Meeting Vanessa Cook in the middle of her peaceful cottage gardens, it comes as a surprise to hear that for many years she worked nights in a factory just to be able to keep up her home.

THE beauty of her gardens and wildlife haven at Stillingfleet Lodge, near York, seems so natural that it is easy to forget they represent years of devoted hard work.

What was once a derelict patch of farmland has been transformed into abundant cottage gardens, overflowing with trees, shrubs, unusual and rare plants, colours and scents, and full of wildlife.

For the past 37 years Vanessa has been gardening nearly every day at Stilling-fleet. Now at the age of 70 she is nowhere near tiring and has continued to work, despite problems with a faulty hip.

It is a labour of love which started after she and her husband, John, bought a near derelict old farmhouse in the 1970s, surrounded by four acres of open fields.

“We wanted somewhere the cat couldn’t get run over”, she says, and “we felt strongly about being organic, so we bought a cow, and made our own cheese, yoghurt and butter.” The couple and their four children began to live the good life. They took on sheep, pigs and poultry, and restored an old vegetable patch that was the only piece of garden in the surrounding land.

And this was when Vanessa began gardening at Stillingfleet. Already a keen botanist, she had also been back to college to study horticulture.

For five years when John came home from his work in the evenings she went out to work at the Danepak Bacon factory in Selby until the early morning.

Her job turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

When she took voluntary redundancy she was given the chance to set up her own business with an Enterprise Allowance.

She built her first small polytunnel and set up Stillingfleet Nursery, which has grown over the years to sell 800 different, mostly perennial, plants.

Many are unusual, some bred at Stillingfleet, named after her house and her grandchildren.

Nature was always allowed to play a big part in her gardens which she designed to blend in with the surrounding Yorkshire countryside.

Wildlife is attracted by the insects and bugs which live in the left over tree stumps and nettle patches, and hundreds of butterflies and bees thrive thanks to plants in a traditional hay meadow.

There is a formal water garden, traditional and wildflower meadows, a large pond, woodland, and colourful scented cottage gardens, with different unusual plants all year round.

Many wildlife groups use the gardens for research, including the British Trust for Ornithology, Butterfly Conservation, the Hedgehog Society and the Dragonfly Society.

Rare species of bumble bees and moths have been found and the gardens are always alive with different birds, and butterflies, with frogs, toads, newts and dragonflies around the pond.

Described as a hidden gem, and one of the best cottage gardens in England, it also offers wildlife education days and workshops, with a café, and shows by local artists.

This month Yorkshire wire sculpture artist Chris Moss has chosen the gardens for an exhibition of her life-size hens, ducks, pheasants, cats, dogs, a fox and a pony which will move into the gardens for the whole of August.

“I love the naturalistic settings at Stillingfleet which means I can place the sculptures interacting as they would do in real life,” she says.

Vanessa has something of the aim of an artist, who just wants people to love what she has created.

“I sometimes think that because I can’t paint I paint pictures in my garden.

“It’s not like any other garden. I had one visitor who said the wonderful thing about the garden is that it has soul.

“It is a very tranquil garden. I would like everyone to love it, if people go away feeling happier I feel its been worth it,” she says.

For her it is simply her life. “I’d be hopeless without it”, she says.

“I love my garden, it gives me lots of pleasure, I love it because its full of the bumblebees, butterflies, chiffchaffs, toads in the pond, and I feel I’ve made a wildlife haven, and it is a haven people can enjoy. I’m never going to give up, I’ll be 80 and I’ll still be gardening.”

• Stillingfleet Lodge Gardens and Nurseries and café are open between 1pm and 5pm (until 7pm on 14th August) every Wednesday and Friday and the first and third weekends of each month until the end of September.

Entry is £4.50 or 50p for children aged five to 16.

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