2 August 2002

Garden gnomes guard a serious wildflower haven

WHEN, 23 years ago, Ann Atkin set up her Gnome Reserve and Wild Flower Garden at West Putford in Devon, people thought she was crazy. Now its official: she has been voted one of the UKs top 10 eccentrics and the number one female eccentric.

At a ceremony in London, Sir Norman Wisdom presented her with an Oscar in the competition run by Kelloggs Fruit & Fibre/Benedict Le Vray, author of Tales of the Country Eccentrics.

In fact, there is a serious side to Anns 1.6ha (4-acre) reserve. Visitors are entertained by gnomes displayed in humorous scenes ranging from lawnmower racing to motorbike scrambling. But they are also introduced to more than 250 species of wild- flower, herbs, grasses and ferns which encourage them to think about saving Britains natural habitats from threats posed by building and changed farming practices.

"Gnomes put us in touch with nature," Ann says of her novel method for getting people concerned for conservation. She should know because she now has more than 2000, mainly concrete, examples of the little people in her collection. Her small museum tells the story of Britains obsession with garden gnomes ever since Sir Charles Isham brought a few of the colourful folk from Germany in 1847 to display in his gardens at Lamport Hall, Northampton-shire. Our continuing enthusiasm means 25,000 people a year are drawn to the Gnome Reserve, pull on a gnome hat "to get on the right wavelength" and explore.

Labels in the wildflower garden identify, yellow pimpernel, Jacobs ladder, ox-eye daisies and wild strawberry and impart snippets of information: seed pods from yellow iris can be used to make coffee, ink and black dye, while stinging nettles were used in textile manufacturing until 80 years ago.

"The wildflower garden encourages flies and birds like willow warblers, blackcaps, chiffchaffs and skylarks," Ann adds. "In the UK over the last 20 years, 2m breeding pairs of skylarks, a species which survived the last ice age, have been lost. Wouldnt it be terrible if they didnt survive our own century?"

Ann is also an artist and money from her distinctive bird pictures and prints is put into a fund for the purpose of purchasing further land to farm with the natural native food plants of threatened birds and butterflies. "Teasels, for example, bring goldfinches," she says. "The gnomes aim to restore a sight seen by Cobbett and described in his Rural Rides of 150 years ago: I do believe I had before me 10,000 goldfinches.

"Children love the reserve and often return as adults," Ann continues. "In fact, we get more adults visiting than children. Its an escape, although I always say this is the real world. A lot of people go away saying they will create a wildflower garden, too, which is wonderful."

Inquiries: tel 0870 845 9012.

Ann and her son find the gnomes encourage visitors to think about conserving natural habitats.