Personalities, Wimborne | Posted: Wednesday, October 14th, 2020 at 2:28 pm | return to news

Obituary – Ian Willis 1951-2020

By Marilyn Barber

The people of Wimborne and the wider community have been shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Ian Willis.

Ian Willis
Ian Willis

Ian, whose ‘Secret Garden’ at Serle’s House in Victoria Road, Wimborne, was described by Alan Titchmarsh as one of the ‘ten best gardens in Great Britain’, died suddenly at his home on 5 October at the age of 68.

In 2001, Anthony Oliver, who was then chairman of Wimborne in Bloom, asked Ian if he would open his garden to raise funds for the charity. It was described in the programme as ‘The masterpiece of an eccentric’.

I visited Ian to give the event pre-publicity and I was so taken by its quirkiness and creativity that I wrote a long article with photos for the Stour and Avon Magazine.

The story was picked up by national newspapers and TV stations and in 2003 Ian opened up his garden to raise funds for the National Gardens Scheme Charitable Trust. Since then thousands of visitors have been enchanted with the garden.

Born in King Street, he lived his whole life in Wimborne.

His sister Janet Culf said that as children their parents taught them to garden and to do practical jobs such as cooking and sewing.

Whilst at Wimborne County Primary School Ian baked cakes to sell in aid of building a swimming pool at the school and he and his sister regularly held garage sales with home baked cakes and home-grown vegetables in aid of local charities.

Aged 9 Ian won the cookery cup in the Wimborne Horticulture Show, having most points across all the classes in the adult competition, including a decorated cake which looked like a basket of flowers. This led to a television appearance on South at Six with filming taking place with newscaster Martin Muncaster in their small kitchen.

Ian supported the Wimborne Horticulture Show for many years entering baking and handicraft sections.

He attributed his love of gardening to Rural Science lessons at Wimborne Secondary Modern School and extra time spent in the school garden. Whilst still at school he built an ornamental fish pond in his parent’s garden and planted fruit trees he had grafted at school.

As a teenager he was a founding member and chairman of the Wimborne Youth Aid and Action Group.
On leaving school Ian trained and worked with the Southern Electricity Board as an electrician before joining CI Electronics of Salisbury as a rep for precision weighing systems. He subsequently started his own interior decorating business. Ian had a lifelong love of the decorative arts, and was always designing and making things to decorate his house and garden.

Ian bought Serles House in 1981 and set about transforming the garden which has a huge amount of artefacts including an old copper liner from a wash boiler, a bronze Bog Pool Frog, cannons dragged up from the Solent, old chimney pots and a terracotta rabbit. You get the picture! He opened up the Victorian house to the public in 2009.

Items were collected from recycling and reclamation centres, junk and antiques shops.

One of Ian’s prized items of furniture was a George 111 mahogany dining chair that was once owned by John Stonborough, the grandson of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination in Sarajevo was one of the events that precipitated the First World War.

Janet said, “Ian was often called an eccentric in an endearing sort of way. His house and garden became a showpiece open to the public. This was his passion. He was disappointed that he could not open this year.”

Speaking on behalf of Wimborne in Bloom, Anthony Oliver said, “Ian was a great
supporter of ours and will be sorely missed by us and numerous other individuals and organisations.”

As well as Janet, Ian leaves a nephew Matthew.

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