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 (Gunnera maniculata) 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, Lysichiton camtschatcensis, 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. Libertia grandiflora, 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 thrive here, Geranium maderense 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 (Davidia involucrata). 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 (Myosotidium hortensia)
Dusty Daisybush (Olearia Lyrata)
Mexican Lily (Beschorneria)
Ramarama (Lophomyrtus bullata)
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: Embothrium coccineum.
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.
Two world class gardens in one day!
Rosevine, 26 April 2023