It was a fine Sunday morning. As I peered out of the bedroom window at the sun-dipped street, I could sense that the neighbourhood was already in its joggy bottoms, easing into a wash-worn T-shirt, ready to take on the tasks of the day. It was a Sunday made for soaping cars, snipping the hedge, and taking a drive to the tip. Usually, I would uncurl into such a morning with pleasure: pot of coffee, a Tesco croissant, the Archers omnibus. But this Sunday morning I felt something vital was missing. There was a big lawn-shaped hole in my life.
If you’d seen them, you’d have felt it too: the lawnmowers I mean, the crouching cast-iron beasts I’d admired the previous afternoon. They’d been silenced, starved of nourishing grass, but you could tell they hadn’t expired. They were waiting for their time to come again. As I chewed my toast and gazed at the unrelenting concrete in my yard, I dearly wished I could have set them free.
I felt guilty too. It had only cost £2 to enter their lair – the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport – but the grin that cracked my lips as I handed over the cash had nothing to do with delight at the bargain price. It was more smirk than smile, and the memory of it shamed me; I’d been giddy at the prospect of gawping at some high-tensile British eccentricity – a museum, for lawnmowers? – but those sleeping creatures with their potent jaws had made me think again. They were deep in hibernation, but their nobility was plain to see.
As I said, I hadn’t expected to be awed by a menagerie of dozing machines. The British Lawnmower Museum is tucked up some back stairs on a suburban Southport street, and though they are currently expanding – opening up a pavement-level frontage more worthy of the turf-tormenting treasures they possess – the current entrance, via the locksmiths’ on the corner, hardly promises access to horticultural heaven.
Having paid my fare, I was led through into the new ground-floor space. It was unoccupied save for a few temporary displays, but was generously dressed in a carpet of artificial grass whose vivid emerald tufts were less hallowed Wembley turf, more butcher’s shop window. Clearly, for the British Lawnmower Museum, the future’s bright, the future’s green.
With apologies for the partial disarray during expansion work, my host pointed the way upstairs into the museum itself, explaining that there was an audio guide of around 25 minutes, but otherwise I could take as long as I liked.
Twenty-five minutes seemed rather generous for an attic full of scrap I thought, but thankfully, I kept my disrespect to myself.
At first, my puzzlement got the better of me. I looked for the audio guide – a handset of some kind, or buttons I could press. But all I saw was a lawnmower mortuary; it was quiet and murky, and I couldn’t help feeling mildly transgressive – as if I’d accidentally broken into Charlie Dimmock’s shed. I was about to return downstairs to ask about the audio when a speaker above my head burst into life. Through a dense flutter and crackle, an amiable voice explained about the treat that lay in store – “a unique insight into the fascinating history of the lawnmower” – before rewinding back through history to 1830, the moment when the cast-iron infant was born.
It was the brainchild of one Edwin Budding, who’d had his eyes on another prize: he was intending to invent a means of removing the nap from cloth. Having realised, however, that the machine he had created – a revolving blade passing over a fixed blade – could supplant the scythe as the nation’s grass reduction method of choice, he patented it and advertised it as offering “amusing and healthy exercise” for gentlemen.
I thought about the hours I’d spent as a kid pushing our family’s ancient mower round the scuffed and hummocked lawn. It would stick and jam sporadically, emitting a bronchial rattle as it coughed up its cuttings into a rusting tank that hooked on the front. I used to wonder why we didn’t have a sprightly electric mower like everyone else. What I hadn’t realised, of course, was that it was “amusing and healthy exercise” – a far better entertainment than, say, kicking back with a foaming bottle of Cresta in front of The Six Million Dollar Man.
Although I was affecting to be cynical, the museum was already winning me round. I couldn’t help but notice, as I made my way through its five packed rooms, that the lawnmower’s business end – the twisted cylinder with the grass-chewing edge – has remained remarkably similar down the ages. Whether I was looking at a 19th century horse-drawn behemoth, a sleek sit-on model from the 1950s (commentary: “It had a few small faults…it tended to tip over when you turned it, and it could cut your feet off when reversing”) or indeed the one in my head that I remembered from childhood, they all shared that same bit of kit.
Thanks to the genius of Edwin Budding, I’d been mowing our 1970s lawn in much the same manner as a Victorian gentleman 150 years earlier – though I preferred a Muppets T-shirt to a tail coat, and could never be bothered to wear my top hat.
There is something deeply impressive about niche enthusiasms fired by passion, and this museum is a physical manifestation of love for a well-built machine. Brian Radam, the curator, has been building this collection for decades, and is clearly a man who can tell a lawnmower from a grass cutter at 100 paces (and yes, there is a difference). The audio commentary is no dry E.L. Wisty monologue about gear ratios and shaft rotation; rather, it’s full of fascinating anecdotes and facts – not to mention some irresistible puns. Ladies and gentlemen, will you welcome please…
When the growing gets rough, the tough get mowing.
And quite apart from its deep devotion to fine workmanship and quality engineering, the museum has another crowd-pleasing trick stashed inside its rolled-up shirtsleeves, because liberally distributed throughout the collection are Gardening Implements of the Rich and Famous. If nothing else impresses your mates, the news that you’ve gazed in wonder at Hilda Ogden’s Qualcast Panther will surely turn them green (what else?) with envy. Not highbrow enough? Then tell them that Roger McGough has donated a trowel: after all, he’s a poet and he doesn’t mow it.
I was still busy reading captions, inspecting artefacts and contemplating the birth of the Flymo when I finally realised that the audio commentary had long since played through to the end. I checked my watch and realised I’d been in there for at least an hour – those 200 years of lawn-trimming history had whizzed past faster than the 100 mph racing mower that the museum is currently designing. The experience had been a pleasure, and blessedly non-interactive; just interesting things arranged by someone in love with their subject.
I’d expected to learn something, and indeed I took away a head full of lingering lawnmower facts (one day, I’ll be glad to know that the first petrol machine was launched in 1921). But it was the following morning – that gleaming Sunday – when the mower’s significance really began to resonate, and I yearned to hear that music once again: the chugging of metal, the spinning of blades, the lost sound of a lazy afternoon.
So immersed in that reverie, I turned away from my back yard’s grey concrete and I fired up the laptop. And with a slurp of my coffee, I began to look for a house with a lawn.
Images by Damon Fairclough
The British Lawnmower Museum is at 106-114 Shakespeare Street, Southport. It’s open from 9am until 5.30pm Monday to Saturday.
More information: www.lawnmowerworld.co.uk