News, Culture & Society

Englishman’s tribute to Britain in German garden

So much for the old gag that the German sense of humour is no laughing matter. Here in this corner of Germany, they can certainly take a joke — even if it is the sort of joke that would leave Foreign Office types cringing with embarrassment.

I am standing by a car park on the edge of a German wood looking at an E II R red pillar box, a couple of red telephone boxes, a (pretty awful) lifesize replica of the Queen with corgis sitting in Robin Hood’s hut, a pair of life-size fibreglass guardsmen, various Arthurian figures in shining fibreglass armour and a socking great, very real, British-built tank, decked in poppy wreaths.

Huge Union flags flap above signs welcoming me to ‘Little Britain’.

It is a sight which would doubtless provoke contemptuous tweets from metropolitan grandees such as Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry (who was famously reviled for implying that a house in Kent with England flags fluttering from its windows and a white van in the drive was a ghastly sight).

Gary Blackburn, a 52-year-old tree surgeon from Lincolnshire, has erected a tribute to all things British in his German garden

Yet the locals, with a handful of exceptions, seem rather tickled by ‘Little Britain’.

I can’t help thinking what would happen if we turned this the other way round.

Imagine if a German expat erected a homage to Wagner, lederhosen, sausages, penalty shootouts and the Red Baron alongside a Panzer draped in German flags on the edge of Epping Forest.

I’d give it less than 48 hours before it was smashed to pieces.

Here, in this pretty corner of the Rhineland, 20 miles south of the old German capital, Bonn, they see things differently.

‘Super! I like it!’ says retired nurse Roland Maier, striding past the Union flag-decorated cow and the sign saying ‘Keep Calm and Love England’ to inspect the Centurion tank.

This bizarre exhibition of British museum pieces, memorabilia and, frankly, tat, is all the work of Gary Blackburn, 53, a tree surgeon who left Lincolnshire 30 years ago to work in Germany, where he has raised six children and built up a business employing 20 people.

His proud display of red, white and blue, he explains, has been prompted by last year’s Brexit vote.

At first glance, you would reasonably conclude that Mr Blackburn must have been a rampant Leaver in the EU referendum. ‘Little Britain’ certainly looks like the sort of thing you’d get if you asked Nigel Farage to design a Brexit theme park some time after the fourth pint.

Yet, in fact, Gary was all for staying in the EU — not that he had a vote anyway. A fluent, self-taught German speaker, married to a Pole and with all his children educated in Germany (two are still at school), Gary says that leaving the EU will make his life considerably harder, not least because his business often needs to employ Brits at short notice.

Mr Blackburn poses with a model of the Queen's Coldstream Guard in his very own Little Britain

Mr Blackburn poses with a model of the Queen’s Coldstream Guard in his very own Little Britain

One of the UK’s little-known world-class exports, it transpires, is tree surgery.

But Gary is also a pragmatist and a proud Brit.

He accepts that the referendum has been and gone. And having been asked for the umpteenth time by German friends for his thoughts on Brexit, he decided to create a microcosm of all things British right here in Germany. His message is that both he and his mother-country are exactly the same as they have always been.

And if people think he’s slightly dotty, well, never mind.

Gary has no intention of trading in his passport for EU citizenship, he says, even though he could. He says, his grandfather, a badly wounded veteran of the Somme — where his great uncle died — would never have tolerated that.

He still makes regular trips back to the family home in Burton-upon-Stather, Lincolnshire, where he does tree surgery jobs for loyal local customers, including David Cameron’s father-in-law, Sir Reginald Sheffield. ‘He had a great quercus ilex [holly oak], which I managed to save. I was quite proud of that one.’

Despite spending three decades in Germany, Gary still doesn’t watch German television. ‘I only watch British stuff. I saw Only Fools And Horses again last night,’ he says. ‘I never get bored of it.’

Indeed, not. His theme park also includes a pair of Del Boy-style three-wheeled Reliant Robins. They are parked alongside a replica of Mr Bean’s Mini next to the oak building he calls Robin Hood’s Hideaway.

But it’s his British-built Centurion tank — still in surprisingly good condition — that stops passers-by in their tracks. It came to the attention of the German media and made international headlines after a local MP supported a complaint from an unnamed member of the public.

Linz-Kretzhaus in Germany is home to a museum of British memorabilia including a life-sized model of Queen Elizabeth 

Linz-Kretzhaus in Germany is home to a museum of British memorabilia including a life-sized model of Queen Elizabeth 

Ellen Demuth, from Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrat party, claimed the tank was ‘making a mockery’ of the victims of war.

Gary scoffs at the idea, pointing to the plastic doves and poppy wreaths all over it. It is, he says, a monument to peace.

‘Apparently, this MP came down here to have a look but never even spoke to me,’ he says.

Given the sensitivities surrounding anything war-related in Germany, the matter was passed up to the state ministry of the interior. Officials took one look and ruled that the tank was on private land, non-operational and not in breach of Germany’s War Weapons Control Act. Gary was welcome to keep it.

Ever since then, it’s become a very popular local talking point. Sightseeing trains on the little railway line that runs through the adjacent forest regularly stop so passengers can take a photograph.

His tribute to his homeland includes Mr Bean's Mini, though it carries a German number plate

His tribute to his homeland includes Mr Bean’s Mini, though it carries a German number plate

I suppose if Gary had bought a wartime Sherman tank that had actually shot at Germans, Gary could be accused of triumphalism. But this is a 1953 Centurion, designed for the Cold War.

The primary role of the British-built Centurion was actually to protect Germany from invasion by the Soviet Union.

Except this one would not even have done that since it belonged to the Swiss Army. It has never fired a shot in anger.

Gary was not even looking for a tank when he spotted it in a scrapyard and decided there and then that it would form the centrepiece of his British collection. He returned home to inform his wife, Monika, that he had just spent ¤30,000 (£28,000) on 52 tons of military hardware. Was she cross?

Cows covered in Union flags also feature in the garden masterminded by the British tree surgeon

Cows covered in Union flags also feature in the garden masterminded by the British tree surgeon

She rolls her eyes and says that it’s par for the course. His six children — two with Polish-born Monika and four, now in their 20s, with his first wife — agree.

‘He just said he was going off to look at something, not to buy a tank!’ laughs Monika.

Gary then spent £5,000 on a red telephone box from Cornwall and £7,000 for another one which had seen service in London’s Trafalgar Square. And it all kept piling up. So far, he has spent £130,000 on accumulating all his ‘Little Britain’ paraphernalia.

Some exhibits, it must be said, are not great. I don’t think I have seen a less convincing model of the Queen — unless it is supposed to be Del Boy’s brother, Rodney, dressed as Her Majesty — as she sits at the tea table in Robin Hood’s Hideaway in an evening gown. Even so, the locals seem to be impressed, according to entries in Gary’s visitors’ book.

‘Teatime with the Queen — perfect!’ writes one passer-by.

He says it has all had a positive effect on business, with a huge surge in visits to his company website and trade up by 100 per cent since the tank hoo-ha hit the headlines during the summer.

But he says he never created his exhibition for commercial reasons. There is no entry fee and there is nothing on sale. Anyone is welcome to drop in with their own picnic or pose for photos with the Queen.

Anyone, that is, except his next door neighbours, Matthias and Andrea Oppermann, an equally eccentric pair who run a centre promoting psychotherapy with the help of animals and call themselves ‘spiritual consultants’.

He paid thousands for this phone box to bring a little bit of Britain to his home in Germany

He paid thousands for this phone box to bring a little bit of Britain to his home in Germany

Relations have reached the point that Gary has erected a sign banning them and their clients from the premises.

He says they have made so many complaints about his business, his family and, latterly, his Union flags and his tank to the authorities that he hasn’t spoken to the couple for months.

He blames them for the official complaint to the local MP, though he adds that it has generated so much favourable publicity that he’s almost grateful.

The Oppermanns, for their part, deny making the complaint about the tank, though they tell me they found the Centurion offensive until it was redecorated with doves and flowers.

They say they’ve ‘nothing against the English’ but find it strange that Gary does not have a German or European flag alongside his British ones.

‘Why does he have Mr Bean and Robin Hood and a tank anyway?’ asks Matthias.

This is evidently a toxic and long-running neighbourly dispute which runs a lot deeper.

It would all make a rather good sketch in the Little Britain comedy series. I wander round the neighbouring villages, all covered with posters ahead of the upcoming German general election, and wonder what Angela Merkel would make of Gary’s project.

Among the voters, I find that nearly everyone is perfectly happy with having a British-built tank and a quirky display of UK clutter on their doorstep.

Most put it down to ‘the English sense of humour’ and say they wish Gary luck.

‘I’ve read about it in the papers and I am going to take my family to see it,’ says local insurance agent Christoph Wagner. ‘I think it’s funny and I don’t think anyone should take it very seriously.’

‘Let him do what he likes,’ says builder, Dieter Kroll.

‘Just a bit of fun,’ says Ulrike Menne, filling in a lottery ticket at the local petrol station.

Elsewhere, Christian Brise, 21, says Gary has done a lot of good for the local forests and hiking trails and he has no problem with the ‘Little Britain’ display.

Back at ‘Little Britain’, I talk to one of Gary’s sons, Luke, 21. He is completely Anglo-German, speaks both languages fluently, and feels entirely at home here, though he has a small St George’s tattoo on his arm to remind him of his Lincolnshire roots.

All his German friends think the whole tank business is ‘fun’.

‘You don’t see many tanks in Germany, so they think it’s interesting,’ says Luke. ‘I thought it was a bit crazy at first, but Dad is always doing something crazy.’

Gary’s friend, Stephan Hubenthal, a local journalist drops in.

He says that when he first learned about the tank, he feared some Germans — and the media — might accuse Gary of dredging up the war. ‘I’m surprised the reaction has been so positive,’ he admits. ‘But it’s very clear it is not about militarisation. It’s a good thing. It makes people think and talk.’

So what next? As I leave, Gary tells me about his next plan.

‘I want to buy a red double-decker bus,’ he says, as Monika rolls her eyes once more.

‘I think we could do it up and serve English teas . . . ’