Posted on 02/08/2019
When visitors to Birmingham’s NEC this June were greeted by a perfect recreation of a section of canal, complete with water, boat and a cute little canalside cottage, they didn’t quite know what to make of it. “The public couldn’t believe we’d actually built a canal,” says garden designer Chris Myers, who created the space for BBC Gardeners’ World Live with the input of Canal & River Trust volunteers. “They kept asking if it was an old bit of canal that had been left over when they built the NEC.”
The garden – titled Making Life Better By Water – won the Silver Merit Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) medal and was intended to highlight the benefits of nature in a waterside environment. It was created by Myers working with David and Hilary Godbehere, enthusiastic gardeners and volunteer lock keepers on the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. “David and Hilary came up with the idea of creating a garden to show the benefit of locks,” says Chris. “We met up and walked down the canal and what I saw there created a vision in my mind for how the garden could work. It needed to be somewhere that would inspire people to want to explore the canals.”
The garden was modelled on a section of canal at Kibworth Locks on the Grand Union. The detail was such that it even included a boat emerging from a tunnel. The team constructed a leggers cottage featuring a wellbeing garden, while Myers wanted to create a strong public aspect, so designed a section of towpath that led to a picnic area. The planting was inspired directly by the canal, using flowers such as geranium and sedum that flourish alongside it. David and Hilary provided a selection of aquatic plants they had grown in coir matting, while the wellbeing garden featured herbs and flowers – lavender, sage, catmint – that would smell and look good, and attract pollinators. There was a small vegetable garden and also a selection of trees. The boat was rescued from a field, with the volunteers promising to restore it and then return it to the owner after use.
“We used native British trees that you might find on the towpath like hazel, lime trees and oaks,” says Myers. “We also used edible fruits that are growing from the pips and seeds that people discard as they use the towpath. So there are apples, cherries, peach and persimmon fruit, which is an orange almost tomatoey thing that’s starting to grow around canals. That reflects how human activities can affect the canal in a way that’s good for nature.”
When the garden was deconstructed at the end of the exhibition, plants and flowers were delivered to pocket parks around Birmingham, so they could continue to improve the waterways experience for visitors. “It’s been noticed that people appreciate and are very protective of the parks, and they make the place brighter and feel better,” says Myers.
Myers places his love of nature and gardens down to his youthful experiences of the canal. He grew up in Skipton and would regularly cycle to the nearby village of Kildwick to fish in the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. “I’d watch the boats, chat to people and unbeknownst to me, all the while I was there I was absorbing the nature around me,” he says. “I now have a huge affection for wildflowers and wildlife. I think it was sitting by the canal that made me the person I am.”
BBC Gardeners’ World Live