Create an autumn rainbow

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Pink anemones, blue aconitums, grasses, autumn foliage and berries create a colour display. Helen Billiald explains how to get the look

None of us wants to wave goodbye to summer. Gardeners up and down the land are intent on coaxing colour into their autumn borders, delighting at every flower that dares raise its head. Bleached grasses are invaluable for the way they stand into winter like elegant torches, but nothing beats the blaze of colour that comes from autumn foliage and berries.

In this planting scheme the butter-yellow berries of sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ glow all the brighter for their flame-leaved backdrop of Euonymus planipes. Add the shock of blue aconitums and pink anemones and this is one show determined to close with a bang! 


Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ Yellow-berried mountain ash with orange, scarlet and purple-hued autumn foliage. Cream flowers in May followed by berries that darken to amber. H8m (26ft) S6m (20ft)

Euonymus planipes Flat-stalked spindle tree. Leaves turn a brilliant red in autumn while inedible deep pink to scarlet hanging fruit split to reveal orange seeds.
H and S3m (10ft)

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yakushima Dwarf’ Compact grass with arching deciduous silvery-green leaves. Feathery flowers mature to silver and stand into winter. H90cm (3ft) S60cm (2ft)

Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ Upright deciduous feather grass with bronze-purple flowers from July fading to pale buff. Stands well over winter. H1.8m (6ft) S60cm (2ft)

Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’ Spires of hooded, bright blue flowers in mid-autumn. Herbaceous perennial; all parts are toxic so wear gloves when handling. H1.5m (5ft) S60cm (2ft)

Anemone hupehensis ‘Bowles’s Pink’ Rich pink anemone with bright yellow stamens Sept-Nov. Herbaceous perennial, spreads rapidly when happy. H90cm (3ft) S60cm (2ft)


With the sorbus and euonymus at its heart, this is a long-term planting scheme, so don’t rush site preparation. Work across the area, removing perennial weeds, breaking up compacted ground and digging in well-rotted organic matter.

All the plants in this border prefer a moisture-retentive, fertile but well-drained soil. Adding well-rotted compost helps nudge your soil towards these conditions, whether you’re on a sandy loam or heavy clay.

 1. Establish the sorbus and euonymus

Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ can be bought bareroot from November through to March much cheaper than a container-grown specimen, although pot-grown plants are available all year round.

When positioning the tree, keep in mind its potential height and spread and remember that it prefers a sunny or part-shaded site. Keep it well watered during its first growing season.

You’ll usually find container-grown  euonymus rather than bareroot. This unfussy plant can cope with most soil types but it’s still best to wait until spring to plant if you’re on heavier ground. Neither tree needs routine pruning but winter is the best time to remove diseased or damaged branches and to carry out desired shaping.

2. Lay out the grasses

Miscanthus and calamagrostis are two brilliantly dependable grasses that reward you with months of structure and movement in the garden. Plant them in spring, positioning the taller calamagrostis towards the back of your border and bringing the smaller arching miscanthus forwards. Neither need winter support other than the occasional tidying of collapsed stems after heavy winds. Eventually, in late winter or early spring, cut the old stems back ready for the new growth to come through. Divide established clumps
in spring once new growth has begun.  

3. Finish with the aconitum and anemone

Aconitums are beautiful plants but remember, when handling them, that they’re highly toxic. Establish new plants in spring adding extra compost to the planting hole to ensure a fertile, moisture-retentive soil and make sure they don’t go short of water over their first growing season. They like part shade and although growth may be slow at first, they establish generous clumps when happy. Aim to divide them every three years in autumn or spring for best vigour.

Anemone ‘Bowles’s Pink’ is a robust, easy-going plant that’s happy with sunshine or part shade. Plants are susceptible to powdery mildew, so a bit of shade can help prevent them from drying out too much. Once established, they’ll ‘walk’ their way around the border and may need thinning out. Lift and divide in late autumn or early spring. If you’re after lots of plants quickly, try propagating them by root cuttings when the plants are dormant in winter.


Plant a little sunshine

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Team asters and rudbeckias for a dazzling daisy display that will last until the frosts, says Helen Billiald

Rudbeckia is one of the shining stars of autumn, leading us merrily into a season of mists, bonfires and heavy dews. ‘Goldsturm’ is one of the brightest cultivars, its large, golden-yellow, daisy-like flowers blooming from August to the frosts. It’s partnered here with Michaelmas daisies – another of autumn’s calling cards – and lavender-blue ‘Mönch’ is one of the best. Vigorous and disease resistant, it starts flowering in late July and is still going in October, its soft flowers appearing to hover in the low light of dusk.
These two both hold an RHS Award of Garden Merit and are equally floriferous, the golden rudbeckia petals picking up on the yellow centres of the asters behind. The duo is joined by a few lipstick-bright hesperantha spikes to keep everything on its toes; a seasonal match made in heaven.


Aster frikartii ‘Mönch’ Deservedly popular aster with masses of lavender-blue, yellow-eyed flowers on branching stems from late July-Oct. H90cm (3ft) S45cm (18in)

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ Tiny Chinese fountain grass with bristly pink-tinged flowers above wiry foliage. Leaves turn yellow in autumn. Likes well-drained soil. Deciduous. H and S90cm (3ft)

Hesperantha coccinea ‘Oregon Sunset’ River lilies (formerly schizostylis) bear red, pink or white flowers Sept-Nov. This cultivar has star-shaped salmon-red flowers. H60cm (2ft) S30cm (12in)

Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ Golden mounds of arching green-striped foliage that’s tinged copper-red in autumn and ripples in the wind. Deciduous. H45cm (18in) S60cm (2ft)

Rudbeckia fulgida sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ Dependable rudbeckia with rich yellow flowers and raised central cone, flowering July-frosts. H60cm (2ft) S45cm (18in)

HOW TO PLANT THEM: These plants are at their best in a sunny site on humus-rich but well-drained soil. They like moisture at their roots during the growing season but loath prolonged winter wet, so improve soil with plenty of well-rotted organic matter then add a thick mulch annually. Before planting, break up compacted ground and remove any perennial weeds. Keep an eye out for any fragments resprouting in spring.

1. Establish the asters and rudbeckias Establish these two border stars in spring as the ground begins to warm and new growth is showing. Dig a hole twice as wide and slightly deeper than each container, mix in extra organic matter to the planting hole and settle the plant with the top of its rootball just below the soil surface. Gently firm the soil back around its roots and water deeply. Thanks to its parentage, ‘Mönch’ has the capacity to cope with poorer, drier ground than many asters, but gives the best show on moisture-retaining fertile soil.
Staking isn’t essential for either of these herbaceous perennials and the aster’s gently leaning habit is part of its charm. However, you can add some low, woven supports to keep it off paths.
Cut the aster back to ground level once it has finished flowering, but let the rudbeckia stand as winter structure, tidying stems away as they start to collapse.
Both plants will bulk up quickly and are best divided after three years to keep them vigorous. Divide the aster in spring just as new growth begins; the rudbeckia can be split in autumn or spring. Replant the young outer sections into soil that has been improved with extra organic matter.

 2. Add the hesperantha This rhizomatous perennial loves a moist but well-drained soil; you can even grow them as marginals around a pond. Plant in spring once the ground has begun to warm and keep watering to settle them, especially in dry summer spells.
The tall flowers have a tendency to topple so plant them back from the border’s edge so neighbouring plants can prop them up. In mild areas, flowers may appear until Christmas, if you keep deadheading; the foliage is semi-evergreen in a sheltered spot. Divide in spring every two to three years. A dry winter mulch offers extra protection.

3. Finish with the grasses The floral fireworks of asters and rudbeckia go brilliantly with the narrow leaves of grasses. Hakonechloa forms a low cascade that sits well at the front of the border. Despite their elegant posing, these hardy deciduous plants will take some shade, but the foliage colour won’t be as bright. They’re rhizomatous, but spread only slowly. Split larger clumps in spring as you clear away the dead leaves.
The pennisetum isn’t quite as hardy, preferring temperatures not to drop below -5C (23F) in winter. Establish new plants in spring, adding extra grit and compost to the planting hole to give them the well-drained ground they prefer. Try to position them where their bottlebrush-like flowers catch the low autumn light. In late autumn, tuck a generous mulch around plants to give them extra winter protection, leaving the flowers in place for winter structure.
In late winter to early spring cut old dead stems to ground level ready for new growth to come through. Divide established plants once new shoots appear above ground.

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Plant a bee-friendly border

Illustration: Gill Lockhart

Illustration: Gill Lockhart

Choose bee-pleasing blush and blue flowers for a soothing end of summer treat, says Helen Billiald

Choose plants with pollinators in mind and you’ll soon be visited by those ever-busy butterflies, hoverflies and bees, whose tumbling flight is so hypnotic to watch.

This blush-and-blue planting of herbaceous perennials has huge pollinator appeal, while also winning points for serious longevity, both in flower and the skeletons left behind. Find the plants a sunny site then sit back and watch the show.

Just make sure you pay attention to the conditions – monarda, phlox and echinacea prefer moist, humus-rich soil with sufficient drainage to prevent prolonged winter wet, while the agastache and hylotelephium require a well-drained soil.


Echinacea purpurea Pink-petalled coneflower with dusky orange centres. A pollinator pleaser, flowering July-Sept. Finches love the seedheads. H90cm (3ft) S60cm (2ft)

Phlox paniculata ‘Le Mahdi’ Large-flowered violet-purple phlox with scented panicles July-Sept. Needs moist but well-drained soil. H90cm (3ft) S60cm (2ft)

Agastache ‘Blackadder’ Vertical spikes of violet-blue flowers July-Oct, adored by bees. Strongly fragrant foliage. Needs good winter drainage. H90cm (3ft) S35cm (14in)

Monarda ‘Vintage Wine’ Whorls of magenta to berry-red flowers on top of sturdy stems July-Oct. Excellent winter silhouettes. Good bee pleasers. H90cm (3ft) S30cm (12in)

Persicaria alpina Statuesque perennial with a haze of frothy white flowers gradually tinged with pink Aug-Sept. Undemanding, but needs room to spread. H1.8m (6ft) S1.5m (5ft)

Hylotelephium ‘Veluwse Wakel’ Grey-green fleshy foliage and pink-purple starry flowers July-Sept that look like insect landing pads. H75cm (2½ft) S45cm (18in)


Clear the site, digging out perennial weeds and breaking up compacted ground, then work in plenty of well-rotted organic matter across the area. This improves the moisture-retaining properties of lighter soils, while opening up heavier ones and helps to balance the needs of the phlox, monarda and echinacea (adequate moisture in summer, good drainage in winter) with those of the agastache and hylotelephium (well-drained soil). Add horticultural grit to targeted areas on very heavy ground.

1 Establish the persicaria

This statuesque white-flowered perennial needs a generous amount of space, so establish it first as the backdrop of the border. Your potted youngster may appear puny but if you lay a 1.5m (5ft) bamboo cane down, pivoted at its centre, you’ll get an idea of elbow room required.

In growth it’s undemanding and will cope with some shade. Cut back established plants in February or March. Despite their size, they’re well-behaved clumping plants rather than invasive spreaders. You might need a saw when it comes to dividing them.

2 Add the rest of the perennials

Water the remaining perennials in their pots, then arrange them across the border. Allow plants enough elbow room for a couple of year’s growth and tuck the phlox towards the back to hide its less attractive lower legs. Once you’ve identified the area for the agastache and hylotelephium, check that their section has adequate drainage, lightening ground with further grit and organic matter if required.

Having confirmed the layout, begin planting, forking in further compost to each hole as you work and finishing with a layer of well-rotted organic matter as mulch. Keep an eye out for slugs and snails and keep watered during dry spells.

3 Maintain the border

Mildew can be problematic with these perennials, causing white powdery patches to develop across foliage. Your first line of defence is to grow plants well, watering deeply during dry spells and resisting overcrowding when you plant. Prune away infected foliage promptly, or in severe cases cut back the entire plant hard and water well for regrowth.

Deadhead to keep flowers coming but stop in early autumn to leave flowers in place for sculptural winter seedheads to catch those elusive hoar frosts. Clear away the phlox in late autumn but leave the rest of the sun-bleached stems until February or March. Then, cut back and mulch using well-rotted organic matter.

Lift and divide plants every three years; skip this step and the display will gradually diminish. Most of the plants are content with either an autumn or spring split (see p30), but the agastache and monarda need to wait until spring. When splitting keep only the healthiest and most vigorous sections, usually at the outer edges of the clump, and improve the border soil before replanting. Monardas in particular have a habit of dying at the centre and moving out into new areas where you don’t necessarily wish them to be.

If you struggle with agastache failing to survive winter (‘Blackadder’ is one of the most reliable), practise taking semi-ripe cuttings as insurance in late summer, and overwinter them somewhere sheltered and frost-free ready for planting out next spring.

Create a winter paradise


As the days get shorter, much of the garden slips into a winter slumber. Some herbaceous perennials retreat below ground, the last annuals succumb to frost and dormant deciduous shrubs and trees shed a carpet of colourful leaves. It can feel like the finale to the gardening year, and time to hunker down indoors until spring.

However, a winter garden can be a beautiful, enchanting place. Chosen carefully, plants can raise the spirits with unexpected flowers and scent, providing you with a colourful scene to look out onto from the warmth of indoors.

A heavy frost can lure you outside to marvel at the intricate detail of cobwebs and seedheads, the luminescent quality of jewel-like berries and the crazed patterns trapped in a frozen bird bath. All these seasonal treats ease the journey through the bleakest months.

Flowers may be few and far between, but foliage, stems, berries and bark can all help to bring colour, shape and texture to your garden. Even if space is limited, you can distil these elements into winter container displays using dwarf shrubs and conifers, evergreen ferns and grasses mixed with cheerful winter bedding.

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Create a September Sensation

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Let dazzling dahlias and Verbena bonariensis brighten up your borders this month, says Helen Billiald

This planting scheme is inspired by the exotic garden at Great Dixter. It’s 25 years since Christopher Lloyd ripped out the old rose garden in order to create this exotic wonderland. Together with his gardening protégé, Fergus Garrett, they converted the once-formal space into a fantasy garden filled with colourful, jungly plants like this stunning combination of dahlias, verbena and ipomoea. The resulting late summer and autumn profusion inspired a seismic shift in planting styles across the country whose influence continues to resonate today.


Choose the right plants

Dahlia ‘Fascination’
Unflinchingly violet-pink dahlia with semi-double dark centred flowers against a backdrop of inky leaves. H and S 90cm (3ft)

Canna ‘Erebus’
Grey-blue lance shaped leaves emphasise this canna’s salmon pink flowers. H1.5m (5ft) S50cm (20in)

Verbena bonariensis
Little clusters of purple-lilac flowers on stiff branching stems, June to October. Airy look makes it a wonderful ‘threader’ through other plants. H1.8m (6ft) S45cm (18in)

Ipomoea lobata
Spanish flag is a fast-growing tender twining climber that’s treated as an annual in this country. Its tubular flowers mature from red to creamy yellow. Flowers from July to the frosts. H2.4m (8ft)

Pennisetum advena ‘Rubrum’
Dark red strap-like foliage and arching bottle-brush flowers that mature from rusty red to brown. Dubious hardiness, lift to overwinter. H90cm (3ft) S60cm (2ft)

Tetrapanax papyrifer
Large bold foliage plant with palmate leaves and white flowers in late autumn. Needs space, sends out suckers and not hardy for everyone. Typically, H2-3m (6-8ft) S2m (6ft 6in)

Get Planting
If you’re after a tip-top display you really want to spoil this planting. Give it your best, sunniest site sheltered from strong winds and be prepared to seriously improve your soil to ensure fertile growing conditions. Annual mulching with well-rotted organic matter as well as digging in further material at every planting will also help. Be prepared to water deeply during prolonged dry spells.

1. Order the dahlia and canna
Order the dahlia tubers and the canna rhizomes now and you’ll be able to forget about them until they arrive in the post next February or March. Pot them up and grow them on in a frost free greenhouse before planting out in late May. If you want to increase your stock then take cuttings from stout newly emerged shoots. Watch out for slugs and snails which can decimate young foliage.
‘Fascination’ is a relatively short cultivar but it’s still worth putting in a cane when you plant so that you have the option to support shoots with twine if needed. Deadhead every time you pass to keep the display coming. Once plants have turned black from the first frosts you can either cut them back and dig up the tubers to store in barely damp old potting compost in a frost free shed, or leave them in situ covered with a protective dry mulch.

Unless you live in a very sheltered part of the country and on free-draining soil, it’s not worth the risk of leaving plants in the ground over winter, even with a protective mulch. Instead, wait for the first frosts then cut back plants and lift as a single clump to store surrounded by old potting compost kept damp in a frost-free shed. Next spring large plants can be divided and potted up, making sure each new section has several growing buds.

 2. Sow the verbena
Verbena bonariensis is a doddle to grow from seed, you just need to give them an early start. Sow under cover in March using a warm windowsill or heated propagator at around 20C (68F).
A more expensive option is to pick up young plants in late spring. Once they’re established you’ll find they self-sow and seedlings start to pop up around the garden often in unusual yet welcome places like paving cracks or sections of gravel.
Plants are short-lived perennials and overwinter best on well-drained soil. A dry winter mulch helps get them through the coldest spells. Resist cutting back the top growth until new shoots are growing the following spring.

3. Sow the ipomoea
Sow seeds in mid-April to May in the greenhouse. Seeds are large and easy to handle with good germination rates so sow one seed to a pot and use a propagator to maintain a cosy temperature (around 21C/70F). Soaking or nicking seed isn’t essential. Pot on before planting out in early June when nights should have warmed up.
These plants will cope with shade as well as sunshine, just avoid too much nitrogen in the planting site or you’ll run the risk of over enthusiastic foliage with little in the way of flowers. They’re brilliant at rambling right through a planting, often travelling in unexpected directions.

4. Add the pennisetum
Give this tactile grass a front-of-border position so you can stroke its arching bottle-brush flowers as you pass. ‘Rubrum’ is sterile so there’s no chance of sourcing this plant from seed. Instead order plants from a specialist nursery ready for delivery in May or look out for them at your local garden centre. Youngsters are best planted out after all risk of frost.
Dig up plants once frosts are threatened and move them undercover into a frost-free greenhouse. Lift them as a single large clump, cut back the top growth by half and place in a large container, filling in any gaps with old potting compost: you’re not trying to encourage new growth now. Water sparingly over winter then in spring divide into smaller clumps and pot up in fresh compost ready to plant out in late May.

5. Establish the tetrapanax
Specialist nurseries will be your best chance of tracking down young tetrapanax. Plant out in early June allowing plenty of space from the start and further improve the ground with well-rotted organic matter – it prefers a well-drained site. 
In future years, severe winters will dictate how much top growth survives. Even if it’s cut back right to the ground by frost it will regrow from its roots the following year. You might also choose to coppice plants right back in early spring to encourage lots of low shrubby growth rather than a taller trunk. Remove unwanted suckers as they appear in spring: you can always pot them up as gifts for jungle-loving friends.

Garden to visit - Knoll Gardens


This Dorset garden is an atmospheric showcase for grasses in autumn, says Louise Curley

For many gardens November is the tipping point into hibernation as flowers and foliage fade. At Knoll Gardens in Dorset it’s a different story. Home to thousands of grasses, the renowned naturalistic planting is reaching its crescendo right now. The four-acre garden had its beginnings in the early 1970s when the first nursery on the site was established on a carrot field and a scrubby patch of land. In 1994 Neil Lucas came to the garden and nursery and has since established one of the country’s most extensive collections of grasses.
‘Right plant, right place’ is very much the approach at Knoll, where planting is dictated by the soil and climate, rather than trying to grow unsuitable plants that will never thrive. The garden is also the perfect showcase for plants on sale in its award-winning nursery, and offers visitors the chance to see these plants growing in a garden setting, with inspiring ideas for planting combinations.
Although primarily known for its grasses, Knoll used to be a private botanic garden and as a result it also has an impressive range of trees and shrubs. The delicate white, bell-shaped blooms of the Australian snowdrop tree (black sassafras) announce the arrival of spring as their delicate scent fills the air. Summer highlights include herbaceous perennials and hydrangeas, but it’s late summer when Knoll hits its stride, with herbaceous perennials such as sedums, asters and the wafty stems of Verbena bonariensis forming drifts of colour.

Spectacular colours
Spectacular autumn hues from trees such as Gingko biloba and shrubs like Hydrangea quercifolia light up the gardens with a fiery glow. The collection of spindle trees (euonymus), which thrive on the free-draining sandy soil, put on an eye-catching display of vivid crimson and scarlet. Impressive specimen trees include one of the best willow oaks in the country, cork oaks and a collection of magnificent eucalyptus.
The Dragon Garden consisted of bedding plants, formal hedges and lawn when owner Neil Lucas first came to the site more than 20 years ago. It’s now been transformed so that a single path weaves through a swathe of grasses and perennials, which create a tall meadow effect. At this time of year, late autumn sunshine enhances the warm browns, golden honey and bleached blonde tones of the grasses and early morning frosts highlight the structural shapes and seedheads.
The vast range of grasses includes low-growing pennisetums that tumble over paths to towering miscanthus and calamagrostis. One of the most effective planting combinations here is the native grass Molinia caerulea planted in drifts along with perennials such as persicaria, scabious and sanguisorba.
Although grasses are mostly associated with large-scale naturalistic planting schemes, such as those created by Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, smaller easy-care beds have been created at Knoll to show that they can be used in a more modestly sized plot.
Knoll Gardens is an impressive place to visit whatever the season, but at this time of year, with the seedheads and skeletons of the grasses and perennials catching the sunlight, it’s a place that shows how there can be beauty even in the dying embers of a garden.

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Five minutes with... Knoll Gardens' owner Neil Lucas

Neil Lucas has been the owner of Dorset-based Knoll Gardens and its award-winning nursery since 1994. His passion and knowledge for a naturalistic planting style and ornamental grasses has led to multiple gold medals from RHS Chelsea  

Q. How did you come to be at Knoll? I was working and living down in Devon, and we saw an advert that said the gardens were for sale. So we – my mum, dad and myself – decided to buy it. Horticulture has always been important in the family. My grandfather, in particular, was very much into plants and especially his delphiniums. Some of my earliest memories come from summer holidays with him in his garden and watching him exhibit at the RHS Halls in London.

Q. How big is the team? We have one full-time gardener, so we practice what we preach with low maintenance. We do also have half a dozen or so volunteers who come in on a Friday morning.

Q. What are the main seasonal jobs? We’re a late-season garden, so we peak in interest in the second half of the year. This means we cut down in early to mid-spring and do a spring clean preparing the borders, doing any maintenance and mulching. We weed in summer and then do any structural projects later in the year.

Q. In November what are you working on? November is still our peak time in the garden, so we won’t be doing a lot to the borders. But what we do try and do before Christmas is to complete one or two planting jobs. If things haven’t worked so well, there’s a gap in a border or we’ve decided to do something in a different way, we’ll take up the plants, move them around and replant.

Q. Do you have a favourite part of the garden? This year I do rather love the Dragon Garden. We took out a hedge about a year or so ago and did a lot of new planting, so it’s much more expansive now. It’s a bit reminiscent of a prairie.

Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? Running a small business is always highly demanding of personal time. Actually finding time to do all the necessary jobs and to be able to leave a little bit for the one or two jobs we might like to do, such as planting new areas, is always tricky.

Q. What’s the best bit of your job? Playing with plants, seeing new combinations and seeing them grow and develop. It’s a real thrill to see a plant that’s happy and successful and settled into the garden.

Q. Do you have any future projects that you’re planning to carry out? Our eucalyptus lawn is relatively old, the trees have got too big and are casting a lot of shade, so we’re going to redevelop that over the next few years, which will be quite a big project for us.

Fact File
Location: Knoll Gardens, Stapehill Road, Hampreston, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 7ND
Open: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm (4pm Nov-Mar). Closed from 22 Dec 2017, reopens 1 Feb 2018
Contact: 01202 873931;

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