Victoria Summerley: Strangers in my garden

City Life: 'All the visitors seemed perfectly normal to me, with no sign of the villains or psychos that friends gloomily predicted'
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The Independent Online

It always amuses me that the first thing lots of people say when you tell them you're opening your garden to the public is: "Aren't you worried about having all those strangers in your house? What if they're villains or psychos?" And the second thing they say, their faces brightening optimistically, is: "Oh, but maybe you've got a side entrance, so they don't need to go through the house."

Well, we live in a semi, so we do have a side passage, and that is the way people enter the garden. But the reason we send people down the side is nothing to do with not wanting them in the house. It's because we have a step in our open-plan living room/dining room/kitchen, where the older part of the house meets the back extension.

It is not uncommon – no, let's be brutally honest, it's very common – for people to walk through into the living room, stop, look, say: "Wow, is that the garden?", move forward for a closer inspection – and fall down the step. I've even fallen over it myself. I've often been tempted to stencil Mind The Gap along the edge of it, like on the Tube.

I feel the junior doctors at nearby St George's have more than enough patients to practise on without me sending them more, so the side passage is the favoured route for visitors. Besides, there's no clue from the front of the house as to what the garden will look like, so I like the idea that they will emerge from the secluded pathway, with its frill of vine leaves above a high fence, into a sub-tropical world surprisingly different from the parked cars and neat front gardens of the street outside.

People do come into the house from the garden end, however, because we serve tea and homemade cakes in the living room. The only barrier we put up is a chair with a notice saying "Private" at the bottom of the stairs. Inevitably, there's always someone who wants to use the loo, but we have one downstairs, so that's fine.

We've never noticed anyone prowling around in a suspicious manner, but then there's not much to nick. Even so, my husband Craig says I'm far too laid-back about security in general. I can never be bothered to use the mortice lock when I go out, and we don't have a burglar alarm. The only reason I could ever see for having CCTV in our street is that it would be fun to see what the foxes get up to at night.

I'm probably tempting fate here, but the only thing in our house of any real value is the grand piano, and that's too big to slip into a pocket or under an arm. If anyone wants to take our clunky old analog television or the ancient Apple Mac that would have seemed obsolete to William Caxton, they are more than welcome.

Ironically enough, the most recent theft in our street was of plants: two lollipop bay trees from the front garden of a newly refurbished house several doors along. The thieves even left a trail of earth along the pavement, but so much garden refurbishment goes on around here, this didn't arouse much suspicion. You could deposit a ton of topsoil in our street and no one would comment. Dump an old fridge or cooker, though, and someone would be on your case before you could say "Neighbourhood Watch".

We had 120 visitors when we opened for the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday 31 August, despite monsoon rains, and thanks to a lovely piece about the garden by Anna Pavord in the Independent Magazine the day before. We raised a total of £400, which goes mainly to cancer charities. All the visitors seemed perfectly normal to me, with no sign of the villains or psychos that friends gloomily predicted. Nigel Buckie, an architect who opens his amazing jungly garden in Montana Road, Tooting, the same day as me, says he's never had any problems either, apart from one man who was madly in love with one of his neighbours and followed her round all afternoon like a lost lamb in search of its mother.

Nigel lives in a terrace, so people have to go through his house to get to the garden. He's not keen on the idea of people traipsing through, but only because it means he has to tidy up the hall and kitchen as well as the garden before the opening. That's what would worry me, too: it's nerve-racking enough trying to make sure the garden looks good without having to spring-clean inside as well.

I love meeting the visitors. One tends to think of the stereotypical garden visitor as a lady of a certain age in a straw hat, but they're all very different. Some come alone, some come mob-handed. Some are chatty, others seem much more shy. One couple who arrived quite early looked at me with great suspicion when I introduced myself. They probably thought I was a villain or a psycho.



To read more about the open day, and for pictures of the garden, go to Victoria's blog at www.victoriasbackyard.co.uk Emma Brownjohn, who illustrates this column, is having an exhibition entitled Following Rivers. It's at Ingo Fincke, 24 Battersea Rise, London SW11 ( www.ingofincke.com), and is open Monday to Saturday from 10.30am to 5.30pm until 17 September

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