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 Conservative MP Liam Fox at his country home.
Where is home?
My wife, Jesme, and I live in North Somerset, just off the M5. Our house sits on the side of a hill, with the Tickenham Ridge behind us and Exmoor, the Mendip Hills and Weston-super-Mare in front. On a clear day, the view is breathtaking.
The front garden is just over an acre, with a large lawn in the middle and shrubs and flowers dotted around the borders. We also have a 7ft hedge all the way around it, and beyond that a good bit of woodland.
What is particularly special is that, along with a neighbouring house, it was once part of a large apple orchard, which, of course, Somerset is famous for.
Does anything of the old orchard remain?
We still have quite a few fruit trees, mainly apple, but also pear, plum and greengages. They’re all getting old now, but I’m very protective of them. We have one old pear tree that has to be propped up, but it still gives us beautiful pears every summer. We recently planted a new pear sapling beside it and there are a couple of new cherry trees, too – one of them was planted for my 60th birthday. The apple trees still give us plenty of fruit, some of which we give to friends and family. I remember when I was defence secretary, one of my security guys collected two bin bags full of apples rather than see them go to waste. These days, a local cider company – Nailsea Cider – collects them, which is great, because some of the money they make goes to local charities.
Have you been tempted to get involved in any wildflower or rewilding schemes?
A few years ago, there was a Somerset- wide campaign to increase the local bee population. We have quite a few beekeepers in the area and they’d all noticed a dramatic fall in numbers. So, locals were asked to find a patch in their garden and scatter wildflower seeds to lure them back. We scattered ours at the back of the house, where the hills are made of cavernous limestone. The following year, the flowers flourished; in fact, it was like a jungle, and the beekeepers subsequently reported a rise in bees. We actually have a rare type of bee that visits us, due to our mix of orchard, woodland and rock. We also have a firethorn bush that bees are drawn to like a magnet when it’s in flower. It attracts so many bees, it starts to shimmer.
Who has the green fingers in your garden?
When I come home from the House of Commons at the weekend, I love spending time in the garden, but I confess I’m not a gardener. I like to help, but I don’t have green fingers. My wife does, and one thing she always seems to be pruning is the vine covering the front of the house. I think it’s beautiful, especially in the autumn when it turns shades of red, orange and purple, but she thinks it’s a triffid and will take over. In the summer, she sees to things such as the hanging baskets. Unfortunately, I can’t even mow the grass because I get bad hayfever, especially if there’s an easterly wind, which blows right across the south of England before it hits us.
As a hayfever sufferer, which is the worst culprit?
That would have to be plane trees and I can’t escape them at the House of Commons. They line Parliament Square, Whitehall and Victoria Embankment. I’m also asthmatic, which can make things even worse. So, from March until well into September, I’m on hayfever medication – fexofenadine, a nasal spray, and sodium chloride eyedrops. If I was a better doctor, I’d remember to take them in advance, rather than when the pollen strikes.
Did either of your parents have a passion for gardening?
When I was growing up, we lived in a semi-detached house in East Kilbride, about eight miles from Glasgow. We had a garden, but neither of my parents was a keen gardener. To get us outside, they’d often take my brother, my sister and me on trips at the weekend. One place we’d often head for is the Fenwick Moor, which wasn’t far from us, and was known for its vast, open and often quite bleak expanses of land and sky. My wife, on the other hand, comes from a farming family, so being in the middle of the countryside is the norm for her.
What kind of wildlife do you get in your garden?
It’s difficult for us to have any pets because I’m at Westminster during the week, and my wife, who’s a lung-cancer specialist, travels quite a bit for work. But our wildlife visitors certainly make up for it. We know there’s a tawny owl nesting in one of our trees because we’ll often find one of its feathers or the remains of its latest victim on the lawn. And a while back, we caught sight of five fox cubs playing at the far end of the garden. I’m always amused by the pheasants that come in. I thought they were timid birds, but these ones come up to the front door. If you sat down long enough, they’d probably come and sit beside you. Nature is full of surprises.
Are there many food producers in your area?
There are a lot of farms in this part of the world; it’s a big beef and dairy area, so we’ve got quite a few outlets and small shops selling their produce. It means we usually know which farms our meat and veg come from, and one of the things I look forward to buying every year is celeriac. As soon as it comes out of the ground, I buy bags of it. I’ll then slice it up and freeze it. I can eat it on its own, but you can also create some great dishes with it. My speciality is using it to make a lovely lamb lasagne. Of course, we have plenty of our own fruit; my wife makes endless apple crumbles and a fantastic spicy pear chutney. When I’m heading back to London, I like to sneak a jar of it into my bag.
What does having a garden mean to you?
As much as hayfever is a miserable thing to get every summer, coming back to my garden at the end of the week is so important to me. I enjoy living in London when I’m in Parliament, but I couldn’t do it permanently. Not only that, but having been with people all week, my garden is my little patch of land, my little sanctuary, away from everything. And at this time of the year, I like nothing more than to take off my shoes and socks and walk across the lawn, just to feel the earth beneath my feet.
No matter what we end up doing in life, there’s something quite primeval about that simple connection with the earth.