An enchanting celebration of imagination, scrap materials and a refusal to waste a thing...
Bloom Magazine, Spring/Summer 2023
Recycling and repurposing are tropes of our modern age; they feel very 21st-century. But for John and Carole Richins this is nothing new. This octogenarian couple have been quietly embracing a make-do-and-mend attitude all their lives. And their garden, an extraordinary fantasia of creative horticulture, found objects, and upcycled art, is a glorious testament to that.
There is something rather theatrical about the approach to their home, Chauffeur's Flat, in the sleepy village of Tandridge in Surrey. Driving beneath the arch of the domed clocktower into the circular courtyard is like alighting at a railway terminus from some E. Nesbit novel. The area is divided into large, curvilinear flats, complete with arched windows, wrought-iron canopies and slate roofs. This striking piece of architecture, John tells me, was the former motor house for Tandridge Court, the large manor house that sits just across the way.
John and Carole bought the property in 1977. They had originally met at Camberwell School of Art in the 1950s and were confirmed Londoners. Then, partly because they now had three young children, but primarily because they wanted a garden, they began to dream of a life beyond the city. Nearly half a century later, they are still there and their garden is open to the public through the National Garden Scheme a few days each year.
In contrast to the grand courtyard entrance, access to the one-and-a-half-acre garden is modest, a discrete passageway that cuts through to the back of the building. And that’s where the fairytale-like landscape really begins.
One of the first things John shows me is a rather beautiful cast-iron stool, its seat the coal-hole cover from his former Balham home. Then there’s the huge marble table-top, all glimmering white, set above a long, iron bench. The marble, John tells me, was formerly a fishmongers’ counter, the latter the grating that covered the hot water pipes from the flat’s original boiler. I notice a semicircle of textured cobbles. These, John explains, were created from excess cement set in the moulds from plastic food containers. As we meander, I discover similar constructions. A rusty iron mangle makes a tiered shelf for plant pots. A ribbon of upturned wine bottles forms a faux rill.
Then there’s the art. Set among the trees and shrubs and herbaceous planting is a gallery of the uncanny. At first you don’t notice them all; you have to get your eye in. Then you see it everywhere, in every nook and cranny some sculptural creation, dreamed up by Carole and brought to life by John. (The two artists have his and hers studios beneath the flat.) There’s a mosaic table-top complete with embedded cutlery. An old rusty shovel spilling forth its contents of bolts and chains and nuts and screws. A steam punk dragonfly, made from the steps of a spiral staircase. An iron scarecrow fashioned from old bed springs, an electric fan, a pickaxe blade and two car horns.
One of the more extraordinary pieces is a large iron hay cart transformed into a canopied bed chamber. ‘We call it our trolley folly or folly trolley, I can’t remember which,’ John laughs. This stands at the edge of the original garden boundary.
In 2016 John and Carole acquired the fields immediately beyond this. Through this former grazing land John has mown a pattern of paths, leaving islands of long grass and wildflower meadow. The planting in the garden is itself is both pragmatic and aesthetic. There are lots of strategically placed trees and shrubs – birch, hawthorn and snake-bark maple; weeping pear and coppiced paulownia; contorted hazel and Buddleia globosa –, many crown-lifted and carefully pruned to create views and framing devices for the artworks. This strong structure is then softened by romantic, wilder planting. Rambling roses and clematis scramble through the canopies, while specimen tree peonies, shrub roses and trailing wisteria (no less than nine varieties) are underplanted with a carpet of hardy geraniums, euphorbias and Phlomis russeliana.
The lower part of the garden was designed by Carole and created from scratch. She did much of this work herself, as John was busy ‘earning a crust’ as an art teacher in a secondary school. The upper sections, which climb and wind through steep woodland until you are poised above the buildings below, has by contrast been a process of evolution. ‘It was all laurel and rhododendron,’ remembers Carole, ‘so I cut through with a machete to see what was there. It was like a scene from Sleeping Beauty!’ Up here, with views out across the valley, is one the couple’s most ambitious and most romantic structures: a spiral staircase that clings to the trunk of a large conifer. At the top rung you reach a wrought-iron walkway leading to a perfectly placed bucket seat, an arboreal sanctuary for one.
I’m intrigued to discover where Carole and John get their materials. 'From anywhere and everywhere,' they tell me. The discarded copper from the clock tower restoration. The lead from their neighbours’ roof repairs. All manner of flotsam and jetsam cast out by friends and relatives. All of it rescued and reimagined as something useful or beautiful.
© 2019 Diana Jazwinksi
I’m also fascinated to learn how they adopted their home-spun aesthetic in the first place. ‘We like to use things that people throw away, it’s as simple as that,’ says John. ‘I think this is partly because we were both born during the war, and you used what you’d got.’
‘My dad used to straighten his old bent nails, I remember,’ adds Carole. ‘My mother taught us to knit and crochet, and she would do leather craft and weaving. We use that same crafting attitude in the garden too, dividing plants, taking cuttings, and layering. It’s all about making something out of nothing.’
But there is more to it than just being thrifty; John and Carole are simply not that prosaic. First and foremost, they are artists, and they see their garden as an extension of their own creativity. ‘The garden is our artwork,’ says John, ‘and whatever we acquire, whatever someone else discards, we make into art.’
As we sit in the shade, overlooking the garden below, I reflect on the fact that they maintain all of this on their own, with no outside help. It seems staggering to me so I pose what I fear might be a delicate question: How are they going to manage as they get older?
They are remarkably sanguine: ‘I’m going to end up on the compost heap!’ laughs Carole. ‘Eventually, it will all just envelop us, and then return to how it was before.’
‘It’s already happening,’ adds John, ‘there are some things you look out over now and you can’t see them because things have grown around them.’
Does that matter, I ask?
‘Yes and no,’ says John, thoughtfully. ‘It depends, because we do it for ourselves, we don’t really do it for other people. And you’ve got to remember, it doesn’t feel like work, it isn’t work, it’s a way of life for us.’
And what a life! As we begin to emerge from decades of unrestrained consumerism and throwaway culture, as we finally begin to pay attention to the waste that follows in our wake and take seriously our responsibilities to salvage and reuse, this formidable couple and their remarkable garden should be inspiration to us all.