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Meet Only Fools icon Boycie at Toby’s Garden Festival

PUBLISHED: 12:03 20 March 2018 | UPDATED: 12:03 20 March 2018

Actor John Challis: 'If we hadn’t moved The Green, Green Grass would never have happened'

Actor John Challis: 'If we hadn’t moved The Green, Green Grass would never have happened'

Archant

A very familiar face from our television screens is coming to the county soon in a completely different guise to his acting work

John Challis, the actor best-known for playing Boycie in the BBC’s most successful ever sitcom Only Fools and Horses is heading to Devon this spring. Challis will be speaking at Toby’s Garden Festival at Powderham Castle on 27 and 28 April, sharing how he and wife Carol restored the ancient abbot’s lodging and garden at Wigmore Abbey in Herefordshire.

The 800-year old building was the inspiration and location for the Only Fools spin-off The Green Green Grass of Home which sees Boycie and on-screen wife Marlene flee Peckham for a new home after falling out with gangsters.

John is back on our screens this spring playing Monty, the love interest to Sherrie Hewson’s Joyce Temple-Savage in ITV’s tenth series of Benidorm. Devon Life’s gardening correspondent Toby Buckland caught up with John to find out more:

John is speaking and signing copies of his book at Tobys Garden FestivalJohn is speaking and signing copies of his book at Tobys Garden Festival

Toby – We know you best as the cigar-chomping Boycie in Only Fools and Horses but have you always been a gardener?

John – Yes, my parents were keen gardeners and I owned a garden centre in East Twickenham for a year back in the 1970s although it was a complete disaster! It was 1976, there was a drought and the hosepipe ban meant the ground was so hard nobody was planting anything.

There were some fun moments though – I remember a lady bought some seed potatoes from me and came back a few weeks later and said: “These plants are no good, the green leaves have all come up but there are no potatoes on them at all!”

'We love romantic gardens where everything runs through everything else – it’s organised chaos''We love romantic gardens where everything runs through everything else – it’s organised chaos'

Toby - How did you come to buy Wigmore Abbey?

John – It was 1998 and my wife Carol and I wanted to leave London and find a doer-upper in the country. We’d always had a fascination for history and were after the space to create a garden. We looked at a lot of places then Jean Boht (known for playing the matriarch Nellie in Carla Lane’s sitcom Bread) sent us the estate agent details, saying: “Why don’t you buy this one – ha ha.”

I thought it was far too big and too far away, but when we saw it we were absolutely stunned. Then we discovered my wife has a family connection going back to the dissolution of the monasteries and one of the owners had the same name as Carol’s father. So really fate brought us here.

'We love romantic gardens where everything runs through everything else – it’s organised chaos''We love romantic gardens where everything runs through everything else – it’s organised chaos'

Toby – Were your friends surprised you wanted to leave London, where all the action is?

John – A lot of people said: “What on earth are you doing?” but I knew it was time for a change and as it turned out if we hadn’t moved The Green, Green Grass would never have happened. The writer John Sullivan came to my 60th birthday party and had the idea Boycie might fancy a move to the country but he needed a logical reason why.

He came up with the Driscoll brothers – and that was it, Boycie was on the run from gangsters. The area has also been the inspiration for my two novels about a character called Reggie – which is me of course but loosely based on someone I know here. The books are very popular locally as everyone is hoping to spot themselves!

John Challis and wife his Carol have restored the ancient abbot’s lodging and garden at Wigmore AbbeyJohn Challis and wife his Carol have restored the ancient abbot’s lodging and garden at Wigmore Abbey

Toby – Why did you decide to write a book about Wigmore Abbey?

John – We wanted to record something about the 800 years of history. Fortunately, Carol and I have very similar tastes and we love romantic gardens where everything runs through everything else – it’s organised chaos – about an acre is under cultivation and four acres of pasture surrounded by farms, sheep – a very sylvan outlook.

It’s very cold and exposed here and we tried some things three or four times then had to give up; fortunately I love rambling roses and herbs. We have an orchard of apple trees, a hill of lavender around the church we call Lavender Hill and an osmanthus hedge which flowers very early in the year. It’s all geared to look wonderful in May, June July time provided it doesn’t all come out at once!

John Challis and wife his Carol have restored the ancient abbots lodging and garden at Wigmore AbbeyJohn Challis and wife his Carol have restored the ancient abbots lodging and garden at Wigmore Abbey

Toby – You’re a patron of the Hedgehog Preservation Society so presumably wildlife is important to you?

John – Yes, wildlife is very important to me even though it has a habit of interrupting what you want to do – we have squirrels, birds and rabbits which I love and then the deer which get in and nibble off the rose shoots.

Of course, then you have that dilemma where you have put in a rabbit fence to keep them out, then have to put holes back in to let the hedgehogs in!

John Challis and wife his Carol have restored the ancient abbot’s lodging and garden at Wigmore AbbeyJohn Challis and wife his Carol have restored the ancient abbot’s lodging and garden at Wigmore Abbey

MEET BOYCIE AT TOBY’S GARDEN FESTIVAL

John is speaking and signing copies of his book at Toby’s Garden Festival on Friday and Saturday 27 and 28 April at Powderham Castle, near Exeter. Other speakers at the festival, now in its fifth year, include BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Rachel de Thame, and BBC Radio Two’s allotment doctor, Terry Walton, from The Jeremy Vine Show.

Highlights include more than 180 exhibitors, including Chelsea Flower Show-favourite nurseries, artisan craft, food and drink from the West Country, live music and family entertainment.

Advance online tickets, family and VIP are on sale now from £10 at tobygardenfest.co.uk

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