Our �250,000 dream garden!
DEBBIE and Clive Morris know they have itchy feet, renovating houses and moving on to a fresh challenge after a few years.
She hails from Southend, while her husband’s roots are in Bath. The couple moved to this neck of the woods in 1999, renovating a house in west Suffolk before going on to Great Maplestead (between Sudbury and Halstead) and then Bradfield St Clare, near Bury St Edmunds.
The latest move, to this house, came two-and-a-half years ago. They’d been looking for a large home and were outbid on a property at Felsham that went for silly money.
The Chevington house was suggested by a friend, says Clive. “Deb looked at the brochure and said ‘No, not interested in that.’ Then, when the other house fell through, I made an appointment unbeknown to her. I got to the gates and rang her, and said ‘I’m going to have a quick tour round.’ Then I rang and said ‘Deb, you’ve got to come and have a look.’ The brochure didn’t really do it justice. We came up the drive and went in the house, and after seeing a few rooms she said ‘This is fantastic.’ There was just a really nice feeling about the place.” The property includes the old schoolhouse where children from the estate were taught.
Friends told Clive how the great and good would be invited to the house for parties, when the playboyish Marquess of Bristol was living there. “They’d get here and say ‘Where is he?’ ‘Well, carry on and enjoy yourself. He’s upstairs, comatose, because he’s been on substances and alcohol, and he’s a little bit out of it.’” He chuckles. “The old place has seen a few things. But it is a lovely spot.”
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Most recently the house had been a holiday and weekend retreat for City lawyers whose opportunities to visit were limited, the Morrises understand. It had been on the market a while. Some aspects had probably put people off, says Debbie, such as the seven-bedroom house having only two bathrooms.
“The kitchen, for a house of this size, was relatively small – not small in my terms! – but people were looking for something more. The d�cor inside was a bit gaudy, and probably not to some tastes. And it was empty, which is always difficult.” For the Morrises, though, it was another property on which to stamp their mark.
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Thoughts later turned to the parkland, which was largely grass. “We usually do the house and then just put a few pots outside,” laughs Debbie, “but Paul Scarlett, our architect, put us in touch with Tom Hoblyn, a garden designer, and we thought we’d have a go at doing a bit of the garden. Tom had been contacted by Red House television, who had been engaged by Channel 4 to do the programme. Would we be interested?” Chevington was selected as one of the six gardens for the makeover show. (We should point out that the couple paid for the work.)
Debbie and Clive had strong ideas about what they wanted to achieve, but lacked the knowledge of plants – which is where Bardwell-based Tom’s expertise proved invaluable. Neither of them had been gardeners, admits Debbie, “but it’s funny how you learn things”. She reels off the names of a couple of tree types. “My older daughter laughs. We’ll walk around gardens and I’ll go ‘That’s a blah blah blah,’ and she’ll say ‘Oh! Listen to you!’ So you do become interested. But as far as getting my hands dirty . . . no. not really.”
When filming started in the autumn of 2008, major excavation work and wet weather left the heavy clay soil a muddy mess. “I am used to living in building sites, so I did get used to it!” smiles Debbie.
Filming finished last September, the crew having visited once or twice a month to record progress. In an accompanying book to the TV series, presenter Matthew Wilson says Chevington incorporates a number of classic features, such as avenues of trees and rose gardens, and updates or reinterprets them for a contemporary garden.
Debbie is thrilled with it all. “Especially the terrace, I think, because it’s like an extension of the house. The first year we were here, we didn’t have any outdoor space.” It was simply grass, with perhaps a couple of wisterias and a kitchen garden. “I remember we had some friends up to stay and were out in the courtyard with our garden furniture. It just wasn’t the same. You need something, and I foresee us spending most of our time out here in the summer.”
The terrace garden features roses, grasses that bring a sense of movement, and perennials. “The irises will look beautiful soon: like purple taffeta.” In time, roses will cover the arbours that mirror the shape of the back door. The metal was laser-cut by a local engineering company.
The pleached hornbeam is also growing along a frame – in this case a wooden one that, unlike the metal arches, will be removed in about three years, once the avenue is established. “It’s going to look impressive this year; next year it will look good, and the following year it’s going to look fantastic,” predicts Debbie. “You don’t realise how quickly these trees grow.”
The York stone for the terrace itself came from a London park, via a reclamation yard. “It’s absolutely fantastic. It looks like it’s been here forever, doesn’t it?”
The stumpery was Tom’s idea and is the final resting place for about 22 beeches that had to be uprooted because of disease. It’s like a grotto and the kids love it, she says. Supported by steel props, it’s regularly monitored, as a stumpery shifts and settles as the trees rot.
The initial quote for the ha-ha was �42,000, but they managed to find a local builder who offered much better value for money. Reclaimed bricks were used.
The gardens also have a bluebell walk, and the couple have breathed more life into an existing vegetable garden by the old schoolhouse.
More improvements are earmarked. They’d like to extend the “growing” area and have a greenhouse. A swimming pool is on the wish-list, and possibly a tennis court. They also hope to build a mini-rotunda at the end of an avenue of trees, where it could be seen from a drawing-room and the master bedroom. An extended terrace garden is on the cards, too.
Sadly, one major feature is having to come out. The Morrises shipped Tom’s 2009 Chelsea Flower Show silver-medal-winning garden to Suffolk in the hope it would take. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked, and much will be removed.
Lifting the garden and laying it down in East Anglia was always ambitious, as Matthew Wilson acknowledges in his book. “Chelsea Show gardens are impressive, expensive installations aimed at showing off a designer’s skills, just as the big fashion shows of Paris, Milan and London showcase the talents of fashion designers. But what they aren’t designed to do is last more than a week, the length of time over which the show takes place.”
Debbie feels they were perhaps a bit na�ve. It’s basically �20,000 down the drain, plus what it will cost to shift the material.
The “designer” pond, which has suffered badly with algae, will likely be transformed into a wildlife pond.
The Morrises might be comfortably off – as well as having two renovation projects on the go, they’ve got some buy-to-lets and some commercial property – but they haven’t got money to burn.
“We did buy the property at quite a good price, and I think in the back of our minds was always that we’d maybe do it up and sell it on; but after living here for two-and-a-half years it’s just so beautiful. It’s just the cost of running the place!” admits Debbie.
They need a full-time and a part-time gardener, and a housekeeper. “We run a business as well, so it’s not feasible for us to do it. We’ve looked at trying to make it as cost-effective as possible – we’ve put in underground tanks to make the watering easier, and we’ve got a couple of wells, too, so we’re not taking water from the mains but using rainwater which we’re getting off the roofs.”
The couple also considered business use, such as offering it as a wedding venue, “but the thought of people encroaching on your space, I couldn’t do it . . .
“Then we thought about buying some more land and doing farming; but we’re not farmers, you know. We even looked at livestock, but the thought of them possibly ruining what we’ve done here, that doesn’t really work, either. So we’re just committed now to us earning enough money to stay here and to make it as cost-effective as possible.”
Labour-saving measures include trees being spaced out so it’s easy to cut between them. The terrace garden just needs cutting down in autumn.
“It’s April now and we’ve already got colour; last year we had colour through to the end of October. It was wonderful. Tom Hoblyn’s planting knowledge was absolutely superb. There’s always something going on here.”
And there are all those trees to admire. Trees have become something of a passion for the couple. They’ve given TLC to existing specimens – two big oaks and a giant redwood were injected with beneficial fungi to prolong their lives, for instance – while those 427 new ones were planted (the most expensive single addition a �1,350 mulberry).
Often it cost almost as much to plant new trees as to buy them. Some with huge root balls had to be transported by articulated lorry and lifted off by crane.
Debbie adds: “Tom and Matthew said some of the mature trees here are the best specimens they’ve ever seen, and the thought of putting something in and leaving it for posterity did something for us.”
Clive nods agreement. “If you could have a wish, it would be to come back in 150 years and see all the trees then. It would be absolutely fantastic.”
No party in front of the TV
WHEN the Channel 4 show documenting their huge gardening makeover airs on election night, the Morrises won’t be watching. Clive jokes about wanting to know if it’s true that TV puts 10lb on your figure, but otherwise he’s not that bothered. It’s a case of “We did it and we’ve already moved on.”
Debbie will record the programme and watch it later on her own, keen to be reminded how their garden used to be and how far it’s come.
They didn’t have any qualms about being followed by cameras. Shooting days could start early and run until 7pm or 8 o’clock, and it was sometimes a pain if filming took place twice a month. Overall, though, it was a good experience.
“It’s been all a bit tongue in cheek, really,” says Clive. “You could see them thinking ‘Who are this couple?’ My phone ring-tone is The Godfather; they thought ‘Hang on a minute . . . ’”
Debbie wonders how they’ll be portrayed.
“They were nice people and the way I look at it is that you don’t get the opportunity to do something like this very often. We had deadlines and it was a good way for us to focus the people that were working here. And we got on really well with the team that were filming here.” Everyone went out for a meal on the last night, and they stayed over.
Clive calls it as he sees it. “Their view of us is probably a bit chavish! . . . spivvy. It was a little bit of a game, really; a little bit of fun.”
Wonder if they’ll show the picture of Margaret Thatcher over the dining-room mantelpiece. Debbie apologises for that, explaining the former Prime Minister is one of her husband’s heroes. But not one of Debbie’s? A pause. “I wouldn’t choose to put her in my dining room!”
However the Morrises are portrayed, there have been plenty of laughs. They recall being filmed at the Chelsea Flower Show. As they walked in, Joanna Lumley glided by. She waved at Clive – obviously thought she knew him – and he returned the greeting. “The film crew said ‘Do you know Joanna Lumley?!’ I said ‘No, but she waved, so I waved back!’”
Then there’s been the satisfaction in using local craftsmen and helping some worthwhile causes.
A year or so on and Clive’s disgust about extravagance remains palpable. At Chelsea, they were steered towards a firm making beautiful garden furniture. Clive agreed to a quote. The price, including a wooden table and chairs for a dozen people, a cool �47,000.
“I wasn’t going to pay that. That’s immoral. They said ‘You’ve got the money; why can’t you pay it?’ So I said ‘You don’t understand. I’ve got to see it’s value for money.’”
The couple got a big buzz from later going to the Suffolk Show and seeing furniture produced by Genesis, a local project for people with learning disabilities.
“I saw these kids – lovely kids they were – making their little bits and so proud of what they were doing,” recalls Clive. As the son of a carpenter, he recognised the furniture was well made. Genesis would get the business.
“When I got over there, this young boy who had Down’s Syndrome was so enthusiastic, and we said to him ‘We’ve just placed an order,’ and he was dancing around, saying ‘They’ve ordered! They’ve ordered!’ It was just great.”
Read the book, watch the show
CLIVE and Debbie want the best garden in Suffolk. They’ve got a top designer, big budget and lots of determination, but will perfectionist Clive see his dreams come true? The Landscape Man; Channel 4; Thursday, May 6; 8pm.
• The Chevington project features in a book linked to the show. Written by garden designer Matthew Wilson, it aims to help people turn dreams into reality. It seeks to show how the techniques behind the projects in the TV series can be applied to domestic gardens.
Using the featured gardens as case studies, Matthew discusses the major issues that face gardeners: planning, providing for different needs, maximising space and working with nature. He also covers topics such as enhancing light levels and choosing plants for colour, texture and form.
• The Landscape Man – Making a Garden is published by Quadrille at �20