Internationally Acclaimed
Water Garden Authority
Bill Heritage

Come on in - the water's fine . . .

by Irene Heritage
with Charles B. Thomas
Click images to enlarge

He was born in 1922 on his father's farm in the village of Chesterton in the county of Warwickshire, just about in the centre of England. Farming was in the doldrums and after some years his father went into business in the town of Leamington. He went to junior schools in Leamington and then Warwick School in the County Town, one of the oldest schools in England.

He spent a lot of his time cycling around the country lanes indulging his love of nature, the ponds, trees, plants, animals, birds and solitude. Another passion was aeroplanes and their recognition 

1944-5, desk job, NAV III, HG 229
Group, RAF, Delhi, India

In 1940 he volunteered for The Royal Air Force, and when called up he did his initial training in Scotland, then flying training in Canada. He had been named Leslie Victor, but there was another chap called Les in his group in the RAF and thus it was he became Bill.

After service in Africa, years in India and finally in Singapore in 1945, he returned to England in 1946 and was demobilised.

He went to work in forestry in Dorset, a county in the southwest and, at a weekend visit to friends in December 1947, he met their friend Irene from London. So it was that on 11 September 1948 the countryman married the townie, much to the concern of many people!

< Bill and Irene were married in
Christ Church, Woburn Square, London


Bill's approach to forestry/horticulture was practical rather than academic. 
Bill joined Stewarts of Ferndown, Dorset, general horticulturists, in 1949, and gradually was able to indulge his love of water gardening. He met Norman Bennett at Weymouth in Dorset who had just given up teaching to do the same; they became friends then, never thought of competing, and remain friends in their retirement. During the intervening years, this duo assisted several of the UK's most distinguished botanic gardens to sort out the proper identities of waterlilies in their collections. 

Bill had always been a bookworm (avid reader) and it just came naturally to write his first article, "Come on in - the Water's Fine" in 1955, which was published in the horticultural magazine Amateur Gardening. The demand for articles grew and life was busy since there were now two young sons in the family.

The British Broadcasting Company produced a TV gardening programme from its studio in Birmingham - it was in black and white, live and no recording. Bill was asked to appear in April 1960. Bill appeared several times during the next few years. He left Stewarts to join Highlands Water Gardens in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, now living only just over 20 miles from London, but still pleasant country.

Life was hectic - very full-time job, many articles, the odd TV appearance, taking part in radio gardening programmes and lecturing to horticultural societies. The lectures were illustrated with his own slides, of course. Now he was being chivvied to write a book.

Bill's The Lotus Book of Water Gardening was published in 1973 and sold over 150,000 copies. It was translated into French and Dutch.

In 1981 his Ponds and Water Gardens was published. There has been a second edition and two revised editions after that. Copies are still being sold after 25 years!

The Royal Horticultural Society, in association with Collingridge, produced The Wisley Book of Gardening with sections produced by various well-known garden writers, also in 1981. Bill wrote Plants for Pools, and I think it is some of the best writing Bill has done; he was writing for knowledgeable gardeners.


Bill by now had joined Wildwoods, a water gardening company in Crews Hill, and water gardening was very popular. So a busy life continued. Then Charles Thomas of Lilypons Water Gardens contacted professionals and enthusiasts around the world to form the Water Lily Society (now International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society). So Bill (always with me tagging along) was able to share his love and enthusiasm in person with others from around the world, but particularly the USA. 

< Bill and Irene couldn't make it to the very first IWLS Symposium but after that they were always there until their last visit to Baltimore in 1998.

 He delivered the keynote address at its 1986 symposium that included memorable tours of the Missouri Botanic Garden, St Louis, and Ozark Fisheries, Stoutland, Missouri, USA. During our trek to the ornamental fish hatchery, the temperature reached an unusually high 104 F (40 C) with 100% humidity. We felt like we were in the mist of a tropical rainforest. We shall never forget our Missouri summer. Nevertheless, we loved being in the "show me" state, seeing diverse gardens, enjoying the symposium, exchanging ideas, and meeting delightful people there.
We learned first hand about water gardening conditions and practices in diverse parts of North America including California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Ontario, Tennessee, and Texas. At its 1988 Garden Grove, California, USA symposium, WLS awarded Bill its highest honor. They inducted him into their Hall of Fame in recognition of his outstanding contributions advancing water gardening. 

Pat Nutt congratulates Bill on his
Hall of Fame award.

< WLS banquet in Ripley, Harrogate, with Jonathan
Bennett, August 1988

Betsy Sakata, Bill, James Allison. 1998 IWGS Symposium >


Visiting the USA rather regularly satisfied a special curiosity of Bill's, the American Civil War. Like a military officer or historian, Bill had studied various aspects and battles of that conflict. Upon gratifying his water gardening interests in the area we were visiting, he then reviewed Civil War events (Antietam, Cowpens, Gettysburg) of the locality. American travels also provided Bill the opportunity to attend Garden Writers Association of America meetings where he increased his understanding of American gardening perspectives.

We became good friends with Perry and Maggie Slocum. We looked forward to seeing them at the annual water lily symposiums in Europe and America. Perry surprised us when he asked permission to name a striking red hybrid Nymphaea 'Irene Heritage'. Naturally, I agreed; Bill and I were delighted.

Life has become relaxed. The retired Bill (with some direction from me) gardens with his characteristic life-long passion for plants, terrestrial as well as aquatic. He is especially fond of his extensive daffodil collection of over 100 cultivars. Rarely does a day pass that he is not tending to his beloved plants. Like always before, Bill continues indulging his love of nature - ponds, trees, plants, animals, birds and solitude.

Bill is universally recognized for patiently providing accurate, straightforward answers to questions from everyone. It does not matter if the person is a first-timer, a long-time water gardener, or an experienced professional. He speaks and writes clearly in the engaging manner of an effective mentor. Countless water gardeners around the globe thank Bill who, through words and example, has ceaselessly encouraged all to follow his earnest invitation, "Come on in - the water's fine." 

Preface to Bill's best-selling Ponds and Water Gardens

To anyone who has ever had a garden pool no explanation of its varied delights is necessary. The gleam of water, the tranquil beauty of lily blooms sailing among cloud reflections, the swirl of rising fish, the chuckle of a cascade, and the heady scent of water hawthorn are, for those who have known them, pleasures without which no garden can be regarded as complete.

Nevertheless, unlikely as it will seem to these initiates, there are still gardeners who need to be persuaded; who require assurance that the effort involved in creating a water garden will be adequately rewarded; that there are sound practical reasons for going to the trouble of adding water to the garden scene. The following pages will indicate, I hope, that it is much less trouble than many people imagine and that the dividends in interest and the enjoyment for the whole family are enormous.

Some of them are obvious enough. The gardener in the family will discover how very easily water lilies can be persuaded to produce magnificent flowers. Those members of the family who normally take no notice of the garden at all will be found to take a lively interest in the occupants of the pond and to share the general satisfaction in the successful rearing of "home-grown" fish. It creates the focal point that so many gardens lack. Its magnetic attraction draws the footsteps and gives purpose to aimless paths. It seems somehow to gather the rest of the garden comfortably around it, giving both a focus and a unity to the whole.

Then there is the gift of relaxation. While other parts of the garden wear the reproachful look that nags of work needing doing, the water garden requires not that we hurry but that we pause. It reminds us that there should be time to stand and stare, or, preferably, to sit and stare, or better still, to have tea by the pool and, between bites, to flick tidbits to the fish cruising underneath the lily pads. 

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