Acres of garden proved the perfect therapy for Fiona Edmond after she was struck down with ME
- Credit: Archant
It was about 20 years ago that things started going wrong. Until then, life for Fiona Edmond had seemed just about perfect, writes Steven Russell.
University at Cambridge. Marriage. Amateur golf success that saw her play for Britain. Her own garden design business. A daughter and then a baby son.
Then her world turned upside-down.
Six months of going downhill culminated in Fiona collapsing in the spring of 1996. “My mother picked me and the two children up and brought us back to her house. I was more or less bedridden for six months and housebound for three years. For the best part of five years I didn’t really go out at all.”
She had myalgic encephalopathy – ME. Common symptoms include severe fatigue and painful joints.
The emergency return to her native north-east Essex also represented – pretty much – a goodbye to London. Fiona and husband Andy had already been looking to move in the capital, to get closer to the better schools, and their house did sell.
Fiona’s dad kept leaving the newspaper open with pages of Essex properties, as if to say “Look what you can get for the same money!”
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Andy, who worked in the City (and still does), was travelling up from London to Essex each Wednesday to see his wife and children, and again at weekends. The journey proved easier than commuting across the capital – and East Anglia offered more space for the kids; beaches close by. What’s not to like?
They decided to buy in Essex, in 1996: a somewhat surprising 20-acre triangular wilderness at Ardleigh.
Nearly two decades on, the site is tamed, professionally designed by Fiona and open to the public as Green Island Gardens.
“I’m a real believer in fate and I think someone up there got us out of London by making me that ill. Because I would never have been happy,” says the mother of a daughter aged 21 and five sons from 10 upwards. “I was like a caged animal. I’m a country girl. I’m quite happy here on the ‘island’. I could survive two or three weeks without going off it. I’m absolutely quite happy in the company of my plants”!
Fiona grew up near Colchester. Her parents live on a farm in Great Bentley. She boarded at Saint Felix School, outside Southwold, where her love of horticultural was apparent. “I do remember my eighth birthday, which was the first I had there. I was given one of those mini-propagators and a bag of bulbs. All my friends thought I was absolutely a stark-raving lunatic! I was absolutely delighted.”
She graduated from Cambridge in 1987 with a degree in geography, got engaged in 1989, studied in London and launched a garden design business in the capital. Daughter Meg arrived in 1993 and son Luke in 1995.
That summer, Fiona had a really bad bout of tonsillitis. By autumn she was experiencing dreadful headaches, dizziness and pins and needles. Her stamina waned. “And then I collapsed. Couldn’t move at all. You can’t explain how bad you feel. Everything hurts; every joint. It’s just... ugh. Awful.”
Doctors, she says, didn’t immediately recognise it as ME. The breakthrough came when Fiona was still in London, ailing, and her concerned in-laws came to help for a week. Her father-in-law returned from Waterstones with a book on ME.
“I opened the first page and there was a list of 14, 15 symptoms. I remember coming over all hot and sweaty, reading it. Every single one of those symptoms I had. So I took the book and went back to the doctor and said ‘I have got ME.’”
The consensus seems to be that the condition is caused by suffering stress while also fighting a virus. “The body’s immune system goes into overdrive and never really recovers,” she says. “ME is a lifetime sentence, if you like. I managed to stay positive. When I came here, our family GP came to see me and said ‘Yes, you’ve got ME’, and that was a great relief. We moved to Ardleigh six months after that and the surgery has been amazing; very supportive.”
The couple had the particulars for Green Island in their pile of estate agents’ bumf but originally dismissed the idea.
“It was a bungalow” – essentially – “a 1950s building; 20 acres. The layout sounded barmy. Rooms linked by corridors. I think we had eight doors to the outside. It just wasn’t what we were looking for. Two timber chalets as well.”
But Fiona went to look, with her parents. “I only had the energy, really, to walk from one end of the house to the other. I didn’t see any of the grounds.” But there was something about it. “Although it was a ’50s property it had been designed by Raymond Erith” – a celebrated architect – “so all the rooms were double-aspect, if not triple. It was all very light and had these lovely Georgian-style windows. So I was torn. And I loved having doors opening onto the garden as well.”
She went back the next day, with Andy. “We’d just turned off the road and this grin came over his face. Before we got halfway up the drive he said ‘Let’s buy it.’”
Green Island was originally part of Ardleigh Park – part of its orchard, it seems. Owner Winifred Elin sold the large property in the late 1950s and had the bungalow built.
The late Miss Elin was involved with The Anthroposophical Society – a kind of spiritual movement – and used to hold meetings at Green Island. The wooden chalets, meanwhile, were for artist friends when they visited. When Fiona and her husband bought Green Island, from one of Miss Elin’s relatives, most of the site was overgrown and 1987’s hurricane-force winds had done considerable damage.
One day, Fiona got out her design boards and started sketching properly. “The minute I said to my parents I’d got something on paper, my father was here with the tractors, the farm machinery, the farm labourers…” she laughs. “Everything I’d planned on paper was suddenly put into place. It was wonderful. My brother arrived with a chainsaw and they started clearing the trees that had fallen.”
In 1999 the garden was opened to the public, along with plant nursery and tearoom.
Fiona is able to work on her beloved land, though is limited by physical injuries. “I’ve had two shoulder operations ? this one five years ago and this one last November. Haven’t swung a golf club yet, but I have had the all-clear to do so.” She took up the sport when she was about 13, playing throughout university and then spending five years on the amateur circuit, representing England and Great Britain.
There were thoughts of turning professional, but at the time there was little money in Europe for ladies. “All my contemporaries went to the States and have done very well, but I had already met my husband by then, decided I didn’t want to turn pro, and stayed in England.”
There was a very bad elbow injury at the end of 1992. Fiona was reserve for the Great Britain and Ireland Curtis Cup team against the United States. She’d probably have made the full team two years later, but Meg’s appearance was a sign that an era was over and a new one beginning.
That was it, with golf, for about 20 years. Until the spring of 2013. Her five sons joined Ipswich Golf Club and asked her to join them for a game. Fiona enjoyed it do much she also joined the club – and a few months later broke the ladies’ course record!
The ME, meanwhile, is unlikely to ever go away, but it’s being held in check.
In the early years, Fiona had been wary of going on anti-depressants, reckoned to be one of the best ways of easing the effects.
“One of the big problems with ME is you’re absolutely exhausted but don’t have a proper sleep pattern. You are so ill you feel you just want to escape from it, but you cannot go to sleep. Just as I was dropping off, it would feel like my head was going to explode. So nauseous. But the antidepressants certainly sorted out the sleep pattern.”
She came off them when pregnant with Sam, but later had a major relapse. “Twice I’ve come off them totally and both times had a massive relapse, so I just stay on the lowest possible dose and it just seems to work.”
The keeping of a diary also helped, recording how she felt each day and what she could cope with. “Now I manage my life to avoid triggers. The body can’t cope with stress: physical, mental or emotional. I can walk for miles, I can buzz around here, but I can’t run any more, I can’t lift weights or do circuit training. It makes me extremely ill.
“The other thing I can’t do is watch my children play sport. As much as I love it, if it’s a close tennis match, a championship tie-break where you get the adrenaline going, that will make me feel really, really ill for days afterwards.
“But, god, it’s so much better. At least it’s not a degenerative thing like MS or motor neurone disease, where you know it’s only going to get worse.
“I sometimes think these things happen for a reason. I’ve come out of it a much better person. I was so selfish and wound up in my own golf. I think most successful sports people are; look at how many have failed marriages. I think that’s because you have to be so tunnel-visioned; nothing else can intrude on that.”
Of Green Island, Fiona says: “The people who come and who knew Miss Elin say ‘Oh, she would have loved what you’ve done.’
“I feel like it’s gone full circle. Although my love of gardening isn’t ‘art’, it’s art in a different way; it’s preserving the environment for the enjoyment of other people and the next generation.”