Photo by Heathcliff O'Malley

Magnet Meets – Geoff Stonebanks Gardener & Charity Fund-Raiser

 by Peter d’Aguilar

If someone had told me twenty years ago that I would create an award winning garden and through it raise over £100,000 for charity,” says Geoff Stonebanks, “I’d have thought they were mad.”

Perhaps this is not surprising when you consider that Geoff spent twenty-eight years working in London for the Royal Mail, initially as a caterer and latterly as a personnel manager – with no involvement in gardening. It is clear, however, that Geoff has the personality, enthusiasm and dynamism to succeed in whatever venture he turns his hand to.

Having completed his training as a caterer, he began the important task of feeding postmen; who, like an army, march on their stomachs. As well as his culinary skills, Geoff found that he was blessed with a talent for managing people – an all-too-rare skill. After the Royal Mail’s catering services were acquired by Compass Group, Geoff was involved in a number of senior roles in the organisation and at a senior managers’ meeting he asked the then chairman a challenging question during a presentation to staff and was summoned to a meeting the next day. Rather than the dressing down he was expecting, he was offered instead the role of employee relations manager; which subsequently led to the post of personnel manager.

Geoff took early retirement in 2004 and moved with his partner from London down to Driftwood, a seaside property in Seaford. After sorting out the house, he began to tinker with the garden. Despite covering a mere 100ft by 40ft, Geoff soon spotted its potential. After two years of hard work, his friends encouraged him to open it to the public. This led to a first involvement with ‘Seaford in Bloom’. Feedback from the two hundred visitors was so positive that, in 2010, Geoff decided to apply to the National Garden Scheme. Initially Driftwood was deemed too small and had to be paired with another garden but, as its popularity soared, it earned the right to fly solo. Meanwhile Geoff was rising through the NGS ranks, from assistant county organiser to chair of publicity and social media.

Geoff’s most powerful motivating factor is the money he raises for charity. As well as supporting a number of local good causes, he persuaded Macmillan Cancer Support, one of the NGS’s chosen beneficiaries, to channel his revenue from Driftwood into the Horizon Cancer Centre in Brighton – for whom he has generated £54,000 thus far through his Driftwood Fundraising Group.

“I really enjoy taking my visitors on a private tour, followed by tea and homemade cakes.” Says Geoff. His catering skills have clearly not gone to waste.

Geoff now also organises two local coastal garden trails each summer, one for Macmillan, which last year raised over £9,000 in a single weekend and one for the
Mayor of Seaford’s charities.

Despite his boundless energy and enterprise, Geoff is anxious not to take all the credit for his success.

“While I may have created the vehicles for fund raising, I could not have done it without the invaluable team of volunteers who help me in the garden, as well as my
visitors and the other gardens that open as part of the trails.”

Nevertheless, he has received some well-deserved recognition both for his creativity and for his fundraising achievements. Driftwood won the Garden News best garden award in 2012 and was a finalist in the 2012 Daily Mail and 2016 Gardeners World competitions. It has featured on TV and in several national and international publications. It has gained a Trip Advisor certificate of excellence and numerous glowing endorsements, plus a host of followers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. It also has the distinction of being the smallest garden listed on Great British Gardens web site.

In January this year Geoff met Prince Charles at a Buckingham Palace reception in recognition of his fundraising work for Macmillan, where they had a four minute
conversation about the Prince’s garden at Highgrove. Geoff will be returning to the Palace for a garden party in June, accompanied by his 91-year-old mother –
who has always been a staunch supporter of his efforts.

“2018 promises to be an epic year for me.” Say Geoff proudly. “As well as the two trips to Buckingham Palace, it’s the tenth anniversary of opening Driftwood to the
public and I will have raised £100,000 for charity. I also turn 65.”

Not at all bad for a self-professed non-gardener!

Main photo by Heathcliff O’Malley