A life of humour and integrity: Scotsdales Garden Centres founder David Rayner dies at 94
The founder of Scotsdales Garden Centres, David Rayner, has died at the age of 94.
His family said he died as he had always wished, peacefully in his sleep, at home on Saturday, January 14.
A farmer, entrepreneur, charitable benefactor, museum supporter and great-grandfather, David lived with integrity and humour, and rarely spoke a cross word.
Born in Balsham to a groom and housekeeper who had taken on a smallholding, David remained a Cambridgeshire man all his life and had an unsurpassed appetite for work.
A favourite phrase to his children and employees was: “You should be productive at all times.”
His entrepreneurial exploits began in his boyhood, when he kept bees and sold their honey, delivering milk from a cart pulled by a fierce billy goat and repairing cars and motorcycles with his brother, John. He purchased his first tractor with £100 made from the sale of honey.
Leaving school at 14, he spent just a short spell as an employee, becoming an apprentice joiner making coffins at Bill Mead’s in Fowlmere, then moving to the maintenance team at Robert Sayle – now the Cambridge branch of John Lewis.
David’s love, however, always remained with the land and he started farming in his own right on a council smallholding in Shepreth. He bought his first piece of land in Waterbeach Fen, sometimes spending the night in the barn there to prevent the journey home and back again - always maximising his productivity.
His huge appetite for work, knowledge of machinery, love and understanding of the land meant his farm continued to expand.
In 1955, he married Brenda Hill, a midwife, moving in 1963 from Shepreth to a farm in Swaffham Bulbeck where his home remained until his death.
Initially a mixed farm with a large flock of turkeys, the purchase and contract farming of land from Therfield in Hertfordshire, Madingley and Dullingham focused David’s time and energy increasingly on agriculture, experimenting with cropping and eventually adding a farm in the Sologne area of France to the family’s commitments.
David inspired loyalty from employees, the longest-serving being with him for 70 years; he supported and mentored many aspiring farmers and was proud to farm in partnership with his sons and grandchildren.
David is best known locally for his development of Scotsdales Garden Centres, initially purchasing the few greenhouses and shop at the Great Shelford site in 1968, then expanding to sites at Fordham and Horningsea.
His vision for the growth and success of Scotsdales, reflected in awards at Chelsea Flower Show including a coveted Gold medal for a small garden, was pursued with the same business acumen, work ethic, commitment and enthusiasm that he gave to farming. His work is now continued by his daughter, Caroline Owen (neé Rayner) - who joined the business in 1979 and is now managing director - his son Ben, who is Scotsdales’ finance director, and family members.
Memorable to all for his welcoming smile, warm embrace and keen interest in every person he met, David found time for everyone.
In 2007, he established the Scotsdales’ Charitable Foundation, helping to raise funds for the Cambridge Cancer Centre and making land available with the Shelford garden centre for its new premises, following a chance conversation about the desperate need for the facility.
Today it continues to operate in the David Rayner Building and many have benefitted from the warm advice and compassion it affords at difficult times.
During the pandemic, David spent less time at Scotsdales but developed and pursued his interest in Bottisham Airfield Museum, bringing the same determination to support its growth that he did to all his other ventures. Energetic to the last, and keen to see local life sustained, he was continuing to plan its development.
David always said he had “never done a day’s work in his life because he loved what he did so completely”. He enjoyed Christmas with his five children, 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
David’s rare mix of unfailing good humour, integrity, drive, acumen and empathy are their abiding memories.
Caroline said: “His passing leaves a huge hole and I miss him so much, but I will and we will celebrate his wonderful life and all that was achieved.”