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Katherine: Midlife Reinvention. From working in Public Sector to becoming a garden designer

Interview by Ceri Wheeldon

Midlife reinvention public sector to garden designer

Katherine Hathaway share her reinvention story, as she leaves behind a career in the public sector to follow her dream of becoming a garden designer

About Katherine

I live and work in Chippenham which is on the borders of the Cotswolds about 20 minutes from Bath. I’m engaged to a lovely man called Chris and I have a beautiful daughter who just turned 18 and  is about to sit her A levels.

What were your main activities (job, commitments etc) before turning 50?

In my career I have worked in temporary help provision, in a manufacturing business, in Government and for a University. I’m pretty eclectic! In my late 40s, I was a senior civil servant working at the heart of Whitehall advising Ministers, designing and implementing new Government policy on support for small businesses and before that I ran an organisational merger. The so-called Great Recession was happening and it was a really difficult time. Then I went to work for the University of Warwick to help run a research centre looking at enterprise and entrepreneurship.

What have been your main activities (job, commitments etc) since turning 50?

I left the Government in 2016 and I decided to retrain as a garden designer and horticulturalist. Now 3 years later I’m fully qualified and I’ve become one of the people I used to design support for – a small business.

Following my dream over 50

What prompted you to start your business/ take up the challenge/follow your dream.

I felt I needed to inject some creativity back into my life (I’d been shutting a lot of things down in the tail end of my time working for the Government which was necessary but a bit soul destroying) and I’d always gardened even when I only had a balcony. I also felt I couldn’t spend any more time sitting down at a desk staring at a screen. I needed to get moving in the fresh air and stop myself burning out.

How old were you when you started?

I was 51 when I started the journey to something different. People think I’m mad!

Did you have to take any courses or training to do this?

Yes I now have 2 diplomas – one in garden design and one in horticulture. It’s very weird sitting in an exam room at the age of 53 I can tell you.

becoming a garden designer over 50 image

What does your business / dream /job/challenge look like today?

I’ve set up the business and I now drive around in a car branded with my logo. I’m learning loads of new skills and drawing on all my existing skills too.

What has been the best aspect of your journey so far?

Graduating with distinction and having my final project design selected as the one the client was going to build. Then winning a Platinum award for a show border last year at the Gardener’s World Live event at the NEC. What a magic night that was after months of sheer hard graft.  And now doing a show Garden at the Royal Horticultural Society’s  Malvern Spring Festival – my dad would be amazed.


What was /is your biggest fear?

Failure of course – I think it’s the curse of people who have had a lot of success and luck in their life. We’re always afraid we’ll crash and burn…

Did anybody in particular inspire you?

No-one person in particular but I have always been fascinated by people like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. People with immense quiet courage who stay a particular course. And I sort of think the Universe arranges itself somehow.

What difference has it made to your life?

I’ve learned to forgive myself for not being perfect, to recognise when I’ve tried my best and to keep putting one foot in front of the other-  even if I’m scared half to death by what I’m trying to do. Somehow it always gets better if you keep trying.

What challenges did you initially face? How did you overcome them?

Just knowing where to start with setting up the business was hard – and you’d have thought I had the theory down pat. But trying to establish a brand which says something about you rather than about something abstract like an organisation or a product. That was really quite difficult. Once I’d got the design for the Lark Hall studios branding in place I could really start motoring.

How did the opportunity come about?

Malvern you mean? Pure serendipity. My colleague Karen, who helped me plant the show border at Gardener’s World Live, went and had tea with an old friend. He got very enthusiastic about the fact the judges at GWL had told us we were good and should ‘do more’ and before we knew it we were stitching together a group of people to deliver a garden at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival.

katherine hathaway rhs garden design image

What other opportunities have materialised as a result?

Too early to tell but I’m talking to you aren’t I so who knows? A really great garden design project would be a wonderful outcome. Oh and an RHS medal…. preferably a good one!

Which of your previous experiences (if any) did you draw upon the most?

My people and organisational skills and the fact that I’ve always been a self-starter who could walk into a situation and make something happen. If I don’t know something I’ll ask around and research until I find out. In the process, you meet people who are on the same path as you in one way or another.

What are your next steps?

We are about 4 weeks away from breaking ground at Malvern so we are putting the finishing touches to the preparations. In the end, there will be a lot of last-minute running around because nature has its own timetable and plants tend not to flower to order. So, our best laid plans may go awry at the last minute and we’ll be substituting one lot of plants for another. It pays to be very flexible in show garden design!

How have friends and family reacted?

Hardly anyone knew about the show border last year but this year I’ve told everyone and people I know are saying things like ‘I got a reminder to buy my tickets for the Malvern Spring Festival and guess who I saw on the website?’. I’m chuffed about that.

Any regrets?

Doubting myself in my 20’s and 30s. My life could have taken a very different turn at one point but there were roads I didn’t or rather couldn’t take at the time. It doesn’t matter now though.

What 3 tips would you give other women over 50 looking to do something similar?

  • Expect to lie in bed every night worrying about whatever your venture is – its normal. I discovered afterwards that there are 78 people who call themselves garden designers on my patch. If I’d known that before I trained I might not have bothered. Anxiety however is the natural state of the creative person – when a design falls into place you finally feel calm and you know it’s right.
  • Make that call, send that email, write that letter – people can only say ‘no’ can’t they? In practice, they are often much more helpful than you think and more willing to engage than you can ever imagine. Nadiya was right girls! Never say ‘I can’t’.
  • Do not think about what other people will say or think of you or the changes you are making. They are strongly vested in the choices they have made so they may see the choices you’ve made as a bit threatening. What matters is what you think in the end.

A little bit more about you……

I love film, theatre, music, books – all the creative arts really. I basically love learning new things and going to new places. I read all the descriptions of the exhibits and getting around a museum takes me twice as long as my partner Chris – he’s in the coffee shop with a cuppa and cake before I’m half way round. Apart from my daughter, I always had cats which was partly to do with my lifestyle. Now I’ve acquired two chocolate cockapoos who are absolute bundles of joy and energy.  They force you out and away from the desk and it’s impossible to be miserable when you are around them.

All time favourite book or film?

I’d like to say something deep but ……I saw Grease 3 times when I was 13/14 – it’s the only film I’ve ever been to the cinema to see more than once. And I came out dancing – it was a ‘feel good’ movie.

How would you describe your own style?

I’ve always said ‘classic with a twist’ – I look a bit traditional really but underneath I’m really a little bit wild..

Three words that sum up your life over 50

Rewarding, scary, exhilarating

What last thing would you like to say to other women?

Come and have a chat at the RHS Malvern Spring festival 9th – 12th May 2019. It’s a great day out in a lovely setting  www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/malvern-spring-festival/highlights


Ceri Wheeldon

Ceri is Founder and Editor of Fabafterfifty.co.uk She is a frequent speaker at events and in the media on topics related to women over 50 , including style and living agelessly. With 20+ years experience as a headhunter Ceri also now helps support those looking to extend their working lives.

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