December 23 2014 Latest news:
Sunday, August 3, 2014
He’s just recorded his first hole-in-one on the golf course and his ‘small but busy’ garden is looking a picture. No wonder Tony Allen’s pretty chipper. Steven Russell meets the retired Suffolk detective.
It’s based on limited evidence, I admit, but I’ve got a theory about ex-policemen and gardening. This summer I’ve twice interviewed retired officers who love tending their blooms. And then there are the fictional crime fighters who find peace among the flowerbeds. Wilkie Collins’s 19th Century creation Sergeant Cuff, for instance, has a passion for roses.
My hunch is that coppers whose working lives have been full of turmoil enjoy the sense of order found in their borders, and that the beauty of the backyard is an antidote to the ugliness of the underworld.
Tony Allen wisely chooses not to offer an opinion on my cod-philosophy, instead pointing out his koi carp. They’re big, and a red and black one is 25 years old. “They think it’s feeding time,” he says, as they glide over. They have some bread for breakfast, and then pellets twice a day. They’ll have to wait.
Even if my whimsical theory is wide of the mark, I reckon I can be excused. Time with the pond and the plants must be a treat after 30 years as a detective with Suffolk police, specialising in port- and transport-orientated crime. When he retired 20 years ago, a superintendent, Tony then had 14 years as a security manager with a logistics company.
He ran a security service for the transport industry, offering advice on issues like anti-hijack measures and covert vehicle-tracking.
His second career was pretty hands-on: “really satisfying – more daring, if you like”. That’s some understatement. Tony was once commended by a judge for putting his life on the line to arrest a lorry driver stealing part of his load.
What happened? “I ended up on the front of a truck for two and a half miles, going down the road...”
Tony had followed the articulated lorry from about 4.30am, from Newark to Worcester. The driver parked at a truck-stop, spent ages at the back of his vehicle, and emerged with a huge parcel.
He started the engine. “I thought ‘Well, you’re not going anywhere, mate, because I’m going to jump on the front.’ Which I did. I could hold the sun visor and stand on the bumper. But that didn’t stop him!” Round the car park went this artic, trying to throw Tony off. Then it drove onto the road. The M5 was close by, which was slightly worrying…
They travelled two and a half miles before the driver of a vehicle recovery truck saw what was happening and forced the artic to stop. Er, did Tony think about the risks beforehand?
“I didn’t think he was going to go! The MD had said ‘I want you to increase your profile, Tony.’ This should do it!”
The culprit was jailed for two and a half years. “They found about 75 grand’s worth (of stolen goods) in his loft at home.” Bet Tony’s boss was pleased. “I got taken out for lunch. An envelope went across, to say ‘Don’t ever do that again!’, but there were thank-you vouchers in there.” Blimey. He should write a book about his adventures battling the bad ’uns. “That’s what my doctor keeps telling me. I should actually do it for the grandchildren, because I was retired before they came along.”
Let’s talk about something more serene. The garden.
The 69-year-old reckons his interest was sparked by his mother. “My very first memory of smell is geraniums. She had a conservatory and there were a lot of geraniums in there.”
He and wife Jane are Bury St Edmunds people. Work brought them east in 1973, to Ipswich, and on to Felixstowe in 1976. Initially they lived in police houses. “It was only when we came to Felixstowe that we had our own house and I set about gardening in a more serious way.”
That first “own home” was in Sandy Close, Trimley St Martin. Twenty-five years ago they moved to their current home, still in the Felixstowe area. At Sandy Close they copied a garden the Daily Express had at Chelsea, with one or two tweaks, but this garden has evolved from their own thoughts and designs.
When they came, the garden had a chainlink fence that had seen better days, and the whole effect wasn’t very imposing. Today, Tony describes it as “small but busy”, with plants squeezed in everywhere. The boundaries are no longer defined by wire but proper wooden fences and lots of greenery. There was a lawn, but this has become smaller, to make way for plants. There was a little circular pond, too. “When I retired from the police, I extended it. The whole garden revolves around the pond.”
The garden is “busy” – a mass of colours, shapes and heights as plants mass like the New Year’s Eve crowds in Trafalgar Square – but the effect is pleasing and terrific. The brilliant-pink fuchsias, the “Display” variety, are a favourite. There’s agapanthus, which like to be grown in confined spaces – up against the path, here. Tony also enjoys ferns and hostas. This year, too, he’s quite taken with Brunnera macrophylla Jack Frost, which do look as if their green leaves have been etched with ice. There are five in the garden.
Hydrangea looks after itself as long as it gets plenty of water, he says, while 2014 is the first time he’s had begonias. He ordered plugs by post and has them in abundance in baskets on a wall.
You’ll find lots of lavender – great for the bees. A raised patio area used to be a vegetable patch, but with his second career Tony was often on the road and didn’t have time to dig veg. That said, plants don’t have a monopoly here. There’s been some good beans this year. He usually has tomatoes going up the wall, but there’s been a glut and so they’ve been cut down, number-wise.
The front garden is devoted to types that reflect Essex plantswoman Beth Chatto’s dry garden philosophy. “It looks a bit wild,” he smiles, “but if you know what it’s about…”
There’s no doubt Tony is pleased with the results of his partnership with nature. He estimates he spends about two or three hours a day outside during spring and summer, and it took five weeks of TLC to get it into peak condition for a recent “open gardens” weekend.
“I said to Jane ‘I’m suffering from gardenitis. I can’t give it up!’”
Luckily, in winter, the garden looks after itself. The fish slow up and need hardly any feeding.
So what is it exactly that he likes about gardening?
“I suppose it’s colours, smells, and also I like to see the wildlife. I even saw a grass snake swimming in the pond a couple of weeks ago. I’d never even seen a grass snake before.”
One of the big pluses of this garden is that there are several spots you can sit in and enjoy a wide and different view. “With a small garden, that’s normally difficult.” Tony’s favourite spot, probably, is a seat by the shed in the corner. From there, a diagonal view of the garden makes it look bigger than it is.
Another place to tarry awhile is under the pergola, which was installed a couple of years ago next to the pond. “I have my porridge here every morning, but if I sit here in the evening I get bitten by the mozzies!”
The two big spanners on the pergola hint at his other passion: American model railways. He thinks they’re railway spanners, or engineering tools, so when he saw them at a reclamation sale he pounced.
There are some things we don’t see in this garden, though – and one absence would be mourned by that fictional gardening policeman, Sergeant Cuff.
“You won’t see a rose here,” admits Tony. “They just don’t do too much for me.” Clearly, though, there’s plenty that does!