Gallery: Bernard's garden paradise

When Bernard Tickner bought his house in 1958 there was no garden to speak of - just rough pasture.

Steven Russell

When Bernard Tickner bought his house in 1958 there was no garden to speak of - just rough pasture. Half a century later it's seven acres of horticultural wonder. Steven Russell gazes on in awe

MANY of the good things in life happen by chance, rather than exhaustive planning and execution, and Bernard Tickner's garden paradise is one of them. He was born and raised in Hadleigh, where “up until 16 it was an idyllic life of lanes and farmland”. As a young man he joined the Greene King brewery - would rise to become a director - and in the 1950s found himself living in a flat in Bury St Edmunds. He hankered after something more rural. “I had always wanted to live in the countryside, preferably by water, and I looked at an old gamekeeper's cottage which is now demolished, but which was where the (West Stow) country park is now. But it was hopeless; you would have had to have started again,” explains the octogenarian.

“Then I remembered I knew some people in West Stow. They'd said 'If you ever come to the village, come and look us up.' And they said 'Oh well; if you're wanting somewhere to live, why don't you buy this? We're going to west Africa.' And we settled it over a cup of tea.”

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Mind you, it wasn't a snip. Bernard paid �1,550, which included an extra �50 for an acre of land on the other side of the river. “I was sorely pressed to raise that,” he says of the total sum.

The cottage alongside the River Lark dated from about 1650 and had been owned by the Cadogan Estate until 1936.

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There were no amazing flowerbeds in 1958. Everything at Fullers Mill Garden has been created by Bernard over 48 years - cultivated from inhospitable Forestry Commission woodland bought bit by bit.

“There was no garden at all. I own all the mistakes,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “I never inherited anyone else's.” He developed The Island first - between the River Lark and Culford Stream - and later bought land nearer the cottage to create the Forbidden Garden, now known as the Top Garden. That area was once planted with poplar trees by the Forestry Commission for the matchstick industry

He's had a succession of mostly part-time people - invariably former farmworkers who knew how to handle tools - to help create and maintain the gardens. “I've still got two of what I call my 'good old boys', both younger than I am!” There's now also a head gardener - the first ever. Neil Bradfield is on placement during his last year of practical experience before qualifying through The Professional Gardeners' Guild.

“The people I took it over from said 'If you put a fiver in a wheelbarrow, a chap comes once a week and he'll do a day's gardening for you.' They said he was a converted tramp who used to take the bus to Flempton and walk along the river. I never saw him, never saw any work, but I saw the fiver disappear!

“I left a note for him after about a month of this. I asked him to do some digging and he wrote 'Autumn-time time for digging . . . see you later on.' I never saw sign of him at all!”

Bernard himself is entirely self-taught. “It's been a gradual process. At one time I read all the books and was told I ought to have a plan and draw it all out. When I came to plant it, I scrapped it - it never worked. So I've always planted, hopefully, plants that are suitable for the aspect and the soil - then built on that to create vistas, and introduced other plants to contrast and complement what's already been achieved.

“Experience builds through the years. My great source of inspiration is Beth Chatto's garden (at Elmstead Market, near Colchester). Being colour-blind, I'm more interested in the sculptural quality of a plant. After all, for most of the time it doesn't bloom. I get complimented on my colour scheme, and I accept fully the compliment, but it's quite by chance! Show me an unknown plant and I don't know whether it's pink or blue.”

There's always been a strong element of green-fingergness, but it had to emerge in its own time. “My father was a great gardener, though I hated it as a child because I always had to do this and that. When you've got your own, you can enact all your ideas.”

In 2004 Bernard transferred the gardens to a charitable trust to safeguard its long-term future.

The expense of maintaining such a garden lies in the labour. “I'm in the fortunate position of being able to gift-aid that to the trust, which pays for the head gardener. And assuming all my Greene King shares don't go down the drain, I'm hoping they'll continue to pay for the garden in the future!”

As a director of the company, Bernard's primary responsibilities concerned production, distribution and industrial relations: “quite a heavy portfolio”. Greene King at that time operated five breweries, at Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Biggleswade, Baldock and Furneux Pelham in Hertfordshire. In the 1960s, industrial relations took up much energy. “I used to regard this” - the garden - “as where my work was, and brewing as a paid hobby,” he smiles.

Fullers Mill Garden draws visitors from far and wide, such as garden groups from America and Hampshire, to name but two places. Bernard and the trust want people to see what's there, but not all at once! “It's a garden of intimate character; it's not suitable for large numbers.” There are no great expanses of open land, for instance, and the pathways are generally narrow. Private visits by individuals and groups - by prior arrangement - are thus particularly encouraged.

The garden is, really, his lifetime achievement, Bernard agrees. “My job now is to work jointly with Neil. He's very quick on the uptake and understands the ethos of what this garden is about.”

In fact, the head gardener wrote a piece about the place, highlighting its “hidden, other-worldly quality of meandering paths and borders filled with beauty and tranquillity” - which captures its character perfectly.

BERNARD Tickner - known by many locals, apparently, as “him wot lives over the 'eath” - can't begin to guess how many species there are in his garden. A small team from Suffolk Plant Heritage is cataloguing the beds, “and then of course I mess it up by planting something. For them, it's like painting the Forth Bridge!”

If Fullers Mill Garden specialises in anything, it's lilies. There are 70 or 80 types. There are also numerous euphorbias. One, Euphorbia Redwing, was a chance hybrid that came to light in the garden. Propagating rights were granted to Notcutts and earn royalties.

Bernard admits to “the embarrassment” of having a plant named after him: Fritillaria pyrenaica Bernard Tickner, from the Pyrenees. He introduced the fritillary about 30 years ago “and distributed it gently”. His wife also had a plant named after her after finding a particular white iris in Crete.

Fullers Mill Garden is bordered by West Stow Country Park, the village itself, Lackford Lakes nature reserve and the Forestry Commission's King's Forest - whose name honours the 1935 silver jubilee of King George and Queen Mary.

The soil is light and sandy, so it's heavily mulched. Parts of the garden grow beneath permeable matting that conserves moisture and helps combat weeds.

A quick stroll highlights the huge variety. Bernard points out honeysuckle from Greece, an elegant Arum idaeum from Crete that appears on the front of the garden leaflet, some spectacular thyme and a hardy begonia. Head gardener Neil, originally a volunteer here, has created a path “and a rather romantic grove” by silver birch trees. There are numerous varieties of willow, some of which we wouldn't recognise as such, and a big witch-hazel that's full of bloom in January/February. Varieties of snowdrop are in bloom from October through to March.

Next to the mill pond are two areas with odd names. When work started on the first of these, the section was known as the New Garden. “As time went on, we thought we couldn't keep calling it that. But what to call it? It was something of a quandary. So that became the name: The Quandary! Then we developed another garden the other side of the fence, and that became the Outer Quandary.”

The Outer Quandary is home to the garden's biggest euphorbia. It's from the Azores but is fully-hardy in Suffolk. Bernard also points out a plant said to be the burning bush of Biblical fame. It gives off a volatile oil. “On a very hot, still day, if you put a match there, it will shimmer for a moment.”

On the lake are two swans with their cygnet. They've been a pair for eight years, says Bernard, and are named after old aunts and uncles: Basil - an architect who designed the borough offices on Angel Hill, Bury St Edmunds - and Vi.

Fullers Mill Garden - a brief guide

The Island and Mill Pond: Originally called Lock Meadow

Became an island, effectively, when a new channel was dug to raise the bed of the River Lark

The Strip: Given to Fullers Mill when gravel was extracted in 1974, forming the lake. The lake itself was bought later

Bernard donated the original 11-hectare reserve to Suffolk Wildlife Trust in 1976. In 2000 RMC Group gave a further 90 hectares

A fulling mill? One stood here as long ago as 1458. Fulling made cloth thicker by passing it through a series of water-wheel-driven wooden mallets and making it “felted”. The cloth was dried on flat ground, secured by tenterhooks to stop it shrinking

Fullers Mill Garden is on Icklingham Road between West Stow Village and West Stow Country Park

Phone 0870 8030248


Public open days in 2009 (Sundays, 2pm to 5pm) -

August 16

September 20

Dogs not permitted in the gardens

Children must be under the close supervision of an adult

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