The beasts of Branxton

Normality has been suspended in the garden of a small house in Northumberland. By Anna Pavord. Photographs by Andrew Yale
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The Independent Culture
Fountain House in Branxton, Northumberland, is trying hard to be normal. It is small and neat, pebble-dashed on the back gable end, with a short path leading from the village street directly to the front door. On either side of the path are two small beds planted with roses and dwarf conifers. But the house, clinging desperately to its remnants of genteel respectability, is completely outflanked by the extraordinary garden that lies behind it.

You get the first signal by the side entrance, where a lion with eyelashes more melting than even Miss Piggy's is standing where you would expect to find the dustbin. "Now welcome", says a sign a little further on, "and view the entire stone jungle very expensive to make and maintain please help by silver collection."

It is at this point that you want John Fairnington, master joiner of Branxton, to come out of the back door of his house and give you a hint of why, on retiring in 1963 from his joinery workshop just up the road, he started to fill his garden with concrete animals, most of them life- sized. He was by then already 80 years old. But he died more than ten years ago, so you wander guideless through his menagerie, past giraffes and a rhino, sheep, cattle, an ostrich, a zebra, leopards, deer and a crocodile with real teeth (horse's?) eyeing up a small, plump nude who is about to plunge into the deep end of a lily pool. Some animals have their own commemorative verses. "This has been a famous coo (sic)" starts one, underneath a lugubrious brown-and-white beast. "Ten calves in 12 short years/Her carcase should make a savoury stew/Here is no cause for tears."

The animals are randomly dotted around the small, neatly edged beds of the back garden. The rhino gazes moodily out of a forest of dwarf conifers, a flock of sheep wanders through a heather bed, crocosmia brushes the underbelly of an ostrich, a deer peers out from under the dark branches of a Leyland cypress. The menagerie is rich in animals with horns, all of them real. Two thin-legged leopards, first cousins to Tipoo's Tiger in the Victoria and Albert Museum, face each other in heraldic fashion on the top of a rustic rose arch. Beneath all these is an underworld of gnomes, doing the usual gnomish things with wheelbarrows, watering cans and fishing rods.

You can gradually work out how the garden developed by the messages and dates and initials scratched into the concrete paths or spelled out in marbles, pebbles and cockle shells. Mr Fairnington was not short of helpers in his grand project. There was his gentle but backward son, Edwin, who died in 1971, ten years before his father. There was a friend, William Collins, who was later succeeded by James Beveridge, who had worked for Fairnington at the joinery firm. Mr F, it seems, had the grand visions and Mr B realised them.

The animals were built up on a framework of chicken wire, stuffed with newspaper and rubbish and then covered with layers of cement. The rhinoceros alone took two bags of cement, mixed with three times as much sand. The legs are strengthened with solid iron rods. Beveridge finished the figures in emulsion paint. The smaller ones were built in the sheds that trail out randomly from the back of the house. The big figures, such as the giraffe, were put together on the spot.

You hang on to these practical details, the questions that can be answered because the ones that can't loom so large. Why? There doesn't actually have to be a why in a place like this. But the question niggles. Did Fairnington senior make the garden to please his only son? But the simple Edwin, evidently much involved in the creation, was already 28 years old when the first figures took their place in the Branxton menagerie and the garden continued to grow long after his death.

The garden is at its most surreal when, having walked to the end of it and turned to look back at the house, you realise that the animals and figures - yes, there are people here too - are all looking at the house, waiting to be set in motion by a wave of their creator's hand. You also get the feeling that, as in a game of grandmother's footsteps, the animals are stealthily closing in on you behind your back. You spin round, only to find that they have resumed their frozen immobility. Weird.

There is, happily, a well-developed taste for the surreal in English gardens: grottoes, topiary, gnomes, a thousand ways to decorate with bottles, car tyres, shells and crazy paving. But Mr Fairnington's garden has become a world of its own, cared for now by his grand-daughter, and shut off from the outside world by sheds, summerhouses and tall purple-leaved plum trees. In here, the plants are so very small and the animals so very big. The neatness of the layout, the pebble-decorated paths, the beds edged with roofing tiles or lines of bottles pushed in, neck downwards, is completely at odds with the randomness of the content.

What casual chance brought together the framed picture of Grand National winner Red Rum, the list of scholars at Branxton school wounded in the Great War, and a shield - the trophy it once displayed is replaced by a Fairnington prototype, with original horns - bearing the label s africa 1906? A shed porch shelters all these things, together with a cement woman in a red dress, wearing somebody else's head. The date is 1958, so the shed went up a year before the summerhouse - signed by Edwin - but before the giraffe, which was made by Edwin and a John Lilley in July 1968.

Spare antlers, horns and bits of gnome lie scattered on the workbenches in the sheds, together with odd pieces of words - "ceed", "ombat" - which have gone missing from their sentences. Mr Fairnington was deeply into quotations - "There is something in every day to remember", and the like - spelt out in white Bakelite letters peppered with screw holes.

In the summerhouse are photographs of Fairnington, a big, bluff man with a watch chain stretched across his waistcoat and a bunch of heather in his buttonhole. Pinned up, too, are pages of animal transfers and shrivelling postcards of wild animals: lions, tigers and crocodiles. Stacked behind two spare squirrels is a large faded photograph of the royal family, taken at the time of the Queen's Jubilee in 1977. Were they, too, destined to be cast in concrete by the ambitious Mr Fairnington? They would have fitted in well here, enriching the curious dream time you are in when you step over the threshold of Fountain House into the middle of Mr Fairnington's mind

The menagerie at The Fountain House, Branxton, Cornhill-on-Tweed, Northumberland, is open daily during daylight hours. Admission by donation