Toby’s Harvest Festival: Interview with speakers John Challis and Alys Fowler

Last year's Harvest Festival (c) Ed Ovenden

Last year's Harvest Festival (c) Ed Ovenden - Credit: Archant

Toby Buckland is hosting his second Harvest Festival event at Forde Abbey this month. Catherine Courtenay spoke to two of the gardening stars lined up for the speakers tent

John Challis

John Challis - Credit: Archant

Ramblings with Boycie

When asked if he has any Somerset connections, one of the first things John Challis says is that he was born in Bristol. Then he adds: “But I was only there for 20 minutes.”

The beautiful gardens at Wigmore Abbey, which John has written about in Wigmore Abbey: The Treasure

The beautiful gardens at Wigmore Abbey, which John has written about in Wigmore Abbey: The Treasure of Mortimer - Credit: Archant

He goes on to explain that his dad was in the Admiralty, based in Bath, but had to transfer to London.

“I was the only child evacuated to London during the war,” he points out.

As it happens, the actor has deep connections to the county, both past and present.

His grandparents lived in Bath and his mother’s family had farms around Shepton Mallet, Evercreech and North Cadbury. He still visits family members who live in Somerset and also his “oldest and dearest friends” Roger and Monty Saul, of Kilver Court and Sharpham Spelt fame.

Alys Fowler

Alys Fowler - Credit: Archant

Looking back on his childhood, he recalls a fascination for the way of life and also the sights and smells of the countryside – the orchards and cider making in particular.

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He remembers seeing his uncles trap wasps and how they’d hang pheasants, and adds that he found quite a bit of farming hard to come to terms with as a child.

“I liked all the piglets and would suddenly burst into tears. My uncle would say, ‘What’s the matter with your boy Joan? He’s a bit soft!

“I loved the gardens and trees and flowers and always wanted to come back to the country,” he reflects.

Thinking of John’s most famous character, the car dealer Boycie in Only Fools and Horses, it can come as a surprise to discover that he’s a keen gardener.

And yet, it’s always been there, this love of nature.

His parents were an inspiration, even if the young John wasn’t always too keen.

“They were great gardeners and got me to help them, we’d go on walks in the countryside and they’d point out this, that and the other; when I was being a bit difficult I’d do everything to avoid it!”

He even ran a garden centre in London for a brief time, in between acting jobs.

It was a way to prove to himself that his true love was acting, he says.

“I learned a lot and got very brown in the sun but it kick-started something. I had to have a go at something else to prove I should continue doing what I wanted to do.”

It was also the summer of 1976, the worst drought in recent times – and death to a fledgling garden business.

It was having his first garden or “a trough in Battersea” as he describes it, which really started his love of gardening.

And then, years down the line came his biggest project yet, Wigmore Abbey.

Wanting to live in the country, John may well have moved down to Somerset or Dorset, where his wife Carol’s family come from, but a chance discovery interrupted all their plans.

“We came across Wigmore Abbey while we were staying with friends in Herefordshire. While we were looking round the house Carol noticed a framed painting of a coat of arms belonging to her ancestors the Cockerams. They came originally from Devon and Dorset but it transpired that Wigmore Abbey had been given to them after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 and the family stayed there for over 250 years. I just had to buy it back for her!”

The purchase of the 800-year-old abbot’s lodging marked the beginning of a 20 year project to create their dream garden.

“There was nothing here at all, it was completely neglected – with just an occasional shocking pink rose in the weeds – which we had to rescue.”

Both loving romantic gardens, they took inspiration from other famous examples, like Sissinghurst.

“You name it, we’ve been there, looking at great houses and their gardens. We always had the idea we could do something in a smaller way. We’ve got five acres here and built a garden of about an acre and it’s been an absolute joy.”

Describing it as “organised chaos” he adds: “I have a love affair with rambling roses – although they have rambled all over the place…”

John’s Somerset places:

Weston-super-Mare: I’ve a fondness for Weston-super-Mare, It’s the first seaside I went to as a kid and I played in the theatre several times over the years.

The Mendip Hills: I rode a bit with mum on the hills. Mum was a great horse woman; I had a Shetland pony. I remember the summer and smells of haymaking.

Taunton: For the cricket ground - and I played in the theatre there several times.

Getting grounded with Alys

Alys Fowler is looking forward to coming to Somerset – and her first visit to Forde Abbey.

“I was near there last summer, just down the road at a friend’s garden, and I drove past and said I had to put it on my list. I’m thrilled to be going – and any excuse to go the beach…”

Alys, gardener, TV presenter and now primarily a writer, lives in the centre of Birmingham, but it seems she’ll seize any opportunity to go swimming if she’s near a tempting beach or river in the countryside.

Alys is an inspiration for gardeners of small spaces and for those on a tight budget, using every opportunity and space to grow plants; she is well known for her foraging exploits and it appears she’s a dab hand at fermenting too.

“I think that’s what I’ll be talking about,” she says, pondering her imminent guest speaker slot at the festival.

“The real joy of fermenting, rather than traditional pickling, is that you can do it in small batches, just pickling a bottle’s worth.

“It’s so easy, the easiest thing in the world, there are no rules, just bung in salt and water,” she enthuses.

Unlike Scandinavian countries, we don’t have a strong fermenting heritage, although bread and cheese are fermented products. Instead we tend to do jamming and pickling – adding sugar or vinegar to preserve food.

But there’s no need to fear it, says Alice, who taught herself about 10 years ago. “The worst that will happen is it will turn to compost.”

She’ll often buy up marked down veg or fruit in supermarkets; just before we spoke she’d made a fermented pickle out of a bag of reduced limes.

Fermented foods are good for gut health and the more you eat, the more you find you crave them – according to Alys.

We’re back to talking about Somerest and Alys highlights Hauser & Wirth in Bruton and its renowned Piet Oudolf-designed garden. “It’s a very interesting thing they are doing in that space, with a lot of interest to go back again and again.”

Her response to a mention of organic gardening guru Charles Dowding, who has his ‘no dig’ garden at Alhampton is effusive:

“Everyone should go there! I’ve known Charles for years and years and he has an amazing garden, his set up is incredible.”

Since a teenager, Alys knew she wanted to be a gardener and she went to RHS Wisley, the New York Botanical Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to train.

Has her approach altered over the years?

“Maybe it should have, but I garden in the same way I’ve always gardened. I’ve always been messy – but then I’m not a designer. I just like growing my own food and not being dictated to by whims. What matters most to me is that the things I grow taste good.”

“Gardening is never boring; mistakes are frustrating but there’s always something going on. I never tire of it,” she adds.

Her “very, very normal back garden” is just 30m by 60m. She does have an allotment but seems content to keep to her relatively small patch of ground.

“I’d love to have a greenhouse and acres of land, but I’d also love World Peace and for Donald Trump not to be president,” she laughs.

Alys is content with her lot, and has a grounded attitude, not just to gardening, but also to life.

“However precise you try to be there will always be a moment when nature is in control and not you.”

She likes this fact, that “nature has the last say in the game”.

“In order to be human we have to be occupied and gardening is a way of making sense of the world,” she says.

Above all: “It’s my private garden at the end of the day, and the only person to be happy with it is me.”

“But if someone says, ‘Here’s two acres in Somerset’ I’d love it! Can you just put that out there,” she laughs.

Toby’s Harvest Festival at Forde Abbey near Chard takes place on September 15 and 16. For tickets, visit