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,”
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.
The Sunday Times