Fuller’s Mill – a review by Helen Seal

November 6, 2015

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

Garden reviews at their best raise interesting questions which take their interest beyond the immediate garden being reviewed.

For me this review by Helen Seal had me wondering about that critical second visit – how much does it change our initial reactions?

And – yes, the Roy Strong effect: how much does it affect our perception of a garden if we fall in love a little with a charming owner? Never mind if you get tea and cake. (see also Darryl Moore’s review of Plas Metaxu)

Anne Wareham, editor

portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes







Helen Seal:

Fuller’s Mill is an exceptionally good garden. In April little marred the pleasure of discovering a well planted, choice collection of plants in a setting of wood and wetland. So I returned five months later to see if I was still delighted. I was – but recognised that in the first flush of excitement I’d overlooked a few minor niggles.

It is essentially a private garden shared with the public for just three hours on three afternoons a week from April to September. Immediately it feels more intimate and personal than the more visited gardens run by institutions. It’s like Beth Chatto’s some decades ago without the people and the nursery. I felt a privileged visitor to Bernard Tickner’s outdoor home, a feeling strengthened by actually being welcomed by him in the small tearoom at the entrance. Anne Wareham calls this the Roy Strong effect.

Copyright Nicola Rotton www.bloom-and-blossom.co.uk

Bernard Tickner charms his visitors

Now ninety and with failing eyesight, he thoroughly enjoys meeting keen gardeners and talking plants with them. He even joined us for part of our visit, remembering from whom he’d obtained plants, laughing at his past follies, and leading us to plants he thought would be of interest – and they were.

And this is why it’s difficult to separate out the visitor experience and the quality of the garden. Things like a genuine warm welcome, excellent tea and cake and even a useful garden leaflet all make for a happy visit and this colours the critical analysis. I wonder if perhaps I saw the garden as if with his partial eyes, influenced by his affection for his favourite plants. When I come across less common plants which I happen to recognise, I feel a mixture of surprise and satisfaction. When I come across some I don’t recognise, I feel curiosity and excitement. So I am predisposed to be delighted by a garden with a plenty of both, particularly if they are well placed and grown.

The garden is a modern period piece, second half of twentieth century style – flowing beds separated by grass paths, high canopy sheltering spaced shrubs with carpet understory. No garden rooms, no formal straight lines, symmetry or topiary, no prairie or meadow planting, no play with tender perennials or bedding.

It doesn’t try to do everything nor keep up with current fashions. It lacks the self-consciousness of the professionally designed garden as it evolved into its site and was shaped by the basic ecological requirements of the desired plants. The persistent direction of one person over time has given the garden its integrity. Bernard was supported by his wife while she was alive, and the gardeners too of course, but I got the sense that the garden is his vision. You can see why it reminds me of Chatto’s.


Over the last nearly sixty years the garden has been reclaimed piecemeal from the Forestry Commission plantings (intended for matchsticks Bernard told us, and made redundant by the zip lighter), and it still nestles in woodland. Through it runs the River Lark, which was used to run the mill from the fifteenth century and still rushes into mill ponds. To the south old gravel workings are flooded, providing habitat for water fowl. It’s as if the garden is set in a nature reserve, where the peace is broken by the reverberating sound of swans beating the water, and delicious blackcap song.

Other wild creatures enhance a garden less, and deer are excluded by a tall wire fence, that in a few places detracts from the view. It’s easier for the garden to merge into the treed landscape than the watery one; an aspect which could be better developed in the future. Perhaps this fence is to stop the visitors falling in the water.

IMG_1314 Copyright Nicola Rotton www.bloom-and-blossom.co.uk

Functional fencing

The open lawn by the house features Cercis trees with wide collars of radially marked verdigris paving, which I rather liked as a practical solution to the issues of protecting trees from the competition of grass, and mowing gardeners from twigs in the eye. (I find small tree circles in lawns visually absurd, particularly if planted with bulbs.)

IMG_1301 Copyright Nicola Rotton www.bloom-and-blossom.co.uk

Verdigris tree circles

The slope to the river is put to use in a long bank of alpines all well tended and mulched. In fact one of the joys of the spring visit was the standard of horticulture. Over the previous weeks there must have been much barrowing by the staff of two full and one part time gardener, and several volunteers. The beds are either deeply mulched with wood chip or fine grit, and few weeds show, just the odd skinny goosegrass. (goosegrass succeeds in surviving just about anything. ed.) Edges cut smooth and crisp.

IMG_1273 Copyright Nicola Rotton www.bloom-and-blossom.co.uk

Mulched bed and resident mulch disturber, one of several free range bantams


Thoughtfulness pervades. It is rare to see shrubs planted with sufficient space to show their distinctive structure and form, and enhanced by the colourings and textures of the herbaceous carpet. Many have already been pruned to fit the space, occasionally with stumpy results. Bernard wryly pointed out that everyone plants Parrotia persica too close to the path, including him, and he had to divert the path to accommodate it. Inevitably there will be other accommodations to make as trees and shrubs mature over the next decade.

IMG_1286 Copyright Nicola Rotton www.bloom-and-blossom.co.uk

Typical mixed underplanting

Although Bernard is a collector (proud of the 70 odd Euphorbia and many Lilium), he has spread these collections so that each plant sits well in its micro-environment. In the spring I felt the garden avoided that jumbley, squashed feel of the myopic collector’s garden, but in the late summer I noticed a few beds had new plantings of unconnected singletons, which I doubt would merge into a harmonious group. I enjoy the bold, flowing lines of shrub roses and dahlias in the older beds, and want these new dots to be similarly joined together.

It is a wonderfully diverse collection of plants and if you are curious to see Sambucus cvs well-used and curtailed; a prostrate Gingko biloba; a filiform Broussonetia; Exochorda but not ‘the Bride’ and the glistening silken white Lysichiton camtschatcensis at the water’s edge, you’d enjoy Fuller’s Mill. The garden continues to develop and new forms and cultivars have been added in recent years. The scope for new additions must now be limited without significant re-working of beds.

Mercifully plants are labelled, but discretely ie the labels are small and sometimes hidden, but we were invited to step on the beds to read them. (I wonder if this will continue once the garden becomes better known?). Not all plants are collector’s items, some are common like Vinca minor, but it grows dense and luscious. Bernard’s not a sentimental gardener: lilies are protect by Provado, hostas by slug pellets, and should the deer swim in and stay, they are shot.

The garden has all been planted in Bernard’s time, and now benefits from high canopy, but as it matured it has been rejuvenated, with many trees cut to the base and others reduced, or left as roughly textured columns. By the later visit, I’d decided I liked these sentinels, and the decision not to hide them beneath climbers.

IMG_1327 Copyright Nicola Rotton www.bloom-and-blossom.co.uk

Tree columns

The garden’s future has been assured by the formation of the Fuller’s Mill Trust, gifted to Perennial which is now demonstrating its commitment by starting a gardening apprenticeship there. Bernard continues to fund the garden, supported by the active but small friend’s group.

The visitor can leave with a couple of plants, not the scruffy spares of thugs sometimes offered (I could have bought a Stipa gigantea from a Cambridge college recently)(I’d have had that..ed.), but less common Euphorbia sikhimiensis. and Sinacalia tanguitica. Most of all I left wanting to visit again – surely a true commendation.

Colin Trudge in The Secret Life of Trees defines connoisseurship as combining knowledge and love, each enhancing each other, and this garden is one where I felt I was learning to be a connoisseur of plants and of gardens.

Helen Seal, professional gardener, with photos by Nicola Rotton of Bloom and Blossom

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Cherie Lebbon November 8, 2015 at 5:27 pm

It was mentioned that this garden was situated on the river Lark, it made me wonder whether it was one of those that I’d taken a voyueristic peek at, as we’d passed by on our voyage along that waterway earlier in the year.
I must admit that the planting shown in the photographs didn’t make me immediately feel I should take a trip over there but if I were passing I think I’d make the effort to go and make my own assessment. One of the things I so enjoy about the reviews here are the introductions to new gardens to visit.

annewareham November 8, 2015 at 10:54 pm

I’m glad they take you to new gardens. Excellent.

John November 8, 2015 at 1:04 pm

The comments are interesting, particularly the one (as I write) dissenting view. There is only one garden that I have visited which I actually dislike and will not visit again (though I made two visits merely to confirm my initial impression). There is another edifice of a place that leaves me cold but I don’t necessarily dislike it. And I wouldn’t judge a garden on a few photographs or even a review (as people have different opinions and “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”). There will usually be some element of a garden that I dislike but that doesn’t mean the whole entity is bad. What matters is what the garden keeper (the owner more than the designer) intended and how that vision has been realised. So often a lack of maintenance (often due to a lack of resources) messes up that concept and the garden loses something for that – Rousham is an example.

That said, I like the mixed underplanting – that’s my style! Would you criticise a wildflower meadow because it’s a total mess of all sorts of different plants and colours and textures that simply happen to be wild? Nature’s a mix. And who has never bought a plant, got home and ended up shoving it in the only bare bit of earth they can find and planting plans be damned?

annewareham November 8, 2015 at 1:24 pm

“Would you criticise a wildflower meadow because it’s a total mess of all sorts of different plants and colours and textures that simply happen to be wild” – the effect of a meadow is totally different to ‘mixed underplanting’.

What’s so terrible about making a judgement about a garden on photographs? Of course they are not the whole story (plenty about that on thinkingardens (see http://thinkingardens.co.uk/articles/garden-photographs-some-problems-by-rory-stuart/) – but I’d be astonished if I was wrong about this garden. This garden is described as having integrity, so I may assume that what is shown has some accurate relation to the whole.

The fact that you like so many gardens, John, doesn’t suggest that you are terribly discerning? So maybe we shouldn’t look to you for judgement?


John November 8, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Please read what I said more carefully. One garden I dislike, another that leaves me cold. Yes there are a fair few I like. But there are many more that I neither like nor dislike, though within that group there are many which I’ve felt I was wasting my time visiting. For example I don’t like Rousham. But I don’t dislike it. Just think that part of it has been lost. The review sparks my interest in Fuller’s Mill, of which I hadn’t previously heard. But I won’t yet form an opinion of it.

I’m fully aware that mixed underplanting and wildflower meadows are totally different in all sorts of ways. But if you don’t like the LOOK of something – you were judging from a photograph – then it becomes visual. I can’t make out the detail but there may well have been pollinator-attracting plants there, for example. From a purely visual perspective, a meadow is a similar riot of mixed things.

Gardens are created for the enjoyment of their creators. As a visitor who is neither designer nor critic (thank God) nor particularly adept at transforming his thoughts into writing, I approach a garden from two perspectives: (1) does it “give” me anything and (2) how does it “deliver” on the intentions of it’s creator (which does not mean any designer who the creator employed). Where I can, I try to research the garden before I visit. And where I can, which is more rare, I try to visit in the rain.

annewareham November 8, 2015 at 5:29 pm

OK – we have different preoccupations. XX

John November 8, 2015 at 8:07 pm

Hugs. Tho I have no doubt we’ll continue this chat elsewhere! xxxx

annewareham November 8, 2015 at 10:53 pm

I know! Xx

annewareham November 8, 2015 at 12:24 pm

I’m clearly the only person who finds this garden – as seen here (haven’t visited) depressingly formless, random (see ‘mixed underplanting’) and plant obsessed.

Perhaps inevitably old fashioned? That must come upon all of us as gardens take so long to mature, but this is the kind of garden that seemed ubiquitous when I started making a garden and was clear I didn’t want one like that.

Deb H November 8, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Sounds like my sort of garden – unpretentious and ever-evolving. How lovely to be able to ensure its future by forming a trust. I agree a second visit can change one’s perception of a garden, but unless it was truly awful and/or over-priced it wouldn’t put me off visiting again. A good cup of tea and cake almost always makes up for any minor niggles!

Katherine Crouch November 6, 2015 at 6:29 pm

well that certainly must be one on my visit list, a garden very much to my taste. Much as I may find fault with elements of a garden, I fear I am utterly spineless and avoid mentioning any shortcomings to an owner who has gone to the trouble of inviting me. If they are charming and offer me cake as well, all critical faculties go to pieces completely. Of course, being British, I usually have a private moan on the way home. I take a garden visiting friend with me for that very purpose.

Derry Watkins November 6, 2015 at 5:24 pm

A lovely garden. You can feel the love it has had. Completely his garden, made for his pleasure, but part of his pleasure is your pleasure. A delightful man and a serious plantsman. Go now before its too late

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