FEATURE: How breaking 25 world records led to a life mixing with celebrities and working for an arab sheikh - all from growing giant veg!
Bernard Lavery looks back on a life that has been about taking chances - and its consequences
From working for a sheikh in Abu Dhabi who wanted to turn the desert green, to rubbing shoulders with celebrities, Bernard Lavery's life has been by no means 'ordinary.'
A holder of 25 world records, he counts Esther Rantzen as a great friend, met Bruce Forsyth, and appeared on TV with Jonathan Ross, Ian Hislop, Melvin Bragg, singer Robbie Williams and many more.
He remembers annual dinners with presenter Roy Castle, Norris McWhirter (who founded the Guinness Book of World Records with his twin brother Ross); and actor Christopher Timothy (of All Creatures Great and Small).
"We looked forward to the dinners every year," he chuckles. "We would start at about 12 and finished around four, and get through half a dozen bottles of wine!"
All this came about from Bernard's talent as a horticultural grower. But it was not just any fruit, veg and flowers he grew; he discovered how to grow GIANT crops - including a pumpkin weighing 710 lbs (50 stone, 10lbs).
Now aged 81 and living in Crowland, he recently gave a talk at the town's abbey, looking back on a life that saw him propelled into the media spotlight and mixing with celebrities.
"The talk was advertised as 'How to Grow Giant Flowers and Veg - and its Consequences'," he said, "because it changes your life, once the media gets hold of you."
But he looks back fondly on a life that brought him from Wales to South Holland, and made him famous all over the world.
Born in Liverpool, he was evacuated with his family to North Wales in 1941 during the war. He grew up in a children's home after the death of his mother and began a career in the merchant navy, aged 16.
After meeting his first wife Hilary, who sadly later died of breast cancer, he left his life at sea.
"I always wanted to go into the seed and plant trade," he said. "So I started in a nursery at my own expense and had part-time jobs to keep the finances going.
"I did everything from being a docker, to a bus conductor and lorry driver, a coalman and a milkman. I had 2,000 chickens at one point.
"This was all while I was studying seed and plant-making and there is only so much you can do with 24 hours in a day."
He eventually opened his first nursery in Wales.
"I realised there was a niche in growing giant flowers and vegetables and that was the change in my life.
"I could break records because I was breeding the seeds."
Using the knowledge that he had learned during his studies he went on to grow the world's heaviest pumpkin in 1989, which had to be lifted by crane.
He quickly followed that with the heaviest radish at 24lbs, 6oz. While some of his records have since been beaten, he can still claim achieving 25 World and British records in his time.
"It started as a hobby and then the television got interested.
"It changes your life, once the media gets hold of you."
"I was on the The Last Resort show with Jonathan Ross; and Ian Hislop and Melvin Bragg were also on the show. I brought in this giant pumpkin that was in the Giant Veg Championships and had to get it back before the competition.
"I brought a giant marrow onto The Generation Game with Bruce Forsyth and the contestants had to guess the weight of it. Brucie was fascinated and we stayed in touch after the show."
He filmed a segment for Channel 4's The Big Breakfast with Robbie Williams, called 'One Lump or Two' where he took in a giant cabbage.
"It was just a bit of fun and Chris Evans was starting out. He was a big head and bossing people around. But Robbie Williams was great; I got on with him.
"There were hundreds of people outside the gate, which I thought was great and when I went out they were begging me to get them inside to meet Robbie!"
Bernard came to South Holland via a spell in Terrington St Clement in Norfolk working alongside Sutton's Roses.
"Reinhard Biehler, from Baytree, then said 'come down to Spalding; you can have my nursery."
That was the former nursery opposite the old Pigeon pub on Holbeach Road.
He wrote a regular piece for magazines Garden News and Amateur Gardening and produced his own books, including 'How to Grow Giant Vegetables' which gave people an insight into his know-how.
Esther Rantzen wrote the foreword to his book about growing sunflowers, in aid of Childline, and she asked him to grow a giant sunflower for her garden in London.
He was later contacted by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the then ruler of Abu Dhabi, who had heard of Bernard's talents and 'wanted to turn the desert green.'
Together with his second wife Sharon, the couple moved to Abu Dhabi, and Bernard set about attempting to realise the sheikh's dreams.
"We lived in a brand new house with a 4x4 and two maids. Everything was brilliant," he remembers.
"I looked after the palace gardens and we created about 2,000 farms. They were only about four acres but every square foot had to be irrigated because it was just sand."
Incredibly, Bernard even managed to create a forest in the desert after flying in saplings from around the world.
But after having a heart attack he decided to return to Britain.
"He (the sheikh) wanted me to come back but I said 'you only have one life.'
Today, life is quieter for Bernard. A great grandad and dad to five sons and three daughters from his two marriages, he no longer grows crops.
His hobby now is bowling and he is proud of his achievements over the years.
"I have liked taking chances and I have had a lot of luck in my life; but I don't take any offence to failure. I have enjoyed the record side of it but I have also enjoyed passing on my knowledge and seeing other people breaking records."
Among Bernard's records are:
- Heaviest marrow (1990) World and British Record - 108lbs, 2ozs (7st, 10lbs)
- Longest carrot (1987) World and British Record - 132 inches (3.35 metres), and in 1988 - 135.5 inches (3.44 metres).
- Longest parsnip (1989) World and British Record - 167 inches (4.24 metres).
- Heaviest cabbage (1989) World and British Record - 124 lbs (8st, 12lbs)
- Heaviest zuccini courgette (1990) World and British Record - 64 lbs, 8oz (4st, 8lbs)
- Tallest fuchsia (1993) World and British Record - 12ft, 11 inches (3.94m), and in 1995 - 13ft, 3 inches (4.04m).