The Chauffeur’s Flat
I have always found that I have a fairly low threshold for “things” in the garden. Too many statues, fountains, gazing balls, gnomes, and decorative wicker things, and I start to shut down and stop enjoying a garden, however marvelous it may be. I cease to appreciate the plants, and begin to feel the urge to clean out the garage, or something.
Oh, how wonderful it is to have my beliefs challenged, bent, twisted, and shattered into a million pieces! How great to be caught by surprise, when that elusive exception to the rule hits me hard in the face, leaving me bewildered, but changed forever. Such was my experience in the garden behind the Chauffeur’s Flat in Tandridge, England, at the home of John and Carol Richin.
Built in 1904 as part of the Tandridge Estate, the Chauffeur’s Flat is a section of a circular building built around a central courtyard. Built both into, and on top of a hill which slopes dramatically down at the back, the view is breathtaking, a 30 mile vista over the fields and hedgerows of Kent. When they bought the 1 acre property in 1976, John and Carol inherited the Estate’s old rose garden on the lower half. It had been neglected to the point where few roses remained, and at the upper part of the slope was a knotty tangle of Rhododendrons and Laurel, punctuated by a few unhappy Maple trees. Next door, behind the neighboring “wedge” of the circle, was the Estate’s old vegetable and fruit garden, complete with orchard and greenhouses, and John and Carol felt that, although they might have the better view, next door certainly had all the magic.
It did not stay that way for long. Two more creative and determined people you will never meet, and before long, the garden was on its way to being transformed. In order to clear the property lines for fences, they had to take out machetes and attack the thicket. Healthy specimens were carefully set free from the deadwood and unwanted tangle of struggling plants, and soon there was a distinct shape to the space, and things started to seem more controllable.
While John was at work, Carol tackled the lower part of the garden, which was reasonably flat. Flat, but not without surprises. Tiles set into the ground in one corner suggested that there had been a greenhouse there at some point, and upon closer inspection, steam pipes were found underneath, with holes in the tiles to let out the steam and warm the plants. In another place was an old ice-house, a bomb shelter-like structure, which had been used to house the blocks of ice brought in for use by the residents of the Estate. Under what little soil that was present in the garden, there was sand and brick rubble.
Carol set to work to make the lower garden more level, digging out the offending bricks, saving as many whole ones as possible, and skimming off soil from one area and depositing it where it was needed. Soon there was a workable canvas on which to create the design which she and John would bring to life, an intricate set of garden “rooms”, each with its own character, and sometimes offering views into the next, enticing the visitor to explore. Beds of shrubs and perennials were framed by grassy paths of varying widths, causing the visitor to slow down in places, with twists and turns strategically designed to cause the eye to look in a certain direction. Here and there, specimen trees were planted, and existing trees pruned into shape. Slowly, the wooded hill became criss-crossed by pathways.
You might think that this is the end of the story, but nothing would be farther from the truth. You may have noticed that I have mentioned very few specific plant names. That is deliberate; not because the plants are unimportant, but because they are but part of the overall tapestry of this garden, and naming them might give them more importance than they warrant. Both artists, Carol and John were not content to sit back and enjoy their garden as it was. Although the health and vigor of their plants would mock their modesty, they say that they are not gardeners; they are artists who create in the garden. Plants are just one way to express their creativity, and you could perhaps even go so far as to say that the plants were only there as a backdrop against which to showcase their other creative ideas.
John and Carol’s marriage is one of those rare ones in which the two parts together equal more than either part alone. Carol calls John her “technician extraordinaire”, as they work on projects, Carol designing a sculpture, and John making it come to life, either by welding the bits and pieces together at Carol’s direction, or by making a mold from a clay sculpture that she created, forming it again in concrete. John is very talented and observant in his own right, creating masterful stained glass creations, and welded iron sculptures, like the giant Poppy seed head that greets visitors to the garden.
Believe me when I say that you could spend many, many hours in their garden learning about each element. It would make a very good book, and I hope someone writes one, one day. But for the time being, I will touch on a few of the treasures within the garden.
One of my favorite elements has always been the rather surprising presence of a white, wrought iron spiral staircase which allows you to climb up into the canopy of a Beech tree, walk along a little bridge, and sit in an iron seat and look out over an even more breathtaking view than one gets from terra firma. The top of the Beech has been pruned into a shallow bowl shape, in the center of which is the seat, and boughs have been grafted together so as to provide hand holds, if necessary. As you sit, bird-like, in this nest, you have a feeling of complete solitude.
The staircase originally belonged to John’s brother who lives in France, and was shipped over to England in parts. A few balusters were missing, so John gamely made some new ones out of recycled iron bars, adding ornaments to them and painting them white, so that you would really have to look to see that they were different from the others. The whole structure is so solid that eight people can stand on it without a wobble. Over time, the tree has absorbed the staircase, bridge, and chair, and in a rather fantastical way, it looks inevitable.
Whenever and wherever they can, John and Carol scrounge bits and pieces with which to build their sculptures. When a local butcher’s shop closed, they got the kiosk where customers would pay for the meat, and turned it into a playhouse by adding old kitchen cupboard doors. In another part of the garden, a table made of broken china plates stands in one corner. In another, old materials from the roof have been transformed into fish, and nearby, green and blue bottles have been buried, bottom up, in sand to create a water-like path. Always efficient, John has invented a device for replacing any bottles that get broken, a hook that easily removes the old bottle. “We are make-do or mend”, says Carol.
An excellent example of this, and something that became a real eye opener to me, were the stones that edge some of the borders. Rectangular and sturdy, they have patterns on the top that are quite decorative. When I commented on them, John grinned and said that he had made them. The molds had been plastic containers that mushrooms come in at the supermarket! I don’t think grocery shopping will ever be boring for me again.
I haven’t even begun to do this creative couple and their garden justice, but this blog entry is already much too long! I have always considered myself a fairly creative individual, but after talking with John and Carol for a couple of hours and hearing their stories about all that they have created, I feel awe-struck. I realize that while I look at things, I do not always see them. John and Carol have managed to take ordinary things and make then extraordinary, incorporating them into a beautiful garden setting without overdoing it, and completely making me rethink how I feel about the “right” amount of art in the garden.
The garden next door is still beautiful, but now, thanks to John and Carol, the Chauffer’s Garden also has magic.
A table made from broken bits of china
Cement heads representing “Hear no Evil, See no Evil, Say no Evil”, designed by Carol and made by John
The spiral staircase brings you to the top of the trees. See the picture below for the view from the top of the tree!
Edging stones made from old mushroom containers
The Butcher’s Kiosk playhouse
The greenhouse is an integral part of the garden