How John created the garden of his dreams

John Lambert in his garden, which opens to the public several times during the summer

John Lambert in his garden, which opens to the public several times during the summer - Credit: Gregg Brown

John Lambert once despaired of ever clearing up his eight-acre garden. Today, it will be open to the public. Sheena Grant had a sneak preview

A view across John Lambert's garden

A view across John Lambert's garden - Credit: Gregg Brown

After moving into his new home, a striking mock Tudor building occupying a commanding position with views across the Fynn Valley, merchant banker John Lambert devised a five-year plan to transform the eight-acre garden that came as part of the package.

John Lambert and the fossiled Pliosaur bone which was dug up in his garden.

John Lambert and the fossiled Pliosaur bone which was dug up in his garden. - Credit: Archant

That was in the mid 1980s.

“The original plan turned into 10 years, then 20 and beyond,” laughs John, who is now retired.

The gardens at Larks’ Hill reflect his relaxed approach, which is hardly surprising as he is responsible for their design, from the more formal areas and vegetable gardens near the house to the orchard, spinney and an intriguing castle feature beyond.

Almost everything has been created since 1984, when he became Larks’ Hill’s seventh owner. At that time, the garden was little more than a grass slope running from just below the house to the boundary. To one side of the plot all those years ago was an area of scrub so impenetrable that John despaired of ever clearing it.

“No-one had set foot there in recent times,” he says. “In desperation I set fire to it. It was all I could think of to get rid of it. You suddenly realise you are out of control and can do nothing. The fire just raged for 100 metres before it petered out.”

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Today, willow beds occupy the area, where up to five water courses converge as they seek out the nearby river. Virtually all that remains of the original gardens are some heather steps, a pond and an old, modified, tennis court.

To walk around the garden is an adventure, as you move from shady glade to sun-drenched border, secluded seating areas to those offering wide vistas and paths and buildings that beg further exploration.

John ended up at Larks’ Hill, Tuddenham St Martin, when he was searching for a new home within commuting distance of London. His father was born in Woodbridge and somehow, he just got drawn further north, away from the original Essex search area he had envisaged.

“I remember saying that I wouldn’t want to go further out than Colchester,” he says. “But one day, I was coming to see an old friend in Ipswich and decided I would come up here and have a look at this house.

“The house and garden had seen better times. There were fields that had cattle and sheds on them and where the orchard is now was a paddock. We decided just to live with what was here for a couple of years before making any decisions about its future. When you take on a house with eight acres you’ve got two choices: you either do nothing to it or you take responsibility and ask yourself what you should be doing with the space, both for yourself and the wider community. This house is in a prominent position and, for me, that added to the sense of responsibility. It was overwhelming at times, especially at the start. Nature doesn’t wait for you. It just carries on, regardless.”

Although John had never before taken on a project as big as Larks’ Hill, he’s long had an interest in gardening.

“My father was always interested in gardening - he was a brewer for Whitbread - and we had a large garden at home,” he says. “I can remember, as a teenager, extending the gardens and rockery. I always wanted to make gardens and architectural features.

“At first, when we moved here, it was a case of just cutting paths through the grass, which was very high. Gradually, I made pathways and then began to build flowerbeds and architectural features. As you build one feature to one part of the garden it does lead you to think about other parts and how to make them into a comprehensive whole.”

The design of the gardens may be John’s own, but he acknowledges the help he has had - and continues to have - from a band of workers and experts, some of whom have been involved with Larks’ Hill for almost as long as John himself.

“What I wanted to try and build was a garden of contemplation,” he says. “I have tried to build areas which are to some extent self-contained, where people can sit, think and enjoy the garden. I also wanted the gardens to be part of the house.”

John has been opening his garden to the public as the part of the National Gardens Scheme programme, raising money for charity, since 2009. Visitors were welcomed for the first time this year on May 10. There a second open day next month and others in July and August.

While he is busy preparing for the openings, John takes the view that as his is a private and not a show garden, no one should expect perfection. Even so, the decision to invite the public in wasn’t undertaken lightly.

“On the eve of the first opening, I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing,” he says. “I thought, this is my garden and somehow, visitors might take that away. But they don’t. I can still enjoy the garden. In fact, we’ve met some lovely people who seem to like what they see here. That encourages one to do a bit more.

“The garden is constantly evolving. Some of the most glorious times are those when you walk along the borders and decide what has got to come out to make room for other plants. I suppose the garden is my yacht really. It is an indulgence. I pour money into it but I get pleasure from planning it and showing it to other people. I couldn’t draw a picture to save my life but with my garden I can paint a picture with colours, architectural features and planting. It is a canvas in that sense.”

n Larks’ Hill, Tuddenham St Martin, IP6 9BY, is open from 1-5pm on May 10, June 14, July 12 and August 10. To visit by appointment at other times from May to August email

Suffolk’s scariest garden find

Larks’ Hill hit the headlines six months ago when tests revealed a fossil dug up in the garden 16 years earlier belonged to a creature described as “the scariest animal that has ever lived in the sea”.

The fossil was identified as the limb bone of a pliosaur, a reptile that lived between 60 and 250 million years ago and is said to have had the

strongest bite of any animal in the world.

Builders found the fossil when they were digging a foundation trench for a boundary wall in 1997 but John put it in his workshop – and forgot

about it for the next 16 years.

The pliosaur bone weighs 7kg and is 42cm long. Experts believe it was probably deposited at Larks’ Hill by an ice sheet moving south in a previous ice age as Pliosaurs probably lived further north than Suffolk.

Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, which identified the fossil, has offered to give it a new home. But for now, John is keeping the bone at Larks’ Hill as another attraction for garden visitors.