Suffolk’s prettiest homes: A medieval cottage in Dunstall Green
PUBLISHED: 15:06 07 February 2020 | UPDATED: 15:06 07 February 2020
GAP Photos/Zara Napier
A medieval Suffolk cottage provides the perfect backdrop for a magical winter garden | Words: Jackie Bennett - Photos: Gap photos/Zara Napier
Twenty years ago, St Francis Cottage stood on its own, in the middle of agricultural fields.
Now approached by a long tree-line drive and surrounded with a pretty garden, it is almost unrecognisable as the property that owner and gardener Francine Wilkins-Smith first discovered.
"The estate agents described the garden as a conservationist's paradise," she says, "meaning it was really, really wild. There were no paths or beds, but there was a sunken pond, an old hedge and a natural ditch and there was something magical about it.
"The cottage was thatched - something I had always wanted, so I didn't even want to see inside. I was sold."
Francine says she gets her gardening 'genes' from her mother who was a keen flower arranger and, as a teenager, she found herself drawn towards plants.
Her work in human resources didn't give her much chance to garden, but when she and husband Trevor moved to Suffolk she was itching to get her hands on a plot of her own.
Francine had always wanted a beamed cottage with an inglenook fireplace but Trevor is 6ft 4in tall, so a low-ceiling cottage wasn't ideal.
When resources allowed, they built a new extension, sympathetically linked to the house with an entrance of oak and glass. "At last we have somewhere that Trevor and my sons Kit and Rory (21 and 16 respectively) can stand up in," she says.
Francine set to work on the creating garden areas around the house. "I was lucky that the land wrapped right around the house, so there was lots of scope for development."
The front of the house suffered from shade cast by some old chestnut trees, but Francine says: "I work with the conditions that are here, so we planted a bank of hellebores which don't mind dryish shade and planted aconites and snowdrops under the trees."
Trevor laid out the charming herringbone brick path, which leads to the front door, and they added a low hedge of box, which looks good all year round.
Next to the front door two yews, planted when they arrived, have been coaxed into substantial two-tiered topiary.
The surprise around the back of the cottage is the natural pond, created when the original medieval builders dug out clay to make the house.
It is naturally fed by rainwater and run off from the house, garden and surrounding fields. "When we arrived, it looked like it was down in a hole," says Francine, "so by contouring the earth around it and creating flatter areas, we have been able to open this area up and create better views.
"It's lovely to sit on the terrace and watch the newts and the wild ducks who use the pond." A little boat, left by the previous owners, has provided great fun for Kit and Rory over the years.
Behind the pond, steps lead up to more planting and through to a long, wooden pergola where Francine has planted the wonderful 'Rambling Rector', a vigorous rose that needs sturdy supports.
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On the terrace, Francine has placed an array of pots, particularly clipped topiary yew and evergreens for winter interest.
Not all of the garden can be seen at first glance and a small gate leads through to an area where Francine's bantam chickens are allowed to roam freely.
Bantams, she says, are far less messy than other breeds and a good choice for smaller gardens. This grassy area also includes the wooden tree house that Trevor made for the boys - now a perfect place to store logs and display pots.
All the woodwork in the garden is painted in Farrow and Ball 'Ball Green', a soft, grey-ish green, which ties the different areas of the garden together.
Alongside gardening and bringing up two boys, Francine has turned her passion for plants into a business, and ten years ago started running courses on creative flower arranging. As the garden grew so did the courses, particularly the winter workshops on wreath-making and Christmas decorations.
"The wreath-making is just going from strength to strength. From running one a year, I now usually hold six or more to keep up with demand." Many of her clients come back year after year.
"I suspect it's as much to do with my home-made cheese scones and the fun we have as it is to create a wreath," she laughs.
Nevertheless, the workshops of around eight people provide all the materials and knowledge needed to create a stunning door wreath.
"I like to change it up a little, so some years we do a traditional reds and greens and other years we do something more contemporary with blues, greys and silvers."
The December workshops are timed for when there is plenty of fresh foliage around in the garden. "I can usually get all the ivy I need from the garden and that is a really useful base foliage, particularly with berries. Much easier to work than prickly holly.
"I do also cut my variegated holly, which has fewer spines, but the tree is starting to look a bit bare. Sometimes I do have to go 'scrumping' in friends' gardens and some materials I buy in, such as pine cones, which I dye red to make them 'glow'.
"Each year is a different theme of colours, natural materials and décor." Collecting material for winter festivities is always a treat. For Francine it is part of her business, but also a great pleasure.
"When I step into the garden I feel any pressures of life evaporate. I am so lucky to live in this haven of wildlife and peace. It feeds my creativity in the garden, floral designs and workshops. Quite honestly I couldn't live without the garden."
See Francine's website for details of seasonal flower arranging workshops, decorating your home for Christmas and wedding flowers, francinesflowers.co.uk.