Bury St Edmunds and Langham Herbs: How Phil Mizen cured his midlife crisis by getting back to nature

Phil Mizon is pictured at Langham Herbs.

Phil Mizon is pictured at Langham Herbs. - Credit: Archant

Paradise for Phil Mizen and faithful friend Dudley is a not-so-secret garden in west Suffolk. Steven Russell hears how Phil is taking things back to basics.

There's always something to do.

There's always something to do. - Credit: Archant

About a decade ago, Phil Mizen had what he calls a mid-life crisis. The firm he worked for was in the hands of newish American owners and the shift in corporate culture wasn’t for him. So he swapped the office for a life outside. Out went the pay packet that came with a high-level job. But he has no regrets.

Spring - the promise of good days to come.

Spring - the promise of good days to come. - Credit: Archant

“Not at all. I couldn’t imagine being employed again, but even less so in an office or business-type environment. I enjoyed it for 20 years. It was very high pressure, but you get swept along.

Better than sitting in an office...

Better than sitting in an office... - Credit: Archant

“I’d had enough, but I was in the very fortunate position of having paid off the mortgage. Had I not, I’d not be able to do this, because there’s no money in this. I knew that when I started, so it’s very much a labour of love.”

For the past eight years he’s been reviving part of a walled kitchen garden in west Suffolk that dates back centuries. There – in the company of Dudley the dog – he cultivates a couple of acres or so: producing vegetables such as broccoli and leeks, and herbs like dill and coriander. “I’ve become much more relaxed,” he smiles as the sun breaks through. “When the pressure was on, it was easy to get caught up in it and not see the bigger picture. Now I’m far more relaxed. I drive much more slowly! Not a hint of road rage from me!”

Phil, 55, grew up at Great Bardfield, north-west of Braintree, and horticulture was always a passion. “My father was a keen gardener, and his father before him. It was in the blood.” After school, he spent three summers in Cornwall, working for a market gardener, but went on to have 23 years in the electronics industry, becoming senior manager of a components manufacturer “making widgets for mobile phones and communication systems”.

He stayed on for a couple of years after the sale to a US firm, but became disillusioned with corporate life in the mid 2000s and started a horticultural degree at Writtle College, near Chelmsford. And then came something unexpected. Phil had long harboured a passion for walled kitchen gardens – the kind country estates used to maintain to feed the big house and staff. Online, on the Walled Kitchen Gardens Network for enthusiasts, he saw a note from Langham Hall, north-east of Bury St Edmunds.

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“Debbie Blackwell had posted a message saying they’d got this three-and-a-half-acre walled garden and if anyone had ideas what to do with it, get in touch. So I did.” They struck a perfect deal. Phil enjoys the use of the land and the owners can claim some of the fruits of his labours. “If I had to pay rent, I couldn’t afford to be here,” he admits. “It’s a reciprocal arrangement. I’m maintaining their asset, looking after it, and they get whatever fruit and vegetables they want. They appreciate it’s being looked after and loved.”

In their heyday, Langham Hall’s grounds would probably have been tended by a workforce of 12 or 15. Apparently there was still a staff of five in the 1960s, but in more recent decades nature has reclaimed ground.

When Phil arrived in 2006, much was rough grassland. He cleared it mechanically, since a no-chemical approach (no pesticides or manufactured fertilisers) was always the plan. “I would love to hand-dig everything as they did in the old days, but…” and he nods at the rotavator. “I have to make compromises. Because I’m largely on my own here, I can’t do everything the Georgians or Victorians did, so I have to pick and choose where I put my effort – because in the height of summer everything just goes whoosh!”

Langham Herbs produces a wide range of vegetables for home-delivered veg boxes, and culinary and decorative herbs. Phil is also at the nearby farmers’ market at Wyken Vineyards on Saturdays.

Part of the compromise involves using the odd polytunnel, because they’re a great way of extending the season. Enjoying some warmth under plastic at the moment is an early crop of broad beans, cabbages, lettuce, spinach, potatoes and more. In the summer there will be tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers…

Grown in the open are, for example, lettuces like rocket and mizuna; coriander and dill; cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, French beans, runner beans, peas, carrots, parsnips. “I like to grow some of the more unusual vegetables as well, just to give customers a bit of variety. A lot of people don’t know what a kohlrabi looks like – like a little sputnik!”

Phil also has herb borders, and a flowers-for-cutting border – where he grows varieties such as verbena and rudbeckia.

Some fine old trees survive – Adams Pearmain, Allington Pippin and others – supplied by Laxtons of Bedford, known for its quality fruit trees. Many still have their metal nameplates around the trunk.

Phil has always hankered after such a garden. “There’s something about the ambiance of these places – all the history that seeps from the walls.” His passion stems from a 1987 BBC2 series called The Victorian Kitchen Garden. “I was hooked. Ever since, I’ve visited as many kitchen gardens as I can.”

He’s frustrated at not being able to make a proper living out of it. Did he ever think he could? “I was sceptical, but hopeful.” The enterprise “does pay all the bills”, though. “It’s not as if it’s a big financial drain on me or the family; neither is it an income generator, really.” He laughs. “It’s terribly selfish! For my family to go from the ‘previous life’, where I was fairly well paid and in a senior position, to this must have been a bit of a shock. But I’ve been well-supported by them.” Wife Jennifer works full-time in education and sometimes comes to help during school holidays. Daughter Emily is much more into performing arts, he says.

The sun is rising and it’s time to leave Phil to his toil. The brassicas have finished and he has to pull them up to make room to plant potatoes. In the walled garden there’s always something to do; always something to look forward to.