked English music that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Dorset Wildlife Trust, conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner has praised the organisation for its conservation work.

The Trust, he says, should be “cherished and applauded” for its achievements in securing the future for Dorset’s wildlife and preserving the county’s historic and beautiful landscape. It has worked tirelessly since 1961 championing Dorset wildlife and inspiring promoting sustainable living. 

Sir John - a lifelong conservationist -  was born and brought up in Dorset and runs a pioneering organic farm on beautiful Cranborne Chase.

He has been associated with theTrust since its inception and says he was delighted to accept their invitation to conduct the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the celebratory gala concert at Lighthouse in Poole on Saturday December 3. The concert will be narrated by his old friend Sir David Attenborough 

The programme has been personally selected by Gardiner to evoke the beauty of the English landscape and its wildlife.  It includes Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Vaughan Williams’ exquisite The Lark Ascending featuring the remarkable Russian violin soloist Alina Ibragimova. “I think we have come up with a gorgeous programme.” he says.

Founder of the world-famous Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, 68-year-old Sir john combines a global career as a conductor with a deep love of the county he has known all his life.

“I’m a Dorset man, born and bred,” he says. “I grew up surrounded by the North Dorset chalk downs and have never moved away,”  Indeed, between concerts, he has farmed  there since the 1970s. “The ghosts of Hardy and Barnes still stalk these hills,” he says.

He comes from a remarkable family and was inspired by the pioneering work of his father the famous and sometimes controversial British rural revivalist Rolf Gardiner.

His grandfather was the Egyptologist Alan Henderson Gardiner while his Great Uncle was the composer Balfour Gardiner. It was Balfour who first embraced the rural idyll when he suddenly  turned his back on fame, fortune and a growing reputation in the year’s following the First World War.”

“He was considered by his peers to be one of the finest orchestrators in Europe but suddenly lost all faith in his powers as a musician,” says Sir John. “He decided to become a forester. He would invite his composer friends to stay and when he started planting trees with my dad he named some of the woodland compartments after them. To this day there is Gustav’s Folly which was named after Holst, Arnold’s Piece, named for Bax, and Percy’s Piece, for Percy Grainger, and so on. It’s such a nice connection.”

 Balfour Gardiner himself will be remembered in the Lighthouse concert with a performance of  Shepherd Fennel’s Dance  - a piece he wrote just before abandoning music for  forestry.  Sir John feels it is perfect. “It’s very much a southern rural English piece. Very colourful and full of spirit and it doesn’t sentimentalise the country in any way.” 

After decades of fighting to preserve rural traditions he says he feels privileged to live at Gore Farm between Blandford and Shaftesbury tending  ancient land that is surrounded by the trees and forests planted by his father and Great Uncle back in the 1920s. “When they set out to rehabilitate this little corner of Cranborne Chase, it was really run down. I’ve seen photographs of it back then and it was just a mixture of rubble and scree and brambles and nothing much else.”

His childhood memories are idyllic. “It never seemed to rain. I was always playing out of doors and of course I grew up on a working farm. I learnt to drive cart-horses and work in a dairy when I was six or seven years old. It gave me a taste for agricultural life that has stayed with me ever since.”

He still spends as much time in Dorset as possible and, between concert commitments, still runs a busy working organic farm. “If I’m abroad for any reason I am still in daily contact with the stockman and the arable man.

Gore was his  father’s first farm. “He very kindly gave it to me in 1968. Just the farmhouse and a few acres. Gradually I’ve pieced it together and expanded it into to something close to but not exactly yet resembling the original farm that he developed in the thirties and forties.” 

He feels privileged to be able to escape to a place so evocative of his childhood but tells me: “It is also a great responsibility. Ones got to balance the need to make it wash its face financially, which is getting harder and harder, with all the other pressures of growing crops that are organically produced and environmentally friendly.

“There are also issues like public access, traffic, thefts, burglaries and all the rest of it. It’s not a hobby, it’s very much a part of my professional life.” 

Unfortunately the worlds of both farming and music tend to make their greatest demands simultaneously.

We are talking in late August and Sir John tells me: “This is the time of year that is the busiest of all on the farm. It’s harvest and coming up to Michaelmas.  There will be stocktaking and we’ll be deciding what animals to take through to the following year, what to buy and what to sell, marketing the corn, deciding on the cropping rotation and all the other preoccupations. At the same time it’s the festival season as far as music is concerned. It’s Edinburgh, its the Proms, it’s  Lucerne. I’m constantly attempting to divide myself in two. It’s very awkward.”

Awkward it may be, but listening to Sir John talking animatedly about the land that he loves and the musical programme that he has selected for the Dorset Wildlife Trust Concert, you know, without question, that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Golden Jubilee Gala Concert is at Lighthouse, Poole on Saturday 3rd December 2011 at 7.30pm.  Ticket prices start at £10 and are available from Dorset Wildlife Trust on 01305 264620, online at or from Lighthouse box office on 0844 406 8666.


Dorset Wildlife Trust

With 40 nature reserves across the county, the Dorset Wildlife Trust  plays a key role in dealing with local environmental issues and leads the way in establishing the practices of sustainable development and engaging new audiences in conservation, particularly in the urban areas. For more information go to:

© Jeremy Miles 2022