In the post-war years, when the owners of many stately homes gifted their houses and gardens to the National Trust, no longer able to afford the upkeep, a new breed of garden-makers emerged. Among them, Walter and Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor Gardens and Lionel and Katharine Fortescue at The Garden House.
Yesterday, I broke my return journey from Cornwall to see for myself this little corner of heaven. The Garden House is located near the village of Buckland Monachorum, to the west of Dartmoor ‘in a small valley running west down to the Tavy’*. Known as ‘the Lion’, Lionel Fortescue bought the former vicarage and 10 acres of land in 1945. He retired as head of languages at Eton and proceeded to create what has become ‘one of the finest gardens in Britain’, according to the garden’s website. A bold claim but a fair one: I was bowled over by the place.
The garden is made up of three distinct sections: walled garden, arboretum and, in the western and largest section, six acres planted in the ‘New Naturalism’ style. I confess to having been ignorant of the importance of this garden until now, but reading the very informative The Garden House Story’ booklet has introduced me to the work of Keith Wiley**, Head Gardener at The Garden House from 1978 to 2003. He helped pioneer the New Naturalism where trees, shrubs, perennials and seeds are blended to make it appear they have developed together naturally.
I’m going to let my photographs speak for themselves, starting with a map of the gardens. As a guide, my route was to walk down into the Walled Garden via the Bowling Green and Lower Terraces, enjoyed the view from the tower (!), meandered through the Arboretum, then along to the unique raised beds of The Ovals. From there I entered the Bulb Meadow and was delighted to find a Wisteria Bridge which is going to be laden with flowers in a week or so, given some warmer temperatures. I followed the Jungle Path towards the Cottage Garden and Wildflower Meadow, returning to the excellent plant sales area via the Quarry and Summer Gardens.
I’d vowed not to buy any plants on this holiday, but I succumbed to an almost black and very reasonably priced (£3) Auricula, and a small vintage terracotta pot which I was told came from a store of pots used at the property! Perhaps handled by the Lion himself?
The Arboretum. Opened in 2013, it contains over 100 new trees.
Return to The Walled Garden
Kew Gardens, 30 April 2023
** Keith Wiley published ‘On the Wild Side, Experiments in New Naturalism’ in 2004.
Caerhays may justly be regarded as the most important plantsman’s garden in Cornwall.
Douglas Ellory Pett ‘The Cornwall Gardens Guide’ 2003
After a very wet morning, a damp mist hung over the countryside as I drove the 10 miles to Caerhays Castle this afternoon. The guidebook informs me that Caerhays has a unique microclimate: moist sea mists cloak this woodland garden in moisture, mimicking the Chinese mountain habitats from which many of the magnolias and rhododendrons in the garden originate. The soil is very acidic and ideal for growing such plants.
The garden is described as a spring flowering garden and opens only from mid February to mid June. This afternoon I had the garden to myself! It is a collection of rare trees and shrubs, many of them grown from seeds collected by the the great Chinese plant collectors, EH Wilson and George Forrest. JC Williams (JCW), the owner of the estate replicated the densely wooded mountainsides of Yunnan province, planting the specimens close together on the steep slopes of the Caerhays estate. So keen was JCW on building up his collection of rare plants from the region that he sponsored George Forrest’s third and subsequent expeditions.
The older parts of the garden are planted on the steep slope which rises behind the large castle designed by John Nash (Brighton Pavilion and Regent Street). Most magnolias finished flowering in March, but there are still some camellias blooming as are many rhododendrons, with azaleas emerging, often exuding a sweet scent.
It is a garden in which to meander and lose oneself, with the emphasis on trees and huge shrubs. There are drifts of daffodils and Narcissi, and thousands of bluebells and wild garlic carpet the ground beneath the monumental trees and shrubs, many of which are classed as champion trees in the Tree Register of Britain and Ireland (TROBI) because of their height or girth.
The Tin Garden has been planted over the last 15 or so years in an extensive area where the ground was cleared after the loss of many trees in the great storm of January 1990. Cornwall escaped the ravages of the Great Storm in October 1997 which devastated so many trees in the South East.
I may have missed the bulk of the magnolias and drawn the short straw on the weather, but finding a treasure every few yards in this sprawling plant paradise was tremendous fun. And the soundscape of constant birdsong was joyful, including the call of the cuckoo!
In Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, the mansion Manderley stands at the head of a Cornish valley leading down to a beach where the first Mrs de Winter, the Rebecca of the title, meets her lover in secret. Whether Manderley’s valley was planted with rare and exotic species of tree and shrub I cannot recall, but in my mind’s eye the terrain resembled that of the two gardens I visited today: Trebah and the National Trust’s Glendurgan.
Remarkably, the gardens occupy neighbouring valleys on the north bank of the Helford River south of Falmouth. Both run down to beaches and boast lavish plantings of tree ferns (Dicksonia Antarctica) and giant rhubarb (Gunneramaniculata) as well as magnificent rhododendrons and camellias, and some remarkable trees. Rare plants abound in each garden and my plant identifier app was working hard today to keep up with the array of plants I didn’t recognise.
Trebah and Glendurgan were created in the 1820s by brothers Charles and Alfred Fox respectively. Handsome white stucco mansions, neither of which is open to the public, occupy the highest points of the gardens. It was very cold today for late April, but it meant that neither garden was heaving with visitors. Birdsong dominated the soundscape for much of the walks downhill to the coast, with trickling water sounds from the streams at the foot of each valley gradually giving way to the unmistakeable sound of waves crashing onto a beach. Until about a third of the way down, the sound of the sea is the only hint of what is to be found at the foot of the valley, until the slopes bottom out and you catch sight of a yacht in the distance, framed between two headlands.
The tiny fishing village of Durgan stands between the garden and the beach at Glendurgan whilst Trebah garden merges with the beach. I learnt that the beach (then called Polgwidden) was used during WW2 to launch the landing craft and men of the 29th US Infantry Division six days before they disembarked onto Omaha Beach in Normandy on 6 June 1944, D Day.
The Trebah water gardens host candelabra primulas, hostas and Persicaria Red Dragon. White skunk cabbage, Lysichitoncamtschatcensis, stands along the edge of one of the pools interrupting the downward flow of the central stream to either side of which the garden’s main paths lie. I enjoyed standing in ‘Gunnera Passage’ which links the paths, with the spiky stalks and glowing green leaves towering over me.
The final section of the valley, before the Monet-inspired Mallard Bridge, is planted with hundreds of Hydrangeas. I’d not come across Hydrangea with variegated leaves before. I also noticed one named for the garden.
A large handkerchief tree is laden with the white bracts which give them their name, set off with an under storey of bluebells.
Rather earlier than in the south east, Camassias are beginning to flower. So too, the Mexican fleabane, Erigeron karvinskianus, which completely cloaks the long wall behind the stone seat facing the lawn at the head of the valley. Libertiagrandiflora, an iris from New Zealand liked by garden designers for its architectural spears of leaves and pure white flowers, sits at the foot of the seat in places. As if to illustrate how mild Cornwall is compared to the rest of the country, and how tender specimens can survive which would have to be protected from frost at home can thrivehere, Geraniummaderense or giant herb Robert, is already in full flower in a border near the visitor centre.
At Glendurgan, alongside the exotic plantings, wild flowers abound, with bluebells being the stars at the moment, creating blue hazes beneath trees and across a breathtakingly beautiful meadow area planted with cherry trees and a pair of handkerchief trees (Davidiainvolucrata). Early purple orchids pop up amidst the bluebells. Stone walls drip with ferns and primroses.
Amongst the plants I identified at Glendurgan using the plant identifier app were:
The Chatham Island forget-me-not (Myosotidiumhortensia)
Dusty Daisybush (OleariaLyrata)
Mexican Lily (Beschorneria)
But there were a couple that it didn’t recognise:
fuchsia? echium? rush?
Thankfully there was a label for this exotic, the Chilean fire tree: Embothriumcoccineum.
Where the valley widens, in the upper part of the garden at Glendurgan, there are more open spaces than at Trebah and paths have been mown through the grass, with bluebells spreading to either side.
A cherry laurel maze with a conical thatched roof at its centre occupies the middle part of the garden.
Arriving at a garden by boat feels exotic, even if it’s a chain ferry and I’m in the driver’s seat of my Citroen C1, rather than a luxury cabin! From the Roseland, where I’m staying, a ride across the Fal River on the King Harry Ferry cuts about 25 minutes and 15 miles off a drive to the National Trust house and garden at Trelissick. Beyond the cars parked in front of you on the five minute crossing you can see a steep wooded bank, screening from view a very beautiful garden, the entrance to which is just a short uphill drive from the slipway. The conical-roofed water tower topped with a squirrel weather-vane near the entrance is now a holiday let.
As the guide explained when I went into the house after touring the garden, Trelissick is all about the views. Set on a sloping site, there are several viewing platforms accessible from the high path around the perimeter of the garden, from one of which you can watch the progress of the ferry back and forth and hear the percussive rhythm of its chain mechanism.
The wisterias covering the walls of the Entrance Walk are poised to bloom within the week and are going to be spectacular.
A huge stand of vivid scarlet Rhododendron ‘Cornish Red’ draws you towards the sloping Main Lawn which is dominated by a multi-trunked conifer planted in 1898, Cryptomeriajaponica. But I was drawn down the slope to see the tall tree festooned with loose clusters of creamy flowers on elegant stalks: Drimyswinteri which hails from Chile and Argentina and is sometimes called winter’s bark or winter cinnamon.
Azaleas in yolky yellow clash with neighbouring pink rhododendrons, but the effect is uplifting rather than grating. All the same, its more restful on the eye along woodland paths where tree ferns look perfectly at home, very different to the cosseted, winter-fleeced specimens in the gardens of south-west London which tend to emerge from their winter overcoats looking a bit ragged.
Bluebells and white Narcissi bring freshness to the under-storey of the Hydrangea Walk. I enjoyed seeing the way the Rhododendrons have been pruned, with the crown lifted to reveal the sinuous structure of the stems and trunks. Eau de nil filigree clusters of lichen attach to tree trunks and branches, indicating the purity of the atmosphere.
The low pH soil which supports the acid-loving plants like Azaleas and Rhododendrons, also encourages a member of the blueberry species, Vacciniumretusum, which has self-seeded along some of the woodland paths. The views open out again on the return leg of the circuit, with panoramas of tranquil parkland grazed by cattle against the backdrop of the Fal estuary, otherwise known as the Carrick Roads. The garden is separated from the park by a ha-ha.
In the house I learnt that the most recent owners were Ronald and Ida Copeland, who gave the property to the National Trust in 1955. Ronald came from the Copeland-Spode ceramics family and Ida was an MP, elected to represent Stoke-on-Trent in 1931. Both were active in the scout and guiding movement, counting Lord Baden-Powell as a family friend. I was told that the rhododendrons illustrated on a China service on display in the drawing room, now a very comfortable sitting area for the cafe with a magnificent river view, were picked fresh in the morning and sent by rail to Stoke, to be copied by the factory’s artists.
Visit completed, I caught the ferry back to the peaceful enclave of the Roseland,
I went down to Cornwall, a most wonderful place. Not England at all!
Barry Humphries (1934-2023). BBC Radio 4 ‘Desert Island Discs’ 24 May 2009
Following in the footsteps of Barry Humphries who sadly died on Saturday, I’ve arrived this afternoon in south Cornwall to explore some of the great gardens in the area. Leaving the main roads, I was immediately struck by the density of vegetation on either side of the famously narrow country lanes: primroses, bluebells on the brink of opening, harts-tongue ferns, arum lilies. At the foot of these Cornish hedges (described on the Cornwall Council website as resembling a vertical flower meadow), I glimpsed an abundance of wild garlic. Cornish hedges are often ancient structures built of stone which over centuries have accumulated a covering of soil making them perfect habitats for a wealth of native plants. Not to mention birds, invertebrates and mammals.
My first stop en route to the cottage I’ve rented was the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery. It is situated on the side of the River Fowey valley with a series of terraces looking west across the valley to Restormel Castle, an English Heritage site. Whilst enjoying the view I spotted a pair of choughs flying gracefully above the trees in the middle distance, distinguishable from other members of the crow family by their finger-like wing feathers.
The nursery site was once a slate quarry and has been cleverly landscaped to include plant sales areas as well as themed gardens and a high terrace where snacks and coffee can be bought from the shepherd’s hut style cafe and enjoyed at nearby tables and benches. I was impressed at the vast range of high quality containers displayed on the next level of terracing. And it was a happy surprise to encounter one of the handsome Indian elephants fashioned from Lantana whose herds graced The Green and St James’s Parks in 2021 (see my blog Scenes and Herds).
The Bumblebee Garden is planted with pollinator friendly species and included a useful key to the wide range of solitary bees to be found in this country as well as tips to attract them into the garden. It was a useful reminder to read that a shallow dish with pebbles will provide the bees with water. I enjoyed the neat arrangement of raised beds in the Kitchen Garden, where herbs and edible flowers are grown for the cafe.
I’m staying on the east coast of the evocatively named Roseland Peninsula, looking across Gerrans Bay to Gull Rock. On a brief walk down the lane to the nearby Porthcurnick beach I spied developing spires of Echiums springing up at the roadside and the spent spikes of the 2022 harvest of these pollinator attracting Canary Island natives. Thick clusters of Alexanders, Smyrniumolusatrum, populate the verges at the foot of the Cornish hedges and I can see red valerian growing between the stone steps leading to the upper level of this cottage. It’ll be next month before I’d expect to see it flowering in the south east.
My activities this afternoon have whetted my appetite for the treats to come when I continue my south west road trip tomorrow.
Tom Stuart-Smith has put his mark as a landscape architect on numerous gardens across the country. I’ve seen his planting at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and in July 2021 was fortunate to go to the inspiring garden at his home, Serge Hill at Abbots Langley in Hertfordshire. This last weekend gave me the opportunity to compare two more of his creations: the new Royal Horticultural Society garden, Bridgewater, south of Manchester and the Italian Garden at Trentham Gardens, Staffordshire.
Steady rain fell throughout the afternoon at RHS Bridgewater but it meant that the gardens were very quiet enabling us to see the structure of the garden for which Tom Stuart-Smith created the masterplan for the development of the site as a centre of excellence for horticulture in the north-west. He also designed the layout and planting of the Paradise Garden which forms one half of the restored 11 acre Weston Walled Garden, a major feature of the new garden, as well as the Worsley Welcome Garden located close to the Welcome Building.
The joy of a RHS garden (like RBG Kew and other botanical gardens) is that all plants are labelled, so you start learning as soon as you step outside into the garden. A perennial honesty (Lunaria rediviva) soon caught my eye. In borders between the outer and inner walls of the walled garden, massed plantings of tulips and daffodils lit up the gloom of the rainy afternoon. Terracotta rhubarb forcers nestle amongst the bulbs, a clue to the presence at Bridgewater of the National Collection of rhubarb, with 100 cultivars having recently been moved from RHS Wisley. I also liked the gnarly branches (driftwood?) which accent the border every so often, resembling abstract sculptures.
I love to see show gardens from flower shows re-purposed, and the high brick wall of the Weston Walled Garden provided a perfect backdrop for Windrush Garden from RHS Flower Show Tatton Park, 2021, designed by Dawn Evans.
The Weston Walled Garden is divided into two equal halves: the Paradise Garden and the Kitchen Garden. High metal obelisks, designed to resemble the chimney of the original boiler room which heated the glasshouses which served Worsley New Hall, punctuate the enormous Kitchen Garden which contains more than 100 planting beds! Unobtrusive strainer wires are fitted along the walls. to support an impressive collection of wall-trained fruit, including heritage pears.
The heart of the Paradise Garden is a very large body of water, the Lily Pond, fed by two rills which intersect the garden. Partially covered by a decorative grill in a geometric design, the rills are just one example of the wonderful attention to detail manifest throughout Bridgewater. At this time of year and on a wet afternoon, the colours were muted: greens and the reddish brown of the beech columns planted around the Lily Pond. From photographs in the guide book and having seen Serge Hill* in high summer, I can imagine just how colourful the Paradise Garden must be later in the season. One of the features of Serge Hill which impressed me was the Plant Library, trial beds laid out in a numbered grid, designed as an open resource for garden design students to see how plants behave and move, featuring many drought tolerant plants. I’m imagining that some of the species in the Plant Library are also planted into some of the Paradise Garden’s 80 planting beds.
Two new glasshouses in Victorian style have been built along the southern wall of the Paradise Garden, to house tender specimens such as Aeonium. On the opposite side of this wall stands the Old Frameyard, home to the boiler room and its chimney, as well as potting sheds (now an exhibition space), a brand new Propagation House, and beds laid out for plant trials. Near here we spotted another show garden, the Blue Peter Discover Soil Garden designed by Juliet Sargent for the Chelsea Flower Show in 2022.
Just beyond the walled garden stands the restored Garden Cottage, once home to the the head gardener of Worsley New Hall. The cottage is surrounded by an immaculately mowed, semi-circular lawn.
Heading into the wooded area of Bridgewater we found a friendly ent, and in the fields beyond the woodland, the Pig Pen for the black Berkshire pigs which have been used throughout the creation of Bridgewater to act as ‘biological ploughs’ and clear the ground in various parts of the garden before planting. Here and there in the woodland, are remnants of the original gardens and to the north of Ellesmere Lake, the remains of the terraces which stood in front of Worsley New Hall, the large Victorian House which was demolished after the Second World War.
Flowing from Ellesmere Lake down the hill to Moon Bridge Water, the new body of water next to the Welcome Building, is the Chinese Streamside Garden, which is intersected with a series of small pools and crossed by a series of wooden bridges. The planting is designed to reflect the numerous Chinese native plants which are now favourite shrubs and trees in the west: acers, magnolias, primulas included.
Thankfully the weather improved for the second garden visit of the weekend: Trentham Gardens near Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire. Here three eminent contemporary garden designers have made their mark on a garden which has its origins as an eighteenth century landscape garden (the lake around which the garden and parkland are located was designed by Capability Brown). Piet Oudolf designed the Floral Labyrinth which stands beside the River Trent at the eastern end of the garden, near the ruins of the Italianate Victorian house: 32 beds of herbaceous perennials in the Dutch designer’s trademark prairie style. The beds were just beginning to spring to life, with tantalising crowns of greenery promising a lush summer display. Snakeshead fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) nodded gracefully in several beds.
The Perennial Meadow Garden along the edges of the lake was designed by Professor Nigel Dunnett (Tower of London Superbloom, Gold Meadows London Olympic Park and the Barbican). The third of the designers to shape this garden in the 21st century is Tom Stuart-Smith. When she showed us around her own garden at Serge Hill in July 2021, his sister Kate Stuart-Smith told us her brother’s nickname in the family was GAT, Great Arbiter of Taste! The Italian Garden at Trentham is certainly a class act. Like Bridgewater’s Paradise Garden, it is on a grand scale, a formal parterre style layout of symmetrical beds, some edged with low hedges arranged around low walled formal pools, centred with fountains. The Italian theme is reinforced with classical statuary, monumental urns and slim columns of Irish yew standing in for cypresses. The simplicity of the planting prevents the space from seeming unduly elaborate. One set of beds is planted with white flowers and silver-leaved plants: tulips, narcissus and a white-flowered Brunnera with silver-veined leaves, possibly B. macrophylla Mr Morse.
Low evergreen domes and similarly scaled stands of grasses planted into lawned areas echo the yew domes dotted on the lawn alongside the Worsley Welcome Garden at Bridgewater.
The Italian Garden is divided from the Floral Labyrinth by an arched pergola running its entire length, entwined with climbing roses and Wisteria, yet to bloom. Running alongside the pergola is the David Austin Rose Border, designed by Michael Marriott. I can only imagine how fragrant and beautiful this must be when in flower. The roses were certainly looking wonderfully healthy last Saturday.
Whilst brief, my 36 hour trip to the north west was enormously satisfying, and it was a joy to see Tom Stuart-Smith’s work in both gardens.
20 April 2023, Kew
*Here are some of my images of Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden at Serge Hill, taken in July 2021.
In my last blog post I featured an image of an unusual bell-shaped snowdrop, Galanthus Phil Cornish. I took the photograph in February on a Sunday afternoon visit to East Lambrook Manor Gardens, near South Petherton in Somerset, the creation of garden writer Margery Fish. I first went to this fascinating garden in May 2021 and vowed to return during another season. In winter you can see the bones of a garden without the distraction of abundant foliage and flowers.
In this case the skeleton consists of narrow paths between cottage garden borders, a mini avenue of curvaceous yews and the ditch which Margery Fish cleverly incorporated into the heart of the garden. In the winter months these elements are embellished with a splendid display of snowdrops: in pots lining the paths, in borders and on the banks of the ditch. This Festival of Snowdrops takes place every February.
Naturally snowdrops were the main attraction in the plant nursery which adjoins the garden. Here they were set out on tables for sale with some of the price tags reflecting the rarity of the specimens displayed. Examples of each of the cultivars grown at East Lambrook were arrayed on the long stone shelves which on my last visit featured the hardy geraniums loved by the garden’s creator.
I chatted to the gentleman operating the till at the nursery who told me that he had worked with several members of staff who had known Margery Fish until her death in 1969. He told me a story which summed up her passion for her garden. During a trip away from home, a fire broke out and badly damaged the Malthouse (which now houses a cafe and gallery). When she was called to be told the bad news, Margery Fish’s first reaction was to ask if the garden had been damaged in any way. It had not, she expressed her relief and only then enquired about the state of the smouldering building.
Here are some of my photos of the garden in February, which as I write this on a very chilly April evening, doesn’t seem so very far away.