GRAHAM Cleator is celebrating a jubilee of his own this year — 25 years' service tending the gardens at Elvetham Hall between Fleet and Hartley Wintney.

It was in 1977 that he arrived at the impressive Victorian mansion set in 30 acres of landscaped gardens and grounds, which is now called The Elvetham and hosts corporate events, meetings and weddings.

Then aged 15, Mr Cleator had been invited to join the gardening team by George Draycott, who was head gardener at the time.

Before becoming head gardener himself in April 1988, Mr Cleator's expertise was honed under the watchful eyes of several head gardeners, including Reg Overson, who had been at Elvetham Hall since the Second World War, and George Furze, who was Mr Cleator's main mentor.

Today he oversees a five-strong team which combines more than 60 years of loyal service at The Elvetham.

"It is such a picturesque and peaceful setting," said Mr Cleator.

"No visitor can fail to be impressed by features such as the 15ft rhododendron maze, various magnolia trees, the mile-long avenue of Wellingtonias, a broadwalk of Irish yews, a sunken garden, rose garden, the long pool and vast expanses of lawns.

"The ancient rhododendron maze is one of the most unusual in the country.

"A specialist visited Elvetham and there were a number of species that even he was unable to name.

"The wildlife here is amazing. On one day, 47 different varieties of birds were spotted, including kestrels, a pair of buzzards and kingfishers on the River Hart, which runs through The Elvetham's grounds.

"One night a nightingale landed here. It was a clear night and its beautiful trill almost made it sound as though we were in the tropics."

The first Earl of Hertford, then owner of Elvetham, is reputed to have commissioned Shakespeare to write poems for the visit of Queen Elizabeth I in 1591 and it is believed the entertainment laid on was the inspiration for A Midsummer's Night Dream.

Still standing proudly in the grounds is the oak tree that Queen Elizabeth I planted to commemorate her visit.

The hurricane of 1987 was one of the toughest challenges that Mr Cleator and his team faced.

"We lost 25 mature trees that were between 100 and 300 years old," he said.

"We cut up all the trees, burnt the stumps and then restored the ground where the stumps had been.

"Fortunately the Queen Elizabeth I oak withstood this battering."

In the next seven months the gardeners were dedicated to replanting the lost trees, and more than 30 different species were added.

Mr Cleator said: "With my first 25 years behind me, I am now concentrating on introducing a herb garden, restoring a historic greenhouse, originally a vine house, and labelling rare trees and shrubs, among a long list of exciting ideas for the future."

Graham Cleator is pictured at work at Elvetham Hall.