More than a bed of roses

If your idea of interesting garden features stops at statues and sundials, read on. Jill Tunstall reveals some highly original alternatives
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A piece of Kyoto in the heart of West Bromwich

At first sight Aldbury Road is just another unremarkable row of houses on a West Bromwich industrial estate. But step through the gate of number 100 and you could be in Kyoto. A sprinkling of pagodas, two pools - one 120 feet long and full of koi carp - four bridges and no less than five waterfalls.

"About six years ago I had a stroke and had to give up work," says its creator, 66-year-old Harry Green. "I'd been in the garden ornament business and we had a lot left lying about, so I dotted them around the small pool we had then.

"Until then I'd done no gardening at all. The back garden was home to my workshop, full of old bits of cars and boats and ornaments.

"Then my daughter, Clare, entered me in a competition and the judges came and said, 'It's very nice, but with all that rubbish lying about it won't make garden of the year'. So I told them I'd have a go again next year and they said, 'Well, people try for up to 20 years to win this competition.' "

The gauntlet, or rather gardening glove, thrown down, Harry and his wife Linda, 48, went to work. They got rid of the old cars, put in the first waterfall, made bridges of recycled timber, bought a few plants ("We don't spend much") sowed a lot of seeds and, the garden was born.

The following year the Civic Pride competition judges had no alternative but to award him first prize - and the year after, and the year after that. Last year, more than 1,400 people queued down the street during the three hours the garden was open to the public.

"They parked up to a mile away and walked in," says Mr Green. "We have a circular walk and people would come through and ask to go round again."

The Birmingham Botanical Gardens team also make a date for an annual outing to Aldbury Road. "They come every year because they say it's so interesting," says Harry, a note of pride bubbling through his Brummie accent.

He's proud, too, of the Japanese visitors who said it was better than anything they'd seen back home.

To his nine-year-old son, Thomas, however, it's still just a back garden. "He brings his friends around and they play football and splash about in the pool," says Harry, without a trace of anxiety about his carp or pagodas.

Gardens, after all, are about leisure, pleasure - even if they are modelled on an acre of paradise and draw crowds of more than 1,000.

At peace among Friends, past and present

A squeaky iron gate leads off the ancient drovers' lane in the busy Yorkshire market town of Skipton. Pass through it and you leave the 20th century behind. Surrounded by centuries-old, honey-coloured gritstone walls is a peaceful cottage garden, alive with the hum of bees and butterflies and bright with scarlet poppies. But there is more to this place than a garden. Within these walls is a 17th-century Quaker meeting house and former burial ground for 250 Friends.

An easel, hula-hoops and discarded sandals are clues to the function of the cottage at the far end of the garden. It is home to the Golding family. At weekends and evenings the garden is filled with the chatter of five-year-old Rachel and three-year-old Joseph, as they play hide-and- seek in the bushes and draw chalk pictures on the memorial stones set into the path. Their mother, Liz Golding, 39, is warden of the meeting house and quite happy to share the garden with both living and departed Friends.

"I have no qualms about it at all, it's always felt very comfortable," she says. "The garden really is beautiful, and it feels nice that it is a burial place. We didn't talk much about it being a graveyard when we first moved in, but Rachel has a very ghoulish friend who told her that it was full of dead people and if she dug in her garden she'd dig them up. I think because we feel so comfortable about it Rachel was interested in the ghoulish aspect for about five minutes and then forgot about it. Now it's just a garden."

Liz and John are not gardeners and that worried her more when she became warden two years ago. But on Sundays the weekly meeting is followed by tea outside and a small knot of green-fingered worshippers talk about what to plant to attract butterflies.

One of them is John Horsley. "This place has an aura of its own because it's 300 years old," he says. "Visitors sense the presence of Friends from the past.

"It's a hundred years since anybody was buried here. Nowadays, it's burial in the municipal cemetery, but we do get scattering of ashes from time to time. I remember on one occasion somebody asking 'What's this over here?' 'Oh, that's Margaret Dale!' "

This has not happened in the Goldings' time, but they will take it in their stride if it does.

"I can watch horror films about haunted houses built on graveyards, and it doesn't bother me at all," says Liz. "We take our lead from the children really. To them, it's just a garden and that's the same for us."

Two tons of wrought iron, sweat and tears

Down at the bottom of Malcolm Griffiths' garden near Wrexham in North Wales is a small wooden shed and beside it a wrought-iron wheelbarrow, designed to hold flowers.

But there are few plants in this back garden, and not much lawn left, either. Between the house and the shed, propped up on a set of trestles and weighing two hefty tons, sits a fabulous set of wrought iron gates that swallow up the back lawn. The fruit of eight years' blood, sweat and tears, the gates were forged on the foundry Malcolm built himself in the tiny shed. He worked on them in all weather, scraping snow off in winter and braving blistering heat last summer.

The gates are almost identical to the 18th-century pair at Chirk Castle, not far from Malcolm's home. They are a memorial to Edgar, his late father, a blacksmith who dearly wanted his sons to follow him into the trade. Malcolm, then a textile worker, but trained in sheet metal, overheard his father telling his mother about his wish, and decided to "give it a go". When his father later admired Chirk Castle gates, it was all the inspiration Malcolm needed.

Edgar did not live to see them finished, although he had the satisfaction of knowing that his son had taken up the anvil. And although it has taxed Malcolm's strength and ingenuity, stretched his pocket to the tune of pounds 5,000 and strained his family's patience, the gates are all but finished.

"It's not so much a DIY job as a do-or-die job," says Malcolm, 47, an unassuming but determined man. "There are times when I thought it had me beat. If I'd had a hoist, crane, workshop or whatever, it wouldn't have taken so long, but I was working with the minimum of tools."

He is modest to a fault. There has been no parade of neighbours and friends admiring his handiwork "I don't think they know they're there," he says. "I've tried to keep the noise to a minimum."

His long-suffering wife, Rose, however, has lived through it all. "I'm pleased they're finished," is all Rose will say, as she sits next to the scorched lawn, a mixture of relief and pride in her voice. Malcolm's teenage daughters, Tracy and Amanda, are apparently unabashed, but at times the whole family have wrestled large pieces of the gates into place.

Malcolm's ambition is to see them standing tall, ideally outside a stately home. "If I won the lottery, that's what I'd buy," he says. It is more likely they will be sold, but he is biding his time. "I'm in no hurry to see them go."

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