Our regular gardening column, Personal Growth, is not about plant names and weeding tips (although a few might come up). It is about reflections, memories and feelings. Many people who love their garden don’t consider themselves gardeners – so what draws them so strongly to that green patch outside the back door? This week we talk to actor and writer Ben Miller at his country home.
Where do you live and what kind of house do you have?
We live on a hill in the heart of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. And you can only get to the house through a woodland, which literally comes right up to our door. The house is made of Cotswold stone and was originally a row of four small cottages. They were all broken through to create one very long room on each floor. It reminds me a little bit of the Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night, when each Beatle goes through the door of four adjacent terrace houses. My wife Jess and I saw it in a copy of Country Life about 10 years ago and immediately fell in love with it. A stone’s throw from the house is an additional cottage which is where the nanny of the previous family used to live. I instantly knew this would make the perfect place for me to write.
What are the gardens like?
We first saw the place in early summer, so the wisteria was in full bloom, while peonies, foxgloves and roses were all starting to come out. On one side of the house was a grapevine and a fig tree with leaves the size of dinner plates; on the other a climbing pink rose. Everything looked so lush. We found out that the previous owners were keen gardeners and had built it from scratch, creating several different “rooms” to house everything from a kitchen garden and an area for perennials to a large collection of topiary. And as much as I’m tempted to get into the fine art of topiary, I’ve managed to fight the urge for the last 10 years. I wonder how much longer my willpower will last.
What do you love about it now?
The thing I find so wonderful is the way it still has some formality, but all around the edges it’s become wilder and untamed with long grasses, cow parsley, daisies, ragged robin and nettles. In one corner, an old apple tree fell over after heavy snowfall and we just left it. Now, a rambling rose climbs all over it. To me, the order of the lawn and the flower borders sit perfectly against a backdrop of creeping chaos. I suppose Jess and I have different approaches to gardening. She can’t go out there without finding something to do: clipping, pruning, deadheading, it’s endless. I go out there and I don’t see anything that needs doing. Even if something has died, I probably won’t notice. However, I do need to add that we also have a brilliant gardener called Leigh Millin, who helps us keep everything in shape.
Are you more aware of the seasons, living in the country?
The world is more dramatic out here. For a start, the winters last about eight months, with heavy snows most years. There’s usually an exciting period when we get completely snowed in, probably because we’re so high up. The only person who has a chance of reaching us then is the neighbouring farmer on his tractor. There are seven households in our hamlet and about five years ago we couldn’t get out for over a week, so the farmer kindly came up with his tractor to ferry us – plus all the other neighbours – to our local pub. When spring does eventually arrive, everything wakes up and bursts back into life. Each season brings its own magic.
Did you have a garden as a child and were your parents keen on gardening?
I grew up on the edge of Nantwich, an old market town in Cheshire. Both my parents were English teachers, so I was reading everything from Dickens and Roger Green to Arthur Ransome and Enid Blyton – magical adventure stories were by far my favourite. Mum was a keen gardener and still is. She always made a point of giving me the Latin names of plants, which I’d instantly forget. She adored butterflies, so we always had buddleia, as well as shrub roses and lavender. Our row of houses backed onto common land, which was part of an ancient trust in Nantwich called the Beam Heath Trust. There were about 20 kids living in our cul de sac and groups of us would often venture out there like hardy explorers. It was a great childhood. Funnily enough, I went on to study physics, but that love of literature has always stayed with me.
Do you think your outdoor childhood and bringing up your own kids in the countryside has inspired your children’s books?
Absolutely. I’d already written two non-fiction books while I was living in London, but for a long time I wanted to write children’s fiction. Not long after we’d moved here, Jess said, “Why don’t you come up with an action-packed story about Father Christmas?” That afternoon, I took our dog Stevie Nicks for a walk. I’d barely stepped out of our gate and into the woods when the story just started to unfold in my head. By the time we got back, I had come up with the complete outline. That had never happened to me before. It definitely had something to do with this setting. I made my oldest son, Jackson, the main character in the story and that became my first children’s book. I’ve just published my sixth book and they all contain plenty of wildlife and nature.
Why did you and your wife decide to leave London?
Jess is a film producer so, between her work and mine, we just wanted to have a different kind of life, away from the camera, unhurried, more deliberate. I’d lived in central London for about 20 years and loved it, but the city never stops. Then, when Jess and I started a family, we had a tiny garden, a dog who pooed all over the decking and our son Harrison bouncing off the walls. It just got to a point where we wanted more space, a sanctuary to come home to. Not that long after we moved in, we also had a baby girl. Now, of course, I love the fact that our home is so bloody hard to get to. If I’m filming in London for the day and it gets very late, I’ll get a car to take me home, but as we drive further and further away from civilisation, I know the poor driver’s starting to think: “Is Ben Miller about to murder me?”
What kind of wildlife does your garden attract?
We tried to carry on growing vegetables in the kitchen garden, but the deer, foxes, badgers and a whole ark of wildlife would invite themselves in for a nighttime feast, so we gave up. I still see the usual deer and foxes when I’m walking the dog, but a while back, I saw a hummingbird hawk-moth and it just blew me away. At the moment, we’ve got a lot of bees buzzing around the house. We think they may have made a home in our roof; we’re just trying to work out where. I’m definitely planning to have some beehives in the next couple of years.
Do you find the garden therapeutic?
Being in the garden is a bit like being with a therapist. You spend lots of time with them, but neither will answer any of your questions. I’ll be thinking all sorts of things like, “I’m really worried about this job I’ve got coming up”, but all I get back is wafting grasses or a strange bird flying overhead. It’s just so indifferent to any of my concerns. Whatever you send out, it sends nothing back and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so refreshing. Our garden has without a doubt become the perfect sanctuary.
Ben Miller’s new book, Once Upon a Legend, published by Simon & Schuster, is out now