Toyah's quiet side: 
The deep peace of the punk queen's garden 

From punk to pastoral 
The singer Toyah Willcox enjoys the buzz of the market town where she lives, but also loves to escape to the peace of her garden, says Caroline Donald 

Toyah Willcox and her husband Robert Fripp are a couple whose profession it is to make noise. Willcox came to fame in the 1970s as a punk singer who also appeared in films such as Quadrophenia and Jubilee, and Fripp’s rock group King Crimson is still touring after more than 30 years. Last year was busy, with Willcox touring in the West End show Calamity Jane and appearing in I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! It is therefore surprising to find they are the owners of a large and quiet garden, all the more so in that it is situated behind their Georgian former judge’s house and coaching inn, which stands in the middle of a Worcestershire market town. The street in front of the house is full of hustle and bustle, but once you step out of the kitchen door into the brick courtyard, all is tranquillity. The garden, which covers about an acre and a half, stretches down to the River Avon, from the banks of which you can see water meadows and sheep grazing, in a scene of ageless English pastoralism.  

The couple moved there three years ago from Dorset. Willcox was visiting the area — where she was brought up — and had spotted the For Sale sign when boating on the river. She remembered visiting the house when it was a tea room in her childhood. “We came to look round just to be nosy because it is architecturally such a beautiful street and we wanted to know what the houses looked like,” she says. “We walked in and I burst into tears: I knew we had to live here.”  

As they had just moved from Reddish House, Sir Cecil Beaton’s old house in Salisbury, to a manor in Dorset, it was not exactly convenient timing and Willcox decided to forget about the new house. Unbeknown to her, her husband went ahead and bought it with the help of a bridging loan. And, in fact, there was some practicality in the move, as she now commutes to London several days a week and the journey is much easier from her new home.  

It was a good move. The couple have quite a portfolio of properties, though Willcox will not be drawn on just how many. This house, however, is special. “This is the happiest place we have ever lived: we wish we had come here 19 years ago,” she says.  

“There is a resonance about the building and the design, everything is so friendly. You have the town out there where you can buy anything until about 11pm, then the silence in the garden is remarkable. It is two worlds completely divided.”  

Although she has designed her own gardens in London and at her studio retreat nearby, Willcox has not changed the layout of the garden, which was created for the previous owner. “At Reddish House we had a formal garden with very old breeds of roses and flowers that Cecil Beaton had put in. Everything was completely different to what we have here,” she says.  

The plants may be easy to find at garden centres but there are some old cherry, apple, plum and damson trees, as well as a mulberry, which reflect the orchards in the area’s past. Fruit trees are also in evidence at the neighbouring properties. “They each have their original garden,” says Willcox. “Ours was stripped out to be landscaped, but it is still really beautiful.”  

At Reddish House there were seven acres of garden, four of them formal, which needed three full-time gardeners and an annual budget of £100,000 to keep them up. Here, John, the sole gardener, keeps everything looking immaculate in two days a week. “He is just magnificent,” says Willcox.  

The garden is divided into five “rooms”, including a pond area, a cherry orchard and a large lawned area where the couple play football — croquet got too competitive for them. This makes the long narrow space seem much bigger than it actually is and provides plenty of different atmospheres for its owners to enjoy. Tall yew hedges, metal arbours and a fair smattering of works by the sculptor Althea Wynne give it year-round appeal. These include a lifesized terracotta warrior on a horse, a surprise Christmas present last year from Fripp.  

The fountain in the middle of the pond provides a decorative feature even when it is very cold, as it drips with icicles. “It looks like something from Narnia,” says Willcox.  

Up near the house is a bricked patio, with a large dining table. A huge olive tree stands in a pot nearby, which two workmen and her father had to stagger about with from site to site until Willcox found the perfect place for it.  

She has written two books since she has been at the house. One, which she has just finished, is a children’s book with a moral tale (move over Madonna). More intriguing, however, is the diary that she is just finishing, the contents of which she refuses to disclose. “I can’t tell you because it is a bit outrageous,” says Willcox coyly. “It is not to do with sex: it’s very topical but it is not kiss and tell.” The mind boggles.  

The couple are often away — Willcox will be back on the road with Calamity Jane in September, then touring with Nick Hayward before panto at Christmas — so the house and garden are very much a base, occupied by staff in their absence and kept in immaculate condition for their return. The time when she missed it most was when she was stuck in the middle of the Australian jungle for I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! “I spent every night in the jungle wishing I was back on the high street walking into the One Stop to buy chocolate,” she says. And then bringing it back to eat in the privacy of her own patch.  

Althea Wynne

The Sunday Times
May 2004