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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