Fullers Mill is a labour of love for Bernard Tickner
PUBLISHED: 14:29 24 October 2016
Bernard Tickner, creator of Fullers Mill garden at West Stow, was destined for the world of brewing, until gardening took over his life. Jane Crowe meets the man whose approach to gardens and conservation inspired a generation
I have always thought it a great privilege to be invited into someone’s garden, get to know its creator, and then be allowed to write about the whole experience. So, imagine my delight when on meeting Bernard Tickner, creator of that wondrous garden at Fullers Mill, West Stow, I found we had a special place in common. This venerable plantsman, brewer and philanthropist started his horticultural career hoeing sugar beet on the farm that I now call home. As we talked, his memories came flooding back, and rural life in our small village before the war became vividly alive.
As a lad in the 1930s Bernard spent his holidays working on Mr Mudd’s Farm at Shelley, cycling from Hadleigh with his lunch and cold tea, to be at work by seven, joining a gang of 10 or 12 working in the fields. If they weren’t ‘singling’ sugar beet, they would be ‘thistling’ cereals, with an ingenious thistling tool. Mr Mudd would patrol his fields on horseback, keeping an eye on his men.
At other times, Bernard picked apples at Town Farm in Hadleigh, cycling past that rather notorious colony at Benton End – in those days artists were considered risky company. Years later, after the war, Bernard was to become a frequent visitor there and knew Cedric Morris, the renowned plantsman and artist, very well. Bernard would row his boat along the Brett from Benton End to Layham, and recalls the felling of a tall chimney at Layham Mill, being in awe as the huge structure came crashing down.
During the war he signed up for the Home Guard, then joined the regular army in 1942 at the age of 18, serving in Africa. Returning home he went to university to study the science of brewing, then to Burton on Trent to become a junior brewer, before joining Greene King as second brewer. Brewing became his life, until gardening took over.
There was no garden to speak of when Bernard first came to Fullers Mill in 1958, and he had very little horticultural knowledge. His land was surrounded by woodland and covered in fearsome brambles and scrub, but two delightful rivers ran through it, the Lark and the Culford Stream, and there was a mill pond near the house to be reclaimed. With unbridled enthusiasm, a great deal of trial and error, the help of a tractor, heavy equipment from the brewery and the constant study of the best garden literature, his garden began to evolve into the superb place it is today.
There may be water in abundance around the mill, but the land is sheltered and exceptionally well drained, so ideal for growing Mediterranean plants. Bernard and his late wife, Bess, travelled widely throughout Europe, especially to Crete, in search of the rare and unusual, filling their garden with a tapestry of carefully chosen plants. This deep understanding of where plants originate is the basis of their garden’s success.
Nowadays, wandering through the labyrinth of meandering paths, around the pond and over the bridges, one is constantly delighted by the tranquil beauty of the place. For the plant aficionado there is so much to admire, and a layman would need the complete RHS Gardener’s Encyclopedia to identify them all.
But when the gardens are open to the public, in spite of his advancing years, Bernard will often be found walking amongst his plants, deep in conversation with his visitors, answering their questions and sharing his enthusiasm.
Long before conservation became the domain of EU initiatives, Bernard, along with the East Anglian Daily Times, sponsored a competition to encourage conservation projects within the parishes of Suffolk. It was a further delight to discover that, about 30 years ago, he and his panel of judges, who included Martin Sandford, author of The Flora of Suffolk, and the conservation manager of the Wildlife Trust, awarded the prize to All Saints, Shelley, for the floral diversity in the churchyard. This is my local church and the legacy is still very much in evidence today, cherished by parishioners and visitors alike. Until now, I had no idea of the inspiration behind it.
Meeting Bernard Tickner is a rare privilege and a great pleasure. One can only give thanks that his unique creation will live on into the future – a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.
The Tickners formed The Fullers Mill Trust in 2004 to preserve it for posterity. It has now been gifted to Perenial, the Gardeners Royal Benevolent Society, but is still fully funded by its founder.
Fullers Mill Trust Gardens,
Bury St Edmunds,