Stockbroker’s 27-year project to transform his London garden

Image of Robin Lane Fox

I have just discovered I have something which I had quite forgotten that I have. It is not a love letter, a Premium Bond or an old tin of DDT. It is a stockbroker. He has loyally been awaiting my instructions for the past 12 years. None has been forthcoming. After reading so many FT Weekend articles about the consuming effect of money-managers’ fees, I have been managing most of my money myself. I have simply forgotten the broker’s little pile. On Wall Street, they say, money never sleeps. A bit of mine has been taking a ten-year nap.

I relearned the existence of this human asset at one of the summer’s big City dinners. As a guest of the Merchant Taylors’ Company I was enjoying drinks in its hall’s courtyard. In the evening sunshine, a man with a neat moustache was introduced to me who turns out to be my broker-in-waiting. I cannot claim credit for foresight. About 15 years ago. I simply inherited him when another company was taken over. While sending me immaculate paperwork and holding my cash on deposit, he has gone from strength to strength. Aged 50, Rupert Tyler is now the national director of Brewin Dolphin, a 250-year-old investment management company which is now in the Footsie 250.

Future historians of old-boy networks will refuse to believe what happened next. My long-lost broker turned out to be a pupil whom I never realised I had either. Tyler was admitted to read classics and modern languages at my Oxford college, New College. I remember everyone I have taught individually, all 500 or so of them, including the very few who have gone for a short while to jail. I teach ancient history in the classical school but by choosing to read languages only, Tyler gave me a wide berth. He even spent a year out on faraway Martinique. Since he left, there has been less of an escape. He has become a very attentive gardener. Saturdays, therefore, are the important day in his reading of the FT. His London garden at 51, The Chase, Clapham will be open to the public next Sunday, September 22, from midday until 4pm. Fearlessly, he invited his long-lost client to have a preview.

When the celebrated critic Cyril Connolly reviewed my first book, on Alexander the Great, he remarked that he would have expected it to have been on Shrubs for Stockbrokers. Forty years later, I have had the chance to make amends. Number 51, The Chase, has a well-composted front garden, wide enough to have more than concrete and parked cars. I admired its Rose Golden Wings and noted the tall shrubby blue Echium going out of flower. Tyler impressed me by remarking that he had grown it from seed collected in the Channel Islands. Once a month he goes over to the island of Alderney, the site of his second garden.

Front of the house, which was formerly six flats

From the house’s upper floors we looked down on the garden’s good green canopy, without any trace of a lawn. I like Tyler’s approach to house and garden ownership. He has been under the same roof with his partner, Charles Rutherfoord, for the past 27 years. When they arrived the house had been turned into six flats. They began in two of the upper flats, but controlled part of the garden. Like slowly-proliferating bindweed they have extended their ownership through the other four, one by one. Recently they bought out the last one, paying for what Tyler wryly discovered to be “marriage value”. Rutherfoord is an architectural consultant with a keen interest in garden design. He now works on the ground floor, with a door into the garden.

Tyler delighted me by comparing gardening with good investment management. Several excellent investors insist on the same point. With patience, even a slow-starting sickly investment will often grow on like a tree peony. A few dotcom start-ups will shoot up like half hardy bougainvilleas until they collapse in the first frost if they are not taken indoors. A backbone of irises, roses and magnolia will go on growing so long as nobody churns them around.

Brewin Dolphin has grown like the garden at 51, The Chase, and remains famous for its private clients. Some of them come to see Tyler’s garden on an open day. Others, like the staff, relish the company’s success at the recent Chelsea shows. Brewin Dolphin’s outdoor garden won the Best in Show Award in 2012. It won a Gold Medal again this year for a garden with the theme of Native British Plants. “One for Ukip?” I asked. “We did not include a bust of Nigel Farage,” is the reply.

The Chelsea ventures are Tyler’s initiative. He reckons that the costs of a big gold-winning garden can be contained at £250,000 and that the television and publicity are worth every penny. Above all, favoured clients can be asked to pre-public breakfast viewings during the week. They are even more sought after, he finds, than tickets to the Monday evening Gala. Clients travel from as far as California to start the day among flowers.

We go down into the big garden behind the house. It still shows the effects of years of subdivision between owners. A barrier of hypericum hides a pleasant patch beyond, planted with dahlias, irises, some violet-purple tall lobelias and peonies out of season. Each spring it is bedded with 2,000 tulips. The agaves, the dahlias and the scented white daturas go into the little dome-shaped greenhouse, a frost-proof sanctuary. “Have you planted anything here after reading one of my articles?” I ask my long-lost pupil. “Once, you wrote about cistuses,” Tyler replies, pointing to a Cistus laxus x ‘Snow White’. It looks only fairly happy.

Water feature

Rupert and Charles make excellent use of their rooftops. One window balcony is packed with cannas in reds and yellows, a dramatic sight from ground level. Another is surfaced with big pebbles and a little tank for yellow water lilies. “Do you rush out to work in the garden after a long day in the City?” I ask Tyler, “or do you look out and simply feel guilty?” He patrols the garden each morning at around 7am. When he returns home, he does not work in it. “Guilt”, he assures me, “is entirely redundant.”

We agree on a knowledge-exchange, having missed one in his university years. First, what, if anything, has his study of classics given to his career? “Pretty superb skills of communication.” he tells me, proving the point. “And when I joined the business, at weekends I made extra money by teaching Latin to the bosses’ children.”

In the front garden I repay him. I identify the one Tea rose which he inherited with the site. Its flowers are a pale yellow, fringed with pink, and I am sure it is Grand-mère Jenny, a seedling from Peace. Could he repay this expertise by giving me a stock into which to invest my slumbering cash? He considers a company selling potash in Chile, but I am not having anything which is supposed to be “emerging”. Later, he texts his answer, Syngenta, a Swiss-registered business for fungicides, pesticides and seeds. I have just thrown all the cash at it. As a gardener, I know well that what goes up can rapidly come down. I also accept my broker’s views on the redundancy of guilt.

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