PUBLISHED: 10:30 28 April 2015 | UPDATED: 13:05 30 August 2017



©2011 Alex Ramsay

Cornwall’s gardens are world famous thanks to its mild climes, its green fingered residents and the Victorian planthunters

Cornwall’s gardens are world famous thanks to its mild climes, its green fingered residents and those Victorian planthunters who searched the four corners of the earth for the specimens that would thrive in our weather. Author KATHERINE LAMBERT explores some of her favourites in her new book The Gardens of Cornwall

As editor of the now sadly defunct annual Good Gardens Guide, I visited gardens up and down the country. I was in a slight worry when I was asked to write The Gardens of Cornwall (published by Frances Lincoln in 2012 and now out in paperback) – but how to describe and enthuse endlessly about magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons? I needn’t have worried: our Cornish gardens are marvellously varied in layout and planting, in history and topography. A few of them, like Tresco and Trebah, rank among the finest in the world, but here are some of my other favourites.

Barbara Hepworth adored her three-acre garden perched high above the sandy horseshoe of St Ives Bay. It inspired her and remains home to many of her sculptures, and they catch the eye everywhere. She actively encouraged her guests to touch and walk through and around them: Let [the sculptures] look at you’, she urged, and they’ll speak to you.’ The genius of the garden is that the planting stands up even to the monoliths; it’s much, much more than a backdrop for her art. She grounded and surrounded her pieces with suitably architectural foliage and dramatic or vibrant flowers, with leafy and exotic specimens planted as counterpoints to bronze and stone. It’s the way that nature and sculpture have been woven together by Hepworth’s own hands that makes the garden unique.

For my money, Tremenheere is the county’s most exciting contemporary large-scale garden. Its 11 acres have a stunning distant view of St Michael’s Mount, and on the slopes where strawberries were once grown for sale in distant Covent Garden, there are now groups of bold sub-tropical plants amassed by Neil Armstrong. He also commissioned a handful of major art installations with the aim of creating moments of wonder’. One is hidden deep in woodland, while a group of charred oak menhirs, eerily evoking a family struck by lightning, stands motionless in a circular dip, surrounded by ferns, natural vegetation and tall trees. Perhaps the most striking is Skyscape, the American artist James Turrell’s celestial observatory stationed on a hilltop: from the circular bench inside you become mesmerised by the constantly changing light and movement of the weather as it scuds above.

In the romantic setting of the heavily wooded Lamorna Valley, there perches a remarkable four-acre garden – a kind of coastal crow’s nest. Chygurno gazes straight out to sea past a twisted and twin-trunked Scots pine that is the guardian of the place. The present owners hacked through undergrowth, pickaxed granite outcrops and manhandled boulders out of the way of their chosen routes across and down the steeply sloping site (put together, the spaghetti network of paths probably rivals that of the small intestine). Collections of rhododendrons, hydrangeas, camellias and magnolias are interspersed with exotics and grasses; stands of bamboos create a dark tunnel; and looking up from the woodland area at the bottom of the garden a collection of tree ferns makes more of an impact than they would in a larger space. Groups of agapanthus, commelina and celmisia sparkle blue, crocosmias add touches of orange, and everywhere you look flowers and foliage catch the eye – flapping banana plants, architectural leucadendrons and spectacular puyas, the distinctive Mohican-fringe flowers of Grevillea Bronze Rambler’and G. barklyana, fluffy-flowered acacias and tender metrosideros, Canary Island foxgloves and Chatham Island forget-me-nots.

Tregrehan is one of those estates, owned by the Carlyon family since 1565, where the past meets the present in a deeply satisfying way. W A Nesfield worked in the garden in the mid-19th-century, and his masterly design for the kitchen garden, with its ravishing avenues of Cornus capitata and Cordyline australis, has been cleverly supplemented by striking modern plantings. The trees, rhododendrons and, later, camellias collected by generation after generation of the family from fabled suppliers like Hooker and Lobb and Veitch were prized and praised by the experts at Kew and the Arnold Arboretum. The current owner, Tom Hudson, is from the New Zealand branch of the family; since 1987 he’s expanded the collection with species from south-east Asia, Mexico, Tasmania, New Zealand and South America. Especially wonderful is the valley garden – dark and cool but full of colour and opening out in the bowl at the bottom to grassy banks and a conifer-ringed pond.

But if I were allowed just one Cornish garden for my desert island choice, I would eventually plump for Antony, a marvellous assemblage of lawns, rides, walled enclosures and woodland. The 35-acre gardens surrounding the house, and the house itself, are held by the National Trust. Six broad and arrow-straight rides fan out from house to riverbank; when carpeted with bluebells and wild garlic in late spring, they are simply breathtaking. Humphry Repton respected the lie of the land and the importance of the river when planning his garden buildings, plantations and vistas, and mighty eighteenth-century trees still sprawl on the lawn among younger specimens. Ancient and modern coexist happily in this gracious setting: one of the old walled garden shelters a trio of pretty summer gardens created in 1984; the topiary cones that top a mammoth clipped yew allée near the house are echoed by the William Pye’s 1996 pyramidal water sculpture; and from the terrace, look beyond the substantial round brick dovecote, and there on the skyline is Ptolemy Dean’s light-hearted take on the triumphal arch. Stretching in a semi-circle from the house, the 60 wooded and wildflower-filled acres abutting the River Lynher on the northern perimeter are owned by a separate family trust. The clearings are filled with rhododendrons, camellias and drifts of wild flowers, its paths fringed by wild garlic and pink campion, and seats poised to capture key views and modern sculptures inviting visitors to linger. Then check out Tim Burton’s fabulous Alice in Wonderland, where the outdoor scenes were filmed at Antony.

Gardens of Cornwall by Katherine Lambert with photographs by Alex Ramsay, is published by Frances Lincoln, £12.99 paperback.

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