IT IS a modest ambition: to live somewhere nice with a garden. Ken Fawell counts himself among the lucky ones who have achieved it.
Growing up in a mining village in Co Durham, he learned to garden from a young age. It started a love of cultivation that he took with him through his working life, and to Carmichael Mill, on the banks of the River Clyde, to where he moved 23 years ago with his family.
There has been a mill of sorts at Carmichael, near Lanark, for 1,000 years, despite the efforts of the Clyde to wash it away. The river has swept through mills all along its path, but has failed to shift this one, or the archaeological remains which prove water power was in use at Carmichael from the 12th century.
Today, the Fawells’ riverside gardens surround Clydesdale’s only working water-powered grain mill. Spread around a collection of buildings stretching back centuries, the garden was bare when Ken, his wife Chris and daughter Gemma arrived. Ken was working as an agricultural health and safety inspector when he first saw Carmichael, during a visit to a nearby farm. He asked to have a look at the mill and made an offer for it. It was weeks from demolition. “The whole place had been mothballed,” he says. “We wanted to retain the machinery, but create a house around it.” A channel, or lade, was cleared for water from the river, and the wheel was refitted with paddles to turn once again.
Ken is the chairman of Clydesdale Mills Society. The work of the charity can involve tough battles against owners not willing to invest in the historical value of mills, or developers keen to see them swept away for housing. “When the mills ceased to function they became something to sell. But the sites are still there and they tell a story,” he says.
The Fawells now live in their mill, which has a sack hoist at its centre and an informal museum of antique machinery. The river is also the power behind an extremely productive garden. Ken and Chris planted everything that is there today.
The path of the upper Clyde was historically known as Scotland’s garden, and the area has strong roots in horticulture, in spite of being exposed and prone to heavy rain. Gardening on the banks of the Clyde could be seen as a challenge. The buildings are scored with high watermarks from floods over the centuries – one in 1782 reached more than 5ft.
The river has flooded the garden twice this winter, but the water rises and falls, instead of travelling across the land. Rich nutrients are left behind. “It’s alluvial silt in the vegetable garden and that’s why it does so well, and I can’t argue with that. We don’t suffer because of the floods, but the frosts and winds do damage the garden. Two hard winters have sorted things out – this winter two poplars fell into the river. But come summer you don’t notice as everything fills in,” says Ken.
Despite the frequently saturated land, the Fawells have been able to establish bone-dry habitats among the vast range of plants. Aside from thousands of daffodils, there are shrubs and a vegetable garden, fruit trees, herbaceous and perennial plants, a pond and swathes of celandines and marsh marigolds spread over the banks – all benefiting from the river.
More than 200 ornamental trees include flowering cherries, rowans, acers and sycamores. Shrubs include an unusual miniature lilac and spireas with spectacular foliage. The massive range of wildlife now attracted to the garden includes otters and 70 species of bird including kingfishers, herons, cormorants and nesting swans.
As the path winds down towards the river, patches of candelabra and cowslip primulas clothe the ground. Ken says the candelabras in particular have attracted a reputation. Forsythia brings some of that yellow cheer to face height along the path, and contrasting with it are the delicate pink of the cherry trees and the rich purple of a Daphne mezereum.
By the time the walk crosses a pond that Ken happily admits has ceased to be ornamental, home to much frogspawn, daffodils light up the path. He has lost count of the narcissus varieties, but the thousands in flower now – with many more to come – include miniatures, orange cups, white-centred and classic yellow trumpet.
Celandines and marsh marigolds cover the bank of the lade running back to the Clyde. These spread naturally in their damp surrounding, and “nature does it better than I could”, says Ken. Nature has also sown a plum tree, whose delicate white flowers give a prelude to the nearby fruit and vegetable garden. After a couple of decent days of weather, Ken couldn’t wait to begin this year’s produce and has already sown early potatoes. “Lanarkshire was known as the garden of Scotland, and this garden produces the goods as far as I am concerned.”
The contorted branches of a corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’), also known as Harry Lauder’s walking stick, guard the path leading up to a busy greenhouse. Here, Ken raises many plants from seed.
One of the few plants he has trouble with is the iris. “You’d think they’d romp away, but bearded irises are not good here, maybe something to do with the acid soil. But apart from that, most of the trees and shrubs are hardy enough. The wind and frosts see to that. In fact, the garden needs thinning.”
Because his background is agricultural, Ken’s garden work is all mechanised. He has a rotavator for the vegetable garden and strimmers for the grass, but the machines are not there to create precision. “Wildlife appreciates the roughness. If you’re going to have an informal garden you can’t be precise. I learned that from working with farmers – you have to work with nature.” He uses the river water for the driest parts of the garden – mounds from the digging of lades now form small hills for dry-loving herbaceous planting. Using plants which like the conditions, such as the damp-loving candelabra primulas, has helped things to thrive.
The river still comes into the mill’s lowest floor, like a familiar guest who needs no invite. As far as the Fawells are concerned, that’s just what’s meant to happen. “It’s a brilliant place to live,” adds Ken, “even in the depths of winter.”
• Carmichael Mill, just off the A73 Lanark to Biggar road east of Hyndford Bridge, is open under Scotland’s Gardens on request (01555 665 880)