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GARDENS: Fullers Mill near Bury St Edmunds

PUBLISHED: 12:36 12 August 2014 | UPDATED: 12:36 12 August 2014

Suffolk Magazine feature garden - Fullers Mill, West Stow. Left to right, Annie Dellbridge (head gardener), Bernard Tickner and Heather Medcraft.

Suffolk Magazine feature garden - Fullers Mill, West Stow. Left to right, Annie Dellbridge (head gardener), Bernard Tickner and Heather Medcraft.

Lucy Redman meets veteran plantsman Bernard Tickner

Suffolk Magazine feature garden - Fullers Mill, West Stow.Suffolk Magazine feature garden - Fullers Mill, West Stow.

Five miles north-west of Bury St Edmunds, backing on to Lackford Lakes and just half a mile from West Stow Anglo Saxon village, is the seven-acre Fullers Mill Garden.

Driving up the long Forestry Commission track you wonder if you are in the right place. There are tall pines and last year an amazing display of pretty pink foxgloves, which had thrived in the damp conditions of the previous summer. There is a feeling of arriving at a very special almost ‘secret’ garden. Finally you see the gateposts and realise there must be a house beyond!

Fullers Mill Garden is a real plantsman’s garden, packed with rare and unusual plants chosen for their form and texture. Bernard Tickner has spent over 50 years creating this gem, gathering plants from trips abroad, particularly to Greece and Cyprus. The undulating curvaceous borders intertwine either side of the River Lark, which thunders through the garden adding drama.

Bernard is a fascinating man who grew up in Hadleigh. near Ipswich. His interest in wildlife began at the age of six or seven, when he fell under the spell of the photographer Cherry Kearton, whose books of animal illustrations he loved. He later read they had also inspired David Attenborough – who is two years younger than Bernard.

Suffolk Magazine feature garden - Fullers Mill, West Stow. Lilium - Pardilinum.Suffolk Magazine feature garden - Fullers Mill, West Stow. Lilium - Pardilinum.

He had huge fun collecting birds’ eggs and moths, which in those days seemed to be part of the learning one went through when living in the country, although indefensible in today’s ecological outlook. With his early love of animals he might have made a career as a vet, but his uncle was the joint managing director of Greene King in Bury St Edmunds. Bernard had spent a lot of time in the brewery in the holidays so when his uncle asked him whether he would like to become a brewer, he jumped at the chance.

After four years in the army, two of them in East Africa, he went off to university to study brewing. Following this he got a job as an under brewer at Truman’s Brewery, Burton on Trent, returning eventually to become head brewer at Greene King, where he developed Abbot Ale.

Bernard and his late wife, Bess, moved to Fullers Mill in 1958 and created the amazing garden from rough scrub and woodland. There has been a fulling mill at the site since at least 1458, originally on the south bank between the river and the mill pond. The process of fulling was used to make a cloth thicker, by passing the cloth through a series of wooden mallets, driven by the water wheel. It was then put out to dry on a flat piece of ground called the tentering ground, and secured by tenter hooks to prevent shrinkage. The mill has gone, but the pretty pink riverside cottage that Bernard lives in was built originally for the fuller in about 1650.

As there was no garden, Bernard’s first thought was to establish a lawn, so ordered 15-20 lorry loads of soil – the washings from the sugar beet factory and a good cheap local source. Bernard says his garden is not designed, but has evolved.

Suffolk Magazine feature garden - Fullers Mill, West Stow. Pictured is Bernard Tickner.Suffolk Magazine feature garden - Fullers Mill, West Stow. Pictured is Bernard Tickner.

The boundaries and three beautiful oak trees, each aged 200-250 years old, naturally dictated the space and he went round on a garden tractor roughly laying out paths. As Bernard is red/green colour blind it is the effect of the foliage and plants’ sculptural qualities that interest him. He seeks a natural feel to the garden, which I think he has achieved in spadefuls. The recycled mash tun plates create effective surrounds to specimen plants such as a standard wisteria and are a nod to his brewing background.

It is a joy to wander around the garden with Bernard who has not only a great sense of humour, but a story for nearly every plant we look at. In early spring the delicate purple glades of Crocus tommasinianus look amazing drifting underneath the silver birch and the snowdrops start flowering early, with Galanthus reginae-olgae grown from bulbs collected by Bernard in Greece.

A true amethyst purple flower is produced by the parasitic Lathraea clandestina or Purple Toothwort, which feeds off the base of the willow and alders. There are several different species of ilex in the garden and the tight form of I. myrtifolia creates a good foil to other plants. As spring kicks in, the pond plants look amazing with the bold Lysichiton camtchatcensis, White Skunk Cabbage whose brilliant white spathes are followed by robust, bright green leaves which contrast with delicate drifts of candelabra Primula beesiana and P. florindae.

One of Bernard’s favourite genus is Euphorbia and one that was a chance seedling in the garden is E. ‘Redwing’, so called because in winter the ‘nose’ of the plant becomes red during a good cold winter. It flowers for Mothers Day when it sells very well in garden centres and earns some good royalties for the garden each year.

Lilies abound at Fullers Mill. Bernard is a member of the RHS Lily Group and it is amazing to hear about one called Lake Tulare, which he acquired from the late breeder Derek Fox 25 years ago. It is still flowering thanks to lifting the clump in autumn every few years, splitting it up and replanting in fertile, well-drained soil. It will continue to produce its delicate pink turkscap, nodding flowers held aloft on slender stems dotted throughout the woodland borders with other martagon and regale Lilies.

There are delights to behold every month at Fullers Mill. Bernard’s plant knowledge is huge and I am like a child in a sweet shop talking plants to him. It is a happy team of staff run by head gardener Annie Dellbridge, assisted by an army of 15 volunteers. What a special place this garden is, where people just want to spend their free time with the plants, glean some of Bernard’s plant knowledge or hear a few stories.

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