At 81, perennial florist Margaret Mason is still blooming brightly.
While others half her age have withered and gone, Preston’s flower queen continues to put on a spectacular show.
Ask her about retirement and Margaret, the city centre’s longest-serving shopkeeper, looks startled by the thought.
“I don’t ever want to retire,” she insists. “I hope I can work till I drop.And then I want a nice service... with lots and lots of flowers.”
There can’t be many families in the Preston area – and miles around for that matter – who haven’t at one time or another enjoyed a display of Margaret Mason magic. Her creations have delighted everyone from the Queen to the young man buying his first Valentine’s Day bouquet.
She has worked at the Chelsea Flower Show, represented Great Britain in floristry, decorated the Grosvenor House Hotel in London’s Park Lane, arranged flowers around the skeleton of Dippy the Diplodocus at the Natural History Museum and put on a magnificent show at Stirling Castle in Scotland. And, always on the lookout for something different, she once circled the globe with 21 other florists searching for new blooms to use back home at her iconic yellow shop in Friargate.
“I’ve had a wonderful life, met some wonderful people and travelled to some exotic places,” she says with a satisfied smile. “It’s been brilliant. And I hope it keeps going for a long time yet.”
After 63 years in the business, Margaret might be excused for taking things a touch easier – after all she has an immensely talented team behind her to take up the strain. But nothing could be further from her mind. In fact she is expanding, with an exciting new floral venture The Barn in Freckleton beginning to blossom. “It’ll be posh when it’s finished,” she chuckles. “I’m hoping it will be successful. I think it will. But Friargate is my base and I couldn’t ever move out of here. It’s been my life.”
Margaret still works six days a week. On most of those she puts in around 12 hours, sometimes it can be up to 15. Sundays she tries to leave free for her other great passion – playing the organ in her local church. But even then business has been known to creep in on the sabbath.
A typical working day starts with a 4.40am alarm. She is at work in Preston between 6am and 6.30am and doesn’t shut up shop until late.
Then she can be over at The Barn meeting a bride to plan her wedding flowers. It could be 9pm before she is able to put her feet up at her home near Freckleton.
“I don’t know why I’ve got all this energy,” she tells me in the bustling backroom of the Friargate shop where she was been based for more than half a century. “I’ve always worked hard. But it’s never been a chore, I’ve loved every bit of it.
“When I first started I used to jump on my bike at the farm and pedal into Freckleton to get the bus into Preston. Then I did the journey in reverse in the evening. And, of course, it could be pouring down. It was only when my dad bought me a little van that it got a bit easier.”
Coming from a long line of farmers in the Freckleton and Warton area, Margaret was always expected to join the family business when she finished her schooling. So her radical career choice came as a complete shock to her parents and her two brothers and sister.
“All my family had been farmers from way back. It was just expected that’s what I would do. But I didn’t want to do farming, I wanted to become a florist and I set out for Preston to get a job. My dad couldn’t understand it. He couldn’t believe anyone would spend money every week on flowers. It was crazy, he said.
“He told me: ‘People will always want to eat, but they’ll not always want to buy flowers.’ When my mum bought half a dozen tulips, my Grandma Mason told her she shouldn’t be spending money on flowers, she should be spending it on cows!
“So they made me struggle and, in a way, that made me stronger.
“When someone makes it difficult for you it makes you work harder to prove them wrong.
“My dad never once told me he was proud of me. But after he died I found out he’d told others he was.
“I remember there was a twisted hazel that he would never cut down, even though it was taking up space.
“He used to say: ‘Our Margaret will want that.’ So when he died I used some of it in his flowers. It was a lovely shape.”
After working for someone else for five-and-a-half years Margaret set up on her own in 1961, taking over an unused section of the old Duke of York pub just a few doors up from where she is now. After five years, she had outgrown it and bought a former opticians shop further along Friargate. As business bloomed she was able to buy the shops either side to form her current business.
“I worked flipping hard to save the money to buy that first shop,” she recalls. “But then we were brought up to work, we weren’t brought up to slack. Eventually my dad came round to the idea I was a florist, not a farmer, and bought me my first little van.
“I thought it should be painted bright yellow, even though most vans were dark in colour. And I’ve stuck with yellow. We now have five and people immediately know it’s us when they see them.”
Margaret can’t put a figure on how many weddings – or funerals – she has done the flowers for in her 63 years creating sprays, bouquets, buttonholes, wreaths and table displays. “It’s got to be thousands,” she says. “But it’s not just the happy events, there have been lots of funerals too.
“It doesn’t matter what the occasion is, I like to prepare the same. I try and find out as much as I can about them and then we draw up what we call a mood board before we start to do the flowers.
“It means that each arrangement can be specifically designed to tell the story of the person involved, whether it’s a bride and groom, or someone who has passed away. I always think it should be personal, individual and created just for them. I get a real kick out of getting it just right.
“We’ve served generations of the same family. I loved it recently when one lady came in to book flowers for her daughter’s wedding and said we’d done hers 40 years ago. That’s a lifetime and I like that.”
Margaret says she has been lucky to inherit her mother’s artistic and musical flair and her dad’s business brain.
The combination of all three has shaped her life. But even after 63 years in flowers she is the first to admit she doesn’t know everything there is to know about floral art.
“I’ve never stopped learning. I still read as much as I can and I still talk to people.
“Anyone who just sits in their little shop and doesn’t get out and learn more about the business will get nowhere. That’s why I went round the world, to see what was out there. We called in Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, the United State. I was even on TV in Canada.
“I just love the job I do – if you can call it a job. I’ve got some brilliant memories, I really have. Like the time I did the flowers when the Queen opened the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall after it had been refurbished. I was presented to Her Majesty afterwards as: ‘This is Margaret, she’s done the flowers.’ The Queen said: “Have you really? They are beautiful.’ That was very special for me.”
My final question: “Of all the flowers you’ve worked with in your life, which have been your favourites?”
Her answer, quite surprisingly, is Bluebells.
“I love wild flowers from the countryside, they are my favourites.”