Long Barn: Vita and Harold’s garden before Sissinghurst
Most people, when they move to a new property, make some changes, perhaps a new kitchen or bathroom, or even an extension. When in 1913 Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, home from a diplomatic posting in Constantinople, bought two farm labourers’ cottages and adjoining land in the village of Sevenoaks Weald in Kent, they went a step further and moved a mediaeval barn from the bottom of the hill joining it to the cottages to create a large house. Their radical approach to property renovation extended to garden-making, culminating years later in the creation of the unique gardens at Sissinghurst.
I visited Long Barn on a blistering hot day in early June. Organised by the WGFA, the visit consisted of an introduction to the property by the owner Rebecca Lemonius, followed by a tutorial in plant sketching by head gardener Anna Ribo. It was a very memorable and rewarding day in a fascinating garden. The link with one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated gardeners and garden writers made it all the more special. As for the art element, Anna’s non-judgmental approach gave this non-artist the space and freedom to have a go at drawing the bold planting combinations without feeling daunted.
Having grown up only 1.5 miles away, in her ancestral home Knole (nicknamed ‘the calendar house’ because of its reputed 365 rooms), it was important for Vita to live somewhere with an intriguing history. Long Barn was reputed to have been occupied at one time by the founder of the printing press, William Caxton. The house went on to develop more history when in the 1930s, after Vita and Harold had decamped to Sissinghurst, it was let to aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife when they sought solitude and privacy from the press intrusion following the kidnapping of their infant son in 1932. During the 2WW the house was used as a nursery by the NSPCC to accommodate children affected by air raids. Rebecca told a touching story of her correspondence with a gentleman who had lived at Long Barn during this period. Following his recent death, his ashes are to be scattered in the garden.
In developing a new garden at Long Barn, Vita and Harold addressed the property’s sloping site by installing a terrace. Architect Edwin Lutyens, a lover of Vita’s mother Victoria, the spirited Baroness Sackville, advised on the construction of a series of raised beds at the foot of the garden (now the Dutch Garden) and the planting of a long row of clipped yew columns across the middle of the main lawn, but is not known to have been involved elsewhere in either the remodelling of the house or development of the garden.
Vita and Harold made a good team when it came to making gardens. His strength was in the vision to create the structure and hard landscaping, whilst Vita’s talent was in choosing the planting, informed by her admiration for the writings of William Robinson, pioneer of the wild gardening style, a reaction to the rigidly formal bedding fashion of the Victoria era. The garden was said to be the glue which held their marriage together. When it was rumoured that a chicken farm was to be built on adjoining land, the Nicolsons looked for another property, a blank canvas on which to create a garden. And so they arrived at Sissinghurst which has of course come to be known as one of the great gardens of the world. They moved there in 1932 but didn’t sell Long Barn until 1945.
In terms of gardening partnerships, it’s clear that Rebecca and her head gardener Anna share a similar vision for the atmosphere they want the garden to evoke, their philosophy being that the design is led by their choice of plants. Anna explained that her approach to gardening at Long Barn (she has been there five years) is to be sympathetic to what is already there. A gardener has to approach a garden with a degree of humility, get a feel for the soil and condtions and get to know the client. The soil here is Weald Clay which is rock hard in summer and sticky and claggy in winter: they improve it as far as possible by mulching it with organic matter such as composted bark and spent mushroom compost which help to break up the clay. The only place they use grit is in the Cretean Bed, a narrow south-facing border running parallel to the Box Parterre where the plants are reminiscent of the Mediterranean style planting at Delos at Sissinghurst, with a limited colour palette accented by handsome multi-headed Aeoniums.
This large site consisting of several different areas or ‘rooms’ is maintained by what amounts to seven man days a week, and Rebecca and Anna recognise that ‘everywhere doesn’t have to be perfect all the time’. After an area has gone over, it is allowed to be quiet. With such a small team, there has to be a realistic view of what can be achieved in terms of maintenance. There is an irrigation system in place in the Dutch Garden, but everywhere else is watered by hand. A further challenge is posed by the rest of the village’s surface water draining down towards Long Barn. On the site of an old tennis court, they are developing the ‘Rose Meadow’ where roses are encouraged to be as tall as possible, interplanted with grasses and wild flowers such as cow parsley and buttercups.
Head gardener Anna is also a garden designer with a fine art background, and prefers to hand draw her designs rather than using a computer programme. When sketching a plant she told us you should look at the character of the plant and ask yourself is it, for example, upright, frothy, strong, structural? If you spent ten minutes a day on sketching the plants in your garden you would soon see progress. After these words of encouragement we were free to draw plants in the Dutch Garden which was a joyful experience. We hunkered down in the shade on the cool grass between the raised beds and drew the plants at close range, considering how one plant relates to its neighbours and trying to capture something of the sheer exuberance of the planting here. Since the day at Long Barn I have sketched in my garden for a few minutes but haven’t devoted enough time to it to see such progress. I certainly find it a mindful experience regardless of the results my concentration produces.
Anna shared some useful design tips for planning planting schemes. When assembling a choice of plants for a border you should introduce lots of different flower shapes. Umbels, the flattish umbrella-like flowerheads of plants such as Valerian officinalis, will attract beneficial insects like hoverflies which eat aphids. Heavily edit self-seeders when they have finished flowering, but don’t remove them altogether. For example bright cerise Gladiolus byzantina, itself a self-seeder, was lighting up the beds in the lower part of the garden with vibrant spires of flowers. In a large herbaceous border like those in the Dutch Garden, maintain planting pockets which carry a quiet period, during which you can introduce annual plants such as Ammi majus (more umbels!) Anna’s plant descriptions were wonderfully lively: she pointed out zesty euphorias and described small flowered, low growing plants as ditsy.
There was something of Great Dixter about the garden at Long Barn. I think it’s the handsome and weathered old house rearing up amidst a sea of bold colours and diverse flower shapes and leaf textures. The team at Long Barn have certainly honoured Vita and Harold’s horticultural legacy by maintaining the unique structure of a historic garden but within that framework experimenting and playing with scale and colour.
Here are some more of my images of the three acre site.
Luton Hoo Walled Garden
In some gardens a sundial helps you to tell the time. At Luton Hoo Walled Garden the walls themselves ARE the timepiece. The octagonal walls enclosing this 4.83 acre space were aligned to capture the maximum amount of sunlight to aid the production of peaches and other tender fruits.
…some walls face the direction of sunrise and sunset at the spring and autumn equinoxes and at the midsummer and midwinter solstices, maximising the sunlight on the wallsShort History of the Luton Hoo Estate 2022
The Walled Garden was commissioned by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute shortly after he bought the 300 acre Luton Hoo estate on the Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire border in 1763. Having engaged Robert Adam, the eminent architect of the time, to redesign the older mansion, he selected landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, to reshape the park land surrounding it in the fashionable English landscape style with which Brown had made his name. As part of his vision for the estate, Capability Brown chose a 10 acre site on the highest part of the land, sheltered on two sides by woodland, on which to build a garden to supply the big house with vegetables and fruit as well as raising flowers with which to decorate the mansion. Within the 10 acre site, a 4.83 acre octagonal enclosure was built surrounded by high brick walls.
In the following decade Bute built a conservatory within the octagon for the rare species of plants he had collected throughout his life, including during his time advising George III’s parents Frederick and Augusta, Prince and Princess of Wales, on the development of a botanic garden in Kew. He also had a catalogue compiled in 1777 of the plants grown on the estate which has been consulted when selecting some of the plants now grown in the Walled Garden. That conservatory was dismantled by Lord Bute’s eldest son, and when the estate was sold to Mr John Shaw Leigh in 1847 he built a new conservatory and boiler house. Leigh also revitalised the garden by installing a new drainage system and underground water storage tanks. The area outside the walls is known as the ‘slips’ where a fine double fronted house was built for the head gardener together with glasshouses. The garden became a showcase of horticultural excellence, producing thousands of bedding plants every year for the formally laid out beds and fruit trees trained into extravagant designs. A vinery housed several grape varieties and out of season carnations were grown in heated glasshouses as well as orchids.
The birth of the Edwardian era brought another change in ownership with Sir Julius and Lady Alice Wernher buying Luton Hoo in 1903. The old conservatory was demolished along with the north-west wall (the eighth wall of the octagon) and a huge range of glasshouses (229 feet long) was commissioned from Edinburgh firm, Mackenzie and Moncur, with a fernery at its centre topped by an elaborate glass cupola, and six smaller houses. More propagation houses were built by Foster and Pearson and 54 gardeners were employed under the leadsership of head gardener Arthur Metcalfe who worked at Luton Hoo until 1934. During the 2WW the Women’s Land Army trained in the Walled Garden. After the war, areas of the garden ceased to be cultivated, and the glasshouses became increasingly expensive to heat and maintain. Part of the garden was used to rear pheasants and a garden centre was established in the northern section of the garden, which operated until 1977, after which the Walled Garden remained unused as a productive area until the first decade of the millennium.
After a research project was instigated to investigate the viability of reviving the garden and opening it to the public, since 2006 the energy and enthusiasm of a loyal cohort of volunteers (now numbering approximately 120) has been harnessed to carry out building conservation work and make a garden which is both decorative and productive. A team of research volunteers continues to uncover the stories behind the garden and the people employed there over the centuries. Thanks to the volunteers, the Walled Garden is one again a cared-for space, accommodating numerous beds and borders producing fruit and vegetables and an array of herbaceous perennials, annuals and shrubs.
The ‘service’ areas beyond the walls, have been sympathetically restored as a unique record of life working in a grand garden at the turn of the C19 into the C20.
At this stage of the conservation project the Edwardian glasshouses remains unglazed, but the framework of the range remains intact and the houses have been made safe to explore. All possible original features have been preserved such as winding mechanisms, ironmongery for opening and closing air vents and decorative grille work on the flooring above the hot water pipes. Whilst it would be wonderful to see the glasshouses restored to their former glory, there is something eerily beautiful about the skeletal forms which dominate the northern side of the garden, facing out to the southern sky to harness as much sunlight as possible as they once did for the generations which have gone before.
I visited Luton Hoo Walled Garden on 7 June, coinciding with one of their Open Wednesdays and joined a guided tour of the garden. Here I learnt that the gardeners referred to early colour photographs of the garden, known as ‘autochromes’, when reinstating the layout of the garden. But whilst honouring the long history of a garden on this site, this garden is not being frozen in time as an example of Edwardian extravagance. The estate owners and volunteers are ensuring that this unique garden can be enjoyed by everyone now and into the future. They are working with SENSE college in Luton to involve young adults with complex disabilities in growing things as well as other outreach projects with the wider community.
The botanical legacy of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, is evidenced in the names of several plants. Sadly, like my own handsome regal Pelargonium Lord Bute, those being propagated for sale in the garden’s produce shop suffered despite being protected from last winter’s freezing temperatures. But a week or so after my visit, during my Friday morning stint at Osterley Park and House, head gardener Andy Eddy led us over to the American Border to see the ‘silky camellia’ in flower: Stewartia malecodendron, named for the botanist and aristocrat (and erstwhile Prime Minister!) whose Luton Hoo Walled Garden is going from strength to strength.
4 July 2023
- Chiswick Mall and 7 Hammersmith Terrace
When I was aged around eight and nine, we spent two summer holidays in the south Cornwall town of Fowey, staying in a block of holiday flats with a balcony overlooking the Fowey River. There was constant activity on the river: tankers laden with china clay heading out to sea and deep sea fishing boats coming in the opposite direction, as well as the foot ferry plying back and forth to Polruan on the opposite bank of the river. Here is my grandmother, Annie Austin (née O’Leary), known to her family as Nano and to my sister and myself as Granny Austin, photographed in about 1967, enjoying the view from the balcony.
There was a garden attached to the flats. I say attached, in fact it was across the road which led from the centre of town to the small cove called Readymoney Beach where we played and paddled most days. I can remember thinking it was a huge novelty to be separated from your garden by a road.
I was reminded of this configuration of dwelling and garden when I walked along Chiswick Mall recently. The houses and blocks of flats are to the north of the street, their riverside gardens to the south. One gets tantalising glimpses of the gardens, through gateways and railings, enough to reveal an orchard style garden with beehives, another brimming with roses. Beyond clumps of poppies and Amsonia the River Thames flows swiftly, the south bank of the river obscured from view by the wooded Chiswick Eyot, giving the impression of a rather more rural setting than is in fact the case. Sadly I missed the annual opening of some of these gardens for the National Gardens Scheme last weekend.
I was in that part of town a week earlier, walking west towards Barnes Bridge beyond Dukes Meadows, having visited Emery Walker’s House at 7 Hammersmith Terrace. Sometimes called the most authentic Arts and Crafts home in Britain, the Georgian terraced house remains as decorated by Walker, using wallpaper and textiles made by his friend William Morris’s firm, Morris & Co. The blue plaque on the plain frontage of the property describes Emery Walker (1851-1933) as a ‘typographer and antiquary’, to which occupations can be added printer, engraver and photographer. William Morris lived nearby at Kelmscott House (now home to The William Morris Society). The interior’s preservation is due to the efforts of Walker’s daughter Dorothy (1878-1963) and her companion Elizabeth de Haas (1918-99). Elizabeth de Haas left the house and its contents to a charity she created, The Emery Walker Trust, thanks to whom the house is opened for guided tours.
Walker set up the Doves Press at 1 Hammersmith Terrace in 1900 where with his partner TJ Cobden-Sanderson he created an elegant typeface, Doves Type, based on a C15 Venetian type. Our excellent guide on the tour of the house told us the extraordinary story of a falling out between the partners, leading to Cobden-Sanderson’s throwing almost a ton of metal type into the Thames from nearby Hammersmith Bridge over the course of several nights in 1916. Almost 100 years later graphic artist Robert Green recovered three pieces of type from the foreshore and 147 more were found by professional divers. Using these and the books published by the Doves Press using the type, Green recreated the Doves Type font after three years’ painstaking work.
I was particularly interested in the house’s link with printing as my maternal great grandfather Edward ‘Ned’ O’Leary (father of my grandmother pictured above) was a printer for Easons in Dublin in the early C20.
Unlike Chiswick Mall, the Hammersmith Terrace gardens adjoin the houses. That at No.7 is maintained by a team of volunteers and is accessed through a conservatory at raised ground floor level, from which steps lead down to the garden. The old grapevine growing in the conservatory is said to have been taken from a cutting from William Hogarth’s house in Chiswick. The garden is laid out in a series of straight terracotta lined paths around quite narrow flower beds. A raised walkway which once separated the properties on Hammersmith Terrace from the river, now forms a terrace at the rear of the garden. The guidebook reports that Dorothy Walker was an ‘enthusiastic gardener’ and kept a notebook recording her planting. I’ve seen a reference to a plant having been named after Dorothy but have been unable to trace what this might have been. The garden is certainly awash with roses so perhaps there’s a Dorothy Walker rose? Amidst the roses are cottagey style perennials such as a maroon and white Centaurea montana.
Of course William Morris’s wallpaper and textile designs were invariably based on flowers and animals, and it was such a treat to see so much of it at 7 Hammersmith Terrace. For example the woollen hangings in the dining room feature Morris’s ‘Bird’ design, reproduced on the cover of the house’s guidebook. There are many tapestries and embroideries on display, several of them worked by May Morris, William’s daughter. The finale of our tour was the guide revealing what lay beneath a plain sheet over the bed in the main bedroom: a woollen bedcover embroidered by May Morris with daisies, poppies, forget-me-nots and daffodils.
2. St Just in Roseland Church and Gardens
When I was in Cornwall in April, I explored another waterside garden: at St Just in Roseland Church. Located beside the Fal River, a couple of miles south of the King Harry Ferry which I talked about in my post about NT Trelissick Gardens, the square-towered church sits close to the water’s edge at the foot of a sloping site which is both churchyard and sub-tropical garden. As well as the sombre yew trees you’d expect to see in a churchyard, here are palm trees and tall pines as well as a grove of Gunnera manicata. I was lucky enough to see the loose, fragrant clusters of starry flowers of the tree commonly called winter’s bark, Drimys winteri. This tree, which originates from Chile and Argentina, is a clue to the unusual history of the garden surrounding the C13 church.
In 1897, after many years living in Australia where he built a nursery business and designed parks and gardens, John Garland Treseder returned to his native Cornwall and established a nursery for sub-tropical plants on a site adjoining the original churchyard of St Just in Roseland. He imported many Australasian plants, including the tree fern, Dicksonia Antarctica, Cordyline, Phormium and Eucalyptus. After the 2WW the church took over the nursery land as a burial ground. Thanks to a restoration project in 1984, the horticultural heritage of the site was secured with paths laid through the planting to enable visitors to enjoy the rare species.
A short walk around the creek, past a covered spring built by JG Treseder, leads away from the sub-tropical plants towards a winding wooded path lined with native wild flowers and ferns. I identified red campion, bluebells, wild garlic, lords-and-ladies, navelwort, dead nettle and hart’s tongue fern. Through the trees, which had yet to come into full leaf, I could just spy the granite church in its exotic setting. The church’s website refers to the writer HV Morton having fallen under the spell of St Just in Roseland in the 1920s when he met a clergyman tending the garden. An account of his impressions of the place and this encounter appear in ‘In Search of England’ published in 1927.
I have blundered into a Garden of Eden that cannot be described in pen or paint. There is a degree of beauty that flies so high that no net of words or no snare of colour can hope to capture it, and of this order is the beauty of St Just in Roseland…. I would like to know if there is in the whole of England a churchyard more beautiful than this.’
3. 65-73 Kew Green
I shall round off my post about the riverside gardens I’ve seen these last few months with a mention of the five wonderful Kew Green gardens which open for two Sundays each May under the National Gardens Scheme. I returned one evening about three weeks ago, having enjoyed seeing them so much last year. They didn’t disappoint, and you can read my impressions of them in a post I wrote in 2022, From River to Green.
In my next blog post, I’ll take you to Luton Hoo Walled Garden in Bedfordshire.
Kew, Surrey 17 June 2023
Sculptures lend themselves to display in gardens. The play of light and shadows cast by trees and shrubs brings them to life. A sculpture can be viewed from all angles and if sympathetically positioned, enhances the space in which it stands. I was fortunate to witness just such effects when I was invited to the final day of the Surrey Sculpture Society exhibition last Monday at Ramster Garden, Chiddingfold, Surrey. The exhibition featured 93 mainly figurative works in a beautiful woodland garden setting.
Ramster Garden is in the The Weald, the area between the chalk escarpments of the North Downs and the South Downs, from Hampshire in the west to Kent in the east. The garden’s acid to neutral Wealden clay soil with pockets of sand, provides the perfect conditions for growing rhododendrons and azaleas. The garden was originally created out of native oak woodland in 1890 and added to from 1922 by the great grandparents of the current owners. The sloping site and rich collection of acid-loving plants reminded me of the grounds of Caerhays Castle in south Cornwall which I visited in April.
Unlike that visit, when it drizzled ceaselessly all afternoon, the weather on Monday was perfect: bright sunshine and a gentle breeze. Our route took us past the formality of the Tennis Court Garden along Acer Avenue to a path around the western perimeter of the garden into the Valley of the Giants. Here there are magnificent specimen trees including redwoods. Before the descent into the valley, there are broad swathes of meadowland awash with oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare), meadow buttercups (Ranunculus acris) and wild orchids: possibly purple orchids (Orchis mascula), but I shall have to ask an expert to verify that. Set amidst the meadowland I spotted a graceful Acer backed by a huge white Rhododendron and unusual shrubs such as Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum Grandiflorum).
The nursery which supplied many of the trees and shrubs when the garden was first laid out, Gauntletts of Chiddingfold, specialised in Japanese ornamentation as well as plants, and this Japanese influence can be seen in ornamention around the garden, including a striking red bridge. The perimeter path eventually led us to The Bog Garden and a stand of Gunnera manicata, another reminder of my recent Cornish trip. The route of a rill flowing from Ant Wood was traceable upstream by a brightly coloured ribbon of candelabra primulas. As well as a collection of hybrid rhododendrons, I noticed in Ant Wood a pretty tree dripping in scarlet, the ‘keys’ of a snake bark maple cultivar, Acer davidii Serpentine, sometimes called Père David’s maple. Père David (1826-1900) was a French zoologist, botanist and missionary in China after whom several species have been named (see below).
To mark the centenary of the current owners’ family’s association with Ramster Garden, a new garden was laid out in 2022, the beds radiating from a stone Japanese lantern. A carved wooden dragon fashioned into a bench stands guard. Nearby on Loderi Walk stands the Loders White rhododendron, festooned with large white flowers. This is one of the hybrid rhododendrons bred by Sir Edmund Loder in the early C20, at the Leonardslee estate in Horsham about 18 miles to the east of Ramster. I love to see the lower limbs of rhododendrons removed to highlight the sculptural form of the trunks and branches and I noticed this had been done in a number of places, making a perfect backdrop for a colourful pair of parrots. And the bare trunks of Rhododendron Cynthia are sculptural forms in their own right.
I noticed a couple of fine handkerchief trees displaying a profusion of fresh white bracts, a full month after I had seen them in Glendurgan in Cornwall: a demonstration of the mild climate enjoyed in the valley gardens of south Cornwall compared with the south east. This is another plant named for Père David, Davidia involucrata and is sometimes called the dove tree.
The placement of the sculptures along the main path through the centre of the garden was masterful, taking full advantage of the woodland surroundings. For example, a charming sculpture of Red Riding Hood.
I detected a few themes running through the sculpture exhibits: dance, animals, particularly cats both wild and domesticated, birds, horses (especially their heads) and humans with their dogs. Not falling into any of these categories were the graceful Flora, the quirky photographer ‘Watch the Birdie’ and Shelf Life. I’ve picked out a few of my favourites in the images which follow.
Ramster Garden is open until 2 July. I plan a return visit for the autumn colour when it re-opens from 16 September to 12 November. Thank you to Beth Meades of Limeflower PR for inviting me and a friend to Ramster and to Rosie Glaister of Ramster Hall and Gardens for welcoming us on Monday.
Kew, 1 June 2023
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!
Rosevine, 27 April 2023
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
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, Cryptomeria japonica. But I was drawn down the slope to see the tall tree festooned with loose clusters of creamy flowers on elegant stalks: Drimys winteri 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, Vaccinium retusum, 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,
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.