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Emma Townshend: 'How to deter burglars? The experts recommended something prickly - but that didn't suit my honeysuckle fantasy'


Exactly two years ago, I got burgled. I went out at 11am to walk the baby around the block until he fell asleep, and walking back down my road, my first thought was, "Where's the car?" And then, "Oh dear, I really am sure I did leave it right here…"

In addition to an empty parking space, there was a spectacular mess made by a burglar breaking the glass in the front door, climbing through the open gap, and then generally bleeding all over the house, before leaving with the car keys. (Which would have been hidden, as usual, but which I'd had out five minutes before to clear out a seven-hour car journey's worth of rubbish. Proving exactly how dumb it is to have a tidy car.)

The police came, then the crime-scene people came, then some locksmiths came, then the glass-fitters: they were all in agreement that the main culprit was the front garden.

"See," said the policeman, with a general wave at the wisteria, admittedly a bit loose and midsummer lush in tone, "You've made it easy for him."

Other opinions ran along the same lines. "You gave him cover," they chirped. Even the driving teacher down the road agreed. It was almost gleeful, their sense of blaming the garden, with quite a lot of additional emphasis on the various recent immigrant populations in the area who might have been the perpetrators. (Alarm man was keen on fingering the Eastern Europeans for the job; the Latvians, in particular, he had his eye on.)

But, gardens and burglars, discuss. You often hear the following bits of advice: put trellis along the top of a fence, to make it harder to climb over; and plant something thorny along it, to double the difficulty.

Now, both my neighbours and I have repeatedly had recourse to trying to get a leg over my back-garden fence, because it's not unknown for a swift gust of wind to slam all the doors. And a bit of trellis along the top makes it easier to get climbing, not harder. The thorn thing, on the other hand, I'll agree with, but the truth is that it doesn't make that much difference unless you go for a 6ft-thick Sleeping Beauty-type of hedge of something like pyracantha, both thorny and rigid, so the malevolent prickles don't even bend away from you. A beautiful rose, say, never gets quite bushy enough to be genuinely dissuasive, I'd argue.

I spent the first few days dealing with the admin, the insurance company and replacing the stolen stuff, because even though he couldn't actually find my computer, this not-all-that-brainy burglar nonetheless took my power lead.

I'm not saying that he was thick because he took only a power lead – I'm sure they have resale value on eBay; I'm saying he was thick because he bled all over the house, leaving his DNA. Those favouring a notional Latvian criminal fraternity might have been surprised to learn that this burglar was resolutely British.

The police rang me as soon as they got the DNA results and said, "We have to ask you an eliminating question: is this guy known to you?" and gave me his name. He had a ridiculously normal London name. "Nope," I said. "Well, he is to us," the person on the other end of the phone said, with a dark laugh. (Though he was a career burglar, I began to feel almost sorry for him. About a month after, presumably with scabs just healing, they re-arrested him and he went back to prison for four years. Four! "Back" to prison being the operative bit.)

I went out to stand in the road beyond my front garden and contemplate my front door. I'd always had a fantasy of this south-facing house having light shining through green leaves and into the front windows, with long, strandy tendrils floating on the breeze. The door was already surrounded by honeysuckle; when you came home on a summer night's, you could smell it before you saw it.

I started, very reluctantly, to cut back around the door. And then, rather crossly, I suddenly felt that everyone was as happy to blame the garden as they were the Latvians. And they were wrong about one, so why not the other? So I tidied up, just as I always would have done in August, and went in to make tea.