Messing about in Boats by Cherie Lebbon

September 23, 2015

in Articles, General Interest

“Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!”
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows


Here’s someone who has responded to that challenge. And contemplated the gardens on the way…

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham copyright John Kingdon

 Messing about in botas, copyright Cherie Southgate
Cherie Lebbon:

I have recently become divorced from my garden. Thankfully this is not a permanent condition. It is brought about by a short-term change in lifestyle, from being an ordinary land based, cottage dwelling garden designer and maker to being a canal boat live-a-boarder while we pursue my husband’s retirement dream of traveling all the possible navigable parts of the English waterway system.

I’ve had to find a way of engaging with gardens that doesn’t involve me in having much in the way of plants as we don’t really have space for them. I do have the essential herbs and a very small trough with a few alpines but these are not really very satisfactory.

Trough on NB Grey Wagtail copyright

Trough on NB Grey Wagtail.

So I am finding vicarious pleasure in peeking over fences, peering through the hedges and sneaking views into the rear of the diverse range of gardens that border the waters edge. I also visit any garden that is open to the public if it is within walking, short bike or bus ride distance to get my fix.

Castle Ashby, Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

Castle Ashby


Castle Ashby, Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

Castle Ashby 2.

The most fascinating thing to see is the difference in the approach people take to these spaces, especially when there are several adjacent gardens along a stretch of water’s edge. It’s not always possible to get a comprehensive look at the overall layout; often it is a split second glimpse through weeping willows into an almost secret space. But there are treasures to behold and definitely some “OMG! Did they really think that looked good?” moments. Please excuse the quality of the photographs, I’m usually traveling at around 2-3mph when I take them.

Garden in March (place, not month), Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate


Gardens in March. (place, not month) , Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

Gardens in March. (place, not month)

One thing that is really noticeable is the total disregard for anything that we’d recognise as garden design. It wouldn’t be true to say no-one designs their spaces or put thought into the placement of objects and plants but they certainly don’t follow any of the principles I was taught in college.

Nor do they often reflect the trends we read about in the garden design magazines or the ideas promulgated through the TV coverage of Chelsea Flower Show or on Gardeners World. In fact I wonder whether many people take any notice of these things at all. Do they feel that the things they see elsewhere can’t apply to them? Are they taking an ‘anti-design’ stance? Somehow I doubt that the choices are as deliberate. But I don’t know, I never meet the owners to be able to talk to them about their ideas and rarely see their spaces for more than a couple of minutes at a time so don’t get the chance to understand the motivation behind their choices.

There are examples of deliberate Kitsch that are great fun. One particular example close to Stanground Lock (near Peterborough) has taken a piratical theme, which is astonishing when you see it and makes you laugh out loud. But I’m not sure its really gardening (I’m not sure its even design in the sense that I understand) as it’s low on planting and big on statement pieces like the life-size Pirate. However it is tremendously entertaining as one sails past and no doubt it’s a great conversation piece for visitors.

Pirate garden, Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

Pirate garden

There is a plethora of decking – dealing with the water’s edge is tricky, especially if the garden owner wishes to moor a boat of any size alongside their river/canal boundary.

.A plethora of decking, Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

A plethora of decking

A plethora of decking , Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

More decking

The structures need to be substantial to be effective but it is obvious that many are not well engineered or constructed from the most durable materials and that maintenance can be quite tricky.

Maintenance can be tricky, Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

Maintenance can be very tricky

If the house is close by, the transition between land and water becomes dominated by the hard scape.

Hardscape, Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate


As I pass by I realise that I’m learning something that can contribute to my own designs from viewing these very personal spaces. I’m certainly feeling that my ideas may have got rather stuck in the land of ‘Good Taste’, especially when it comes to plant and colour combinations and the use of particular hard landscaping materials.

I think that the garden design press and major show media coverage create an atmosphere of unattainability and unrealistic exemplars that don’t equate with the majority of garden design projects. Often designs shown work well for the huge spaces available, much larger than the average garden, measured in acres rather than in square metres. The dominance of hard landscaping using very costly materials puts such designs way outside the budget for many clients.

Combine this with fashionable but not necessarily appropriate, easy to source or care for planting schemes, these examples are unrealisable and unsuitable for many garden owners.  I admit to feeling intimidated, as a designer, by the ‘show stoppers’ and I imagine potential clients might feel like this too.  I also think that the lauded designs are becoming predictable and am cynical about the effect of high budgets on show gardens i.e. you can do anything and make it look wonderful if you have lots of money.

Observing these uncontrived places alongside the rivers and canals is refreshing my views on ways of putting gardens together. It has also made me realise how judgemental I have become about gardens and what goes in them. These gardens are often not ‘good design’ as a trained designer would know it and some of them might benefit from a gentle guiding hand to give more coherence to the overall result.

However, they are more than spaces for the essentials, a washing line, the family dog, children’s play space, a place to site the BBQ. These individualistic havens are full of imagination, reflect the endeavour of the owners, are homely, original and are very personal.

Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate


Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate


‘gardening’ a canal bridge, Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

‘Gardening’ a canal bridge

mature terracing, Messing about in boats, copyright Cherie Southgate

I wonder whether, as Grey Wagtail continues the journey around the waterways, I will find that a waterside vernacular style becomes apparent. I would think that locally available materials ought to have some impact on the connections created between land and water. If I find this to be the case, maybe it will give the basis for a further article or two.

Cherie Lebbon


Cherie Southgate portrait 7E9593B0-81A2-458E-91FB-E2B37DFC632E Allium Garden Designs




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Peter Higdon October 9, 2015 at 4:42 pm

Great thought provoking article.

I would like to suggest one reason why garden design passes so many people by is that gardens are the most intensely personal artform known to mankind – we literally grow up / old with our gardens. Even if we start with a design, over the years this is going to be lost beneath a pile of emotional attachments: the border that cannot be replanted because it was always that way when my wife was alive; the shed that cannot be moved because it was my father’s den; the innumerable plants that cannot be moved because they were donated by friend or relation; etc etc. Our garden becomes a story, and in passing by on your canal boat you are looking at that story, if only you could read it.

Janna Schreier December 7, 2015 at 9:54 am

Beautiful words, Peter. What are gardens for, if not to evoke emotions?

John Lord October 8, 2015 at 12:42 pm

What a lovely article. You almost feel you are drifting slowly down the canal, past all these querky gardens and wondering what ever will be next. Give me individuality over design any day.

Edward Flaherty September 26, 2015 at 9:22 am

Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows hooked me. Then you wrote about your canal speed, 2-3mph. Nice. You can think about it at walking speed. But when you pass by, you can’t over think–that is an advantage.

I appreciated your comments on design. And your photos…some people truly appreciate that touch on the water’s edge, we call ‘the bank’; and they invest their time and resources into it.

Yet others seem to ignore it–not maintain it. Hmmm.

Thank you for a thoughtful and fun post.

Carla Black September 25, 2015 at 1:50 am

Are these gardeners more likely than others to think that almost no one will ever see their canal-side spaces? Would that influence their lack of interest in showing off a grasp of good taste? Hmm, the Pirate Garden is certainly meant as entertainment for the boating masses…

What fun, Cherie, to see secret gardens! I love walking through alleys in my native Seattle – it’s a little like traveling by canal or train.

Cherie Lebbon September 27, 2015 at 9:07 pm

Hi Carla
The river and canal s that I’ve travelled through this summer have actually been quite busy and I’m sure that most owners know that boats pass their gardens regularly. It’s not only boats either, there are many towpath walkers who gaze across the watery division and sneak a look into other people’s lives.

Jean September 24, 2015 at 3:30 pm

I loved this post and the phrase “land of good taste”. The land of good taste gardens (checkbook gardens) bore me. Gardens tours featuring the personal, quirky, feel the love gardens are what I enjoy most.

adam skinner September 24, 2015 at 10:55 am

Clearly, what my garden is missing…. is a canal at the bottom of it!

I have noticed , while on canals, that the gardens are more often ‘designed’, or more accurately, evolved, with the canal as the focus of the garden, so those on the boats might be looking at the gardens through the wrong end of the lens, so to speak.

Annmarie September 24, 2015 at 11:40 am

Yes, you have a really good point there…we each tend to see most things from our own perspective, without considering that we may be centre frame in someone else’s picture.

Cherie Lebbon September 27, 2015 at 9:04 pm

Hi, I think these are really good points and an aspect of my garden voyeurism that I hadn’t considered. It’ll take quite a leap of my imagination to see the view from the house towards the canal or river but I’ll try it. I guess anyone who’s clever with photoshop could get the other perspective but that person isn’t me. I’m looking forward to leaving the leafy shires of southern England and getting into the north to see if there’s any difference in approach. I imagine that the urban gardens will be pretty invisible but suburban plots will hopefully supply the answer.

Bill September 24, 2015 at 7:45 am

What a great article and insight into riverside water gardens.

Paul Steer September 23, 2015 at 11:03 pm

What a great insight on the quirkiness of our personal spaces. I am coming round to the opinion that there are many different ambitions for garden spaces – as Cherie alludes to in this article. Some just want a functional space to fit the needs of the family, others want a retreat etc . Most of us, as Cherie acknowledges cannot afford the materials and the volume and size of plants used in designed show spaces which are in effect – instant gardens. However I think that with a bit of help and encouragement people can create gardens that are both functional, cohesive and beautiful with limited budgets and size of plot. (HE SAYS WITH NO GARDEN DESIGN KNOWLEDGE) It depends on what people really are trying to achieve. If they are frustrated by what they have and are unable to see how to get where they want to be, they may just need a ‘consultation’. Whether that be from a gardening friend or a designer – but how many designers could afford just to give advice ?

Katherine Crouch September 24, 2015 at 1:14 pm

What an interesting article! Great photos too, love the good and not so good garden analysis. I also take a great pleasure in spying on gardens from trains, especially as railway lines usually enter town by the most unlovely routes – created by the railway line itself!

Another fun way of looking at gardens from the wrong end of the lens is to sail or row round the coast. I never knew there were so many caravans in Britain…..Holiday caravan gardening is a whole new article…..

annewareham September 24, 2015 at 1:18 pm

You like caravan parks? You need to follow Charles Hawes blog on walking the wales Coast Path! =

Katherine Crouch September 24, 2015 at 1:22 pm

I do rather dislike caravan parks, but am ridiculously fascinated by their little gardens of seashells and plastic flowers. Lots of opportunities for kitsch, which I adore.

annewareham September 24, 2015 at 1:43 pm

Charles has wondered about making a book from photographing them…

Cherie Lebbon September 27, 2015 at 8:58 pm

Katherine, thank you for your comment on my article. I think you should write the caravan park article – I too am fascinated by the kitsch approach taken by many owners.

Katherine Crouch September 24, 2015 at 1:21 pm

Indeed I do give advice – at £68 per hour plus travel – my hit and run jobs. Most often they turn into garden designs, especially where radical change is required with hard landscaping issues. For every paper garden design, I tweak another five gardens by yapping for a couple of hours and leaving with a cheque.

We need thousands of new houses in this country and their gardens will quite possibly be about 5 metres x 5 metres small. No call for grand designs, but an hour or two with a sketch pad, a spray can, a few cane markers and some Pinterest inspiration can work wonders.

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