I came away from Waterperry Garden Centre after meeting Mary Spiller, feeling I could have written about her rather than my planned subject, the legendary Beatrix Havergal - who started a horticultural training course for women based on a firm conviction and a couple of acres of land.

Originally a student at Beatrix Havergal's School of Horticulture, Mary - one of the last links to Miss Havergal - was to come back, more than once, as a teacher and finally, in 1962, as the manager of the centre.

Following a visit by the BBC with Geoffrey Smith, she was invited to become one of the presenters on Gardener's World - just what you might expect from a student of a school that has sent gardeners out to work in botanic gardens, National Trust properties and large estates in the UK and abroad.

Now in her 80s, Mary still teaches at the school once a week.

Looking at her hands as I made notes, I felt I could see decades of experience in her long, elegant, but certainly, soil-enriched fingers. Clearly Mary is still a hands-on gardener!

The story I had come for, however, was that of Miss Beatrix Havergal or Trix, as she was known to her family.

Beatrix was born in 1901. The daughter of a clergyman, she was a deeply committed Christian whose faith saw her through many difficult times, and, no doubt helped forge her strong principles.

She believed in excellence, nothing less; in the sharing and passing on of knowledge and the opening up of opportunities for women.

She was born into a world which was turned upside down by the First World War. The stupendous loss of life in the trenches meant many young women were destined never to marry but, at the same time, opportunities to work in occupations previously reserved for men were very gradually opening up.

Money difficulties at home required Trix to leave school at 15 and work to contribute to the family purse.

She followed her first love and did jobbing gardening under the auspices of the Women's Country War Agricultural Committee. The official promise she had to make at the time she was to keep for the rest of her life: "to work on the land whenever called upon to do so."

An improvement in the family fortunes then meant Trix could undertake some formal training and, in 1917, she started a two-year course at the Thatcham Fruit and Flower Farm, near Newbury.

Life was not all work and no play. She found time to become a member of the local Police Rifle Club and a certificate showing a score of 102 out of 105 possible points in 1919 was her pride and joy.

In 1920, Trix passed her RHS exams with honours and her first job saw her creating a garden out of a field for a married couple with a newly-built house in Cold Ash.

In those days that meant both designing and doing the physical labour single-handed.

Her work on this garden drew the attention of Olive Willis, the founder and headmistress of Downe School for Girls. The outcome was Trix being invited to join the staff at Downe School as a gardener.

The influences there were to prove pivotal to the rest of her life. For one thing, the school had a fine reputation for the teaching of music - Trix's other great love besides gardening. Choral singing was to be her main off-duty activity.

Then there was the influence of Olive Willis, a head with a reputation for motivating her girls and encouraging even the weakest pupil, which was to awaken in Trix the desire to teach and pass on knowledge.

Thirdly, she met and made friends with the young housekeeper at the School, Avice Sanders. Together they formed the idea of starting their own horticultural course for girls, with Avice running the domestic side of things and Trix, of course, the teaching side.

Today this would have meant formal partnerships, business plans and visits to banks. It is hard to remember what a different world it was in the 1920s. No doubt there were long discussions into the depths of the night and, perhaps, a few letters written.

The outcome was that, in 1927, with what little financial backing each set of parents could provide, the partners rented a cottage and two acres of land on the edge of the Pusey Estate in Oxfordshire and launched their school - initially with only two students - one a German-speaking Swiss girl who was to keep in touch with Miss Havergal for the rest of her life.

Money, or rather the lack of it, was to be a perennial problem and to bolster their finances they sold produce at Swindon market, successfully building up a fine reputation for quality.

In the early 1930s it became obvious that they needed larger premises, and the long and the short of it was that 1932 saw them move to the school's permanent home - Waterperry House.

At this time, Waterperry was owned by Magdalen College, which was seeking suitable tenants. Miss Havergal's diary records August 31 as moving day and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

The house, built in the reign of Queen Anne, probably on the site of a medieval building, had two main family names associated with it - Curson and Henley.

In 1927, the last Henley living here sold to Magdalen College which, in their turn, eventually sold to Miss Havergal in 1947, after 16 years of being her landlord.

The creeper-covered three-storey building with its ballroom, library, a balustraded parapet and seven bays on the west front and the north must have seemed an enormous undertaking, especially for Miss Sanders who was charged with the running of it.

It must be said that without her calm control and support the whole enterprise might never have succeeded. She was joint-principal and the two consulted each other about everything.

No doubt, Miss Sanders tackled the running of the house with the same faith and stoicism that Miss Havergal displayed in the borders.

The big room at the head of the staircase was established as the principal's bedroom. It overlooked the herbaceous frames and it was said that Miss H, as she came to be known to the girls, checked every morning for straight lines as she knotted her tie at the window.

On the same floor, the students had their common room, another large room considerably grander than most common rooms. A Land Army girl, Daphne Byrne recorded her memories: "Occasionally we would have lectures in our beautiful common room, with a vast expanse of sherry coloured carpet below and exquisite crystal chandeliers above, and usually there was a log fire burning in a marble fireplace. The whole mantelpiece was supported by long suffering Grecian maidens. Sometimes from sheer boredom we "made them up" and forgot about them until during a lecture we became aware that their momentary glamour had been removed."

Miss H, a larger-than-life figure, was famous for her style of dress. Knee breeches and knee-high stockings, sturdy leather shoes from Duckers, a green smock over a shirt and always a smartly knotted tie. She always wore a felt hat, except when the weather was fine enough to allow for a Panama.

No doubt considered eccentric now, but the style had evolved from the uniform she wore as a young girl at Thatcham.

A smart tweed suit would, of course, come out for occasions such as the Chelsea Flower Show.

Mary Spiller remembers having to wear the knee breeches at the beginning.

"Jolly uncomfortable they were too," she said. "It was much better when the revolution came and the girls were allowed to wear dungarees!"

Mary was referring to one of the stronger-minded students, Jo Cockin, who rebelled in 1936. One day she and two cohorts presented themselves in blue, garage mechanics' boiler suits. Firm words were spoken, but the upshot was the introduction of green dungarees and white shirts.

The students did a two-year course. They worked very hard, but had lots of fun too, as Mary Spiller was keen to emphasise.

Some of the stories sounded like an extract from Angela Brazil's A Fourth Form Friendship or one of Elinor Brent-Dyer's Chalet Girl series.

There were frequent parties, picnics to celebrate Miss H's birthday each July (Miss S by contrast marked her birthday very quietly in January) and outings to fairs, cinemas and dances.

An annual invitation was issued to the trainee clergy at Cuddesdon Theological College. One year it was a Hallowe'en party with the girls trying to frighten the young priests-to-be with ghost walks round the garden in the dark.

Much innocent fun was had by all, but sadly a change of principal at Cuddesdon put a stop to such frivolities. The new incumbent was future Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie!

The girls' working day started at 6.40am with a cup of tea then out to various duties including tending the coke fed boilers, a dirty assignment.

At 7.50am all assembled in church, sang a hymn to Miss H's accompaniment and joined in prayers led by her from the lower pulpit. Breakfast followed at 8.10am and the girls were fed heartily.

At 9.15am the Work Reading' took place. This was the allocation of the five different groups, first and second years, to their place of work for the day.

There was an 11am tea break, followed by glasshouse watering at noon and then lunch at 1pm. The afternoon started at 2.15pm and, in theory, finished at 5pm.

The staff usually went back to various gardening duties after tea, while the students attended to their studies and wrote up their work diaries. Supper was served at 7.30pm.

Surprisingly for those days there was no official "lights out", but Miss S, as Avice Sanders was called, made it clear that she did not approve of the burning of expensive midnight oil.

The principals themselves kept very late hours with Miss Havergal habitually taking whichever was the current dog for its last walk around midnight. The aims of the principals never varied from the 1937 prospectus: "It is the object of the school to provide the theoretical foundation, the practical knowledge of horticulture, and the specialised skill required to make a first-class gardener."

Marriage was classed as wastage and unworthy of a Waterperry training. In 1954, a student, Bridget Ross Lowe told Miss H that she had become engaged. She was met with the horrified reaction: "But what about the garden?"

However Miss H must have got over it as years later when Bridget and her husband visited with their young family, she was delighted to see them and tried to amuse the little ones. The youngest went on to train in horticulture, so perhaps in the very long term the Waterperry training had been a good investment after all.

Together with most of the staff and students, Miss H and Miss S were staunch supporters of the local church, taking on such duties as churchwardens, and never failing to make their Communion there together every Sunday.

The shop that many will remember in Oxford's Covered Market was a direct result of the Second World War.

Petrol rationing meant the journey to Swindon market was no longer viable. The school already supplied many private customers in Oxford and also some of the colleges, so the next logical step was to rent space in the market. The growing of fruit and vegetables had always been a firm part of the Waterperry curriculum, but now it was part of the national emergency.

A humble stall down one side of the market was rented at first, but the opportunity arose to move to much larger premises in the centre. Many readers will remember the Waterperry shop. Flowers and plants are still sold on the premises - though not fruit and veg - now know as The Garden.

Fridays in the shop usually saw a visit from the principals, Miss Sanders on her way to do her weekly shop for the house and Miss Havergal on her way to her weekly meeting of the War Agricultural Committee for the country.

As the country gradually recovered from the Second World War, things became more formal. Gone were the days of the carthorses (Boxer and Dinah), jolly nicknames, bicycle rides and japes in the orchard.

If students were to be able to get a grant the school had to be officially recognised. In 1958, Miss Havergal asked for an Education Authority inspection.

To everyone's great relief the school met with approval, thought with a strong recommendation that a lecture room/laboratory be created to aid the practical teaching of science. The cost of this seemed entirely prohibitive but, two things were to happen.

On February 23, 1960, Miss Havergal was given an MBE by the Queen for services to Education in the Field of Horticulture. Later the same year she was awarded the Veitch Cross from the RHS. This, of course, raised the profile of the school.

Secondly, a fairy godmother turned up in the shape of Miss Barbara Kitson, then living in Appleton House, a lady who was the recipient of a financial windfall and was looking for a worthy institution which needed help and in which she could take an active interest. Miss Kitson and Miss Havergal met and instantly hit it off - the laboratory block was built and Waterperry soldiered on.

Waterperry was, by now, running courses for members of the Women's Institute and indeed for any member of the public who wanted to learn more about gardening, but things were never the same after the death of Miss Sanders.

Rather than see the school sink slowly, Miss Havergal wisely decided to sell up, but always with the hope that the gardens would be maintained.

There were various possible new owners, but in the end Miss Havergal accepted the offer made by the School of Economic Science, which was the most sympathetic of the potential buyers and would be carrying on the ethos of teaching on the premises.

It proved to be the best possible compromise, with Miss Havergal moving into the cottage at the old entrance for her remaining days, cared for by her cousin and the devoted Joan Stokes. She died, aged 79, in 1980.

Plaques in Waterperry Church remind us of her and Miss Sanders, but her real legacy lives on in the soil and the very air of the garden centre.

Gardening courses are still run there and Mary Spiller still teaches once a week. Truly, the spirit of Miss Havergal lives on!