Mark Sarah is used to making people happy.
Cockington Green Gardens, the longtime family business founded by his parents, Doug and Brenda, is now welcoming second and even third-generation visitors into the maze of gardens and miniature buildings that have been a quirky Canberra icon since 1972.
It warms Mark’s heart to see grandparents wandering through with their grandchildren as the steam train gently toots in the background and the resident magpies sing.
Named after a quaint English village near Torquay in Devon, the international displays ranging from Argentina to Ukraine are flourishing, the original half-timbered village display (complete with miniature soccer match) and the Rose Room with its 34-room Georgian-style doll’s house are all welcoming visitors again, just as the Sarah family hoped.
Lockdown closed the gates at Cockington Green Gardens for a record 186 days. Mark says he was very appreciative of the government support that enabled him to keep his team together, undertaking vital maintenance work that kept the gardens in order until Cockington Green Gardens could open again.
“After the last lockdown, we made sure that every cent we earned went into the bank and sat there until we thought we’d be closed again. Everyone pulled together when that happened. It was an amazing effort,” he says.
A long-running family business gives you perspective, though. Mark says Cockington Green Gardens has survived everything from the pilots strike in the late-80s to the Black Summer bushfires in 2020.
“We’d built a special extension on the cafe and we used to put on Sunday roast lunches for, of all things, touring groups of Canadian farmers,” he recalls.
“The strike put paid to that, then we went through mad cow disease, SARS, you name it. We’ve never in the past had a day where there wasn’t a single customer through until the last two years.”
Although the local rabbits briefly flourished in the empty gardens, Mark says there have been many silver linings, including two years of glorious, soaking rain that has done a world of good for the trees and a sense that the whole city has been washed clean.
Resilience and wellbeing are important to Mark, who is open about his own experiences with mental health issues and ready to help and mentor others. He feels a strong responsibility towards his staff, noting that employees also become your family in a family business.
“Lobbing into a time like lockdown, I was probably a little ahead of a few people because I already had a lot of self-care practices in place”, he says. “We put a lot of effort into just making sure our team was up to the experience, and I think, on the whole, we’ve been extremely lucky.
“But it just puts a huge smile back on your face to see the place full of happy people, parents and little kids who are seeing the Cockington Green Gardens magic again.”
Mark says the Canberra tourism industry is optimistic and also very collegial. He has new projects on his radar and is working through ACT tourism grants that have been on hold until Cockington Green Gardens could re-open.
“I work on things that my father worked on, that my grandfather worked on,” he says. “That means so much to me, to be carrying on a family legacy.
“We make people happy – I’ve done that for my living for many, many years, and I hope I can for many years to come.”