From lobbying for the retail industry in Brussels to award-winning gardens
- Credit: MMGI / Marianne Majerus
It’s funny how life takes its twists and turns, writes Steven Russell.
Sue Townsend was working in Brussels as a lobbyist for the retail industry – from the big high street chains to Britain’s independent stores – when she popped back across the Channel for a party… and during those snatched six hours in the UK met her husband to be.
Her best friend worked for Amédée Turner, then Suffolk’s Member of the European Parliament. It was Amédée’s son, Andrew, who caught Sue’s eye.
They married (20 years ago this year) and bought their first home. Little did she realise at the time but an unexpected career change was in the air.
That house in Stoke Newington, London, had “this classic, small, town garden and we had no idea what to do with it”. Sue admits gardening hadn’t much featured in her life, though her parents and grandparents had allotments and placed great store on growing food.
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“I asked my mum and she said ‘Oh, put a few pots out here, and a few vegetables...’ I thought there must be something nicer, and I suddenly got this interest and was intrigued about what grows where; and then got completely and utterly passionate about plants and design.
“There was an amazing magazine out at the time called New Eden and I just digested everything.”
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With child-care help from her in-laws, the mother of two young daughters signed up for a course at Capel Manor Horticultural College in north London – every Friday for three years – and later set up her own business.
It’s gone swimmingly. Earlier this year Sue triumphed at the Society of Garden Designers Awards, taking the prizes for the best small residential garden (a contemporary curved courtyard in Ipswich) and for the best planting design (a Suffolk manor garden).
What is it that gives her a buzz?
“I like making people happy. I know it sounds a bit corny. People call me in if they’ve got something they’re not pleased with or can’t use. A designer can see the potential for that particular space, and make that potential become reality.”
The man with that award-winning curved courtyard wanted somewhere en plein air where he could cook his fish each night ? a kitchen outside, basically ? and make pizzas. “This is outside, thoughout the year. We facilitated that and he’s a very happy man now.”
Sue was born in Canada, the daughter of parents who hailed from Liverpool. Her father, a metallurgist, was working abroad at the time. The family returned to England and she was raised in Surrey. “But I must say I’m very proud to have northern roots. It was sort of drilled into us that ‘you may be living in the south but you are a northerner!’”
Sue gained a degree in European politics, economics, law, French and Spanish. Things were really starting to happen with the single market and she knew she wanted to work in the European arena.
Her first job was based in London, lobbying in Europe as a voice for the consumer. Then she worked in Brussels for the British Retail Consortium.
She makes a strong case for the role of the international lobbyist – a job she did for a decade.
“It’s making sure decision-makers have the information about your industry or your interest group so they can make laws on an informed basis.
“There was no ‘passing of envelopes’ or anything like that at all,” she smiles. “You’re really trying to get in at the beginning, before legislation is drafted, so you can influence how that law – which could have a massive impact on people – is going to be.”
There were victories, but they could take a long time coming.
“When I was in my first job, I had to specialise in mincemeat! I can’t remember exactly what it was, but something we had been pushing for, on behalf of consumers, did come through, several million years later!
“That’s the only thing about working on lobbying issues: it can take time. Whereas working on gardening, you have much quicker results. But it was rewarding and I worked on many different issues: social, environmental, legal.”
In the mid 1990s, after about four or five years in Brussels, Sue returned to the UK and a lobbying and media role with the World Development Movement. (Since renamed Global Justice Now.)
There were rewarding days. “We won back £234million into the UK aid budget! We took the Government to court over that and won. A tiny little organisation... it was quite scary!”
(Britain had wanted to give the money to a dam project in Malaysia, but the campaign argued the cash belonged in the overseas aid budget, rather than supporting trade deals.) Then the children started to come along – Ella and Kitty are now 17 and 16 – and Sue’s developing interest in garden design took hold. She signed on at Capel Manor.
“I was fascinated, and I think I was also aware I needed to have a career I could fit in around the girls. The reality is that it’s probably a lot harder, with your own business! But I wanted to explore a different part of my personality.”
Sue didn’t take the easy route – gaining experience with a designer who agreed she could do the labouring!
“I was still breastfeeding [though not at the same time, precisely!] when I was going up and down, into skips, with these big, heavy, clay-laden wheelbarrrows… in the pouring rain. But I was determined I wanted to do it. I wanted to know what it was like to build the gardens as well as design them.” Her own business, Sue Townsend Garden Design, was launched about 13 years ago and is today run from the family home in Westleton, to which they moved in 2004. Andrew runs his lobbying business from there, too.
They live in the converted Jacobean barn once the home of Sue’s father-in-law, Amédée. The QC was a Member of the European Parliament until 1994.
Amédée created a quirky garden there, featuring numerous unusual objects – from parts of a lift to masks; a piece of the Berlin Wall and even a cross made from the girders of one of New York’s twin towers.
Nowadays he lives in London but comes up most weekends to stay in an annexe and enjoy the garden.
Sue reckons she must have designed more than 100 gardens by now, aiming for beauty and atmosphere in gardens that reflect the style and practical needs of clients. She also strives to enhance the architecture of the home and/or the countryside.
The priority is listening to the needs and desires of the owner, she says. And “design follows function”, rather than being an end in itself. Clean and simple lines appeal, too – as does bold planting. “That can involve tender or delicate-looking plants, but en masse they can create a big impact.
“I love all the hard landscaping and shapes, but I do love the planting. I look at it as composing music, really. You’re thinking ‘What is this going to look like in February, when things have died down? What’s going to be emerging? What’s going to be fading away? When’s the colour going to come? What’s the light going to look like, shining through that grass?’
“It really is about trying to visualise the garden in different seasons.”
It’s clear Sue’s found her niche.
“The lovely thing about gardens is that they get better and better, because the plants grow into their shape, the stone gets a nice patina, and everything ends up being better in a couple of years’ time – and it makes you happy. Whereas if you buy a new car, it just gets worse, doesn’t it?”