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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