Trelissick’s Champion

PUBLISHED: 17:36 20 August 2008 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013

A herbaceous border on the main lawn with Rhododendron 'Cornish Red' by Terry Underhill

A herbaceous border on the main lawn with Rhododendron 'Cornish Red' by Terry Underhill

In this September issue we visit The National Trust garden of Trelissick, in Feock, near Truro. Known nationally for its incredibly high standard of maintenance, the quality of its plants, and its abiding interest to the visiting public, all of wh...

Trelissick's Champion

Terry Underhill visits this well-known garden and talks to its Head Gardener of almost 30 years, Barry Champion

The National Trust garden of Trelissick, in Feock, near Truro, is known nationally for its incredibly high standard of maintenance, the quality of its plants, and its abiding interest to the visiting public, all of which are mainly due to one man, Head Gardener Barry Champion, who is retiring after 29 years.

Developing and maintaining a 30-acre garden can never be a one-man job, and Barry has had a team of workers around him who, fired by his enthusiasm, all take great pride in their work. I remember during one visit watching a member of staff picking up a couple of small lumps of grass that had fallen from his mower while moving from one lawn to another, and on another occasion, noticing the perfect lines left on the gravel by a worker raking up leaves.

The neatness and cleanliness of the garden is not surprising when you learn that Barry's favourite job is weeding. Despite the orderliness, the garden retains a comfortable feeling, and isn't overly formal. "I get close to the plants and when finished, I stand back and look at how I've transformed an untidy area into something clean and attractive," says Barry.

Cornish and proud of it, Barry was born in Redruth and has never lived far from the River Fal. On leaving grammar school, he entered the wine- and spirit-selling business, discovering after a short time that it was not to his liking. Having enjoyed looking after his own allotment, he decided to change his career and started working outside on general gardening duties. Wanting to increase his knowledge, he enrolled as a mature full-time student at Cannington, Somerset College of Horticulture, obtaining an NCH and later an award for being the Best Practical Student. From there he went straight to Tregothnan as Head Gardener for Lord and Lady Falmouth. Two years later, in 1979, he moved to Trelissick as Head Gardener Designate under Jack Lilley, the then Head Gardener. A few years later, when Jack retired, he became Head Gardener. Perhaps it's no coincidence that there is now a vista in the garden offering perfect views of Tregothnan, which is on the other side of the Fal.

Trelissick is the home of the Copeland family, and many of the flowers on their own Spode porcelain are based on blooms from the garden. From 1955, the National Trust began developing the gardens.

The soil at Trelissick is acidic, except for in the previously heavily limed walled garden; the annual rainfall is around 1118mm (44in) and the garden is open in parts to salt-laden gales and radiation frosts. It was a woodland garden, with many mature trees providing a protective canopy for many rhododendrons and camellias, although the late Mr Ronald Copeland planted a lot of hydrangeas.

Barry's greatest challenge came in 1990 when gales brought down 178 large trees and destroyed vast numbers of lower woody plants. It took 18 months to clear up the garden and deal with opened areas, which allowed in more sun, causing radiation frosts to penetrate and scorch the rhododendrons.

Now, as he reaches retirement, Trelissick's Head Gardener looks back with pride at how this dramatic loss of trees was turned into a positive event, allowing a wide range of plants to be put in the garden and all-year-round interest created. Proof of this is the vastly increased number of visitors, including many notable garden lovers such as Her Majesty the Queen, His Royal Highness Prince Charles and the late Queen Mother, who were escorted around the gardens by Barry.

Today, the garden has something for everyone, from superb herbaceous beds and underplanting, to wonderful examples of ground cover, quality shrubs and vast numbers of trees, many of which are now maturing. There is a naturalistic orchard featuring more than 90 different Cornish apples, and a superb wildflower meadow at Carcadden, the part of the garden that is accessed by a bridge across the ferry road and which is one of Barry's favourite areas. With retirement looming this autumn, Barry is being asked to publish his knowledge on the apples, and no doubt such a publication will include details on the Cornish art of pickling apples, which his wife, Linda, does.

Woodland areas with planted walks have been included within the gardens, and views of the Fal have been created, while still keeping out much of the salt-laden gales.

Being a keen plantsman, Barry has an eye for good plants, and has selected a pure white Hydrangea 'Pengwyn' (Cornish for 'white head'), a sport of 'Lanarth' but without blue florets, and his favourite plant, Hydrangea aspera 'Trelissick Pink Cloud'. He also has an ability to select potentially excellent gardening staff, sparking their enthusiasm and fuelling their quest for knowledge, with many moving on to become head gardeners themselves. "I always tell them that gardening is a career that involves a lot of hard work, for which you won't make lots of money, but the rewards are great, providing you realise that you have to put in to get anything out. Gardening programmes on television fail to emphasise that 90% is hard work. It may only take minutes to propagate a plant and place it in the ground but it takes many hours over numerous years to care for it," says Barry.

The 30 or more acres of Trelissick have a large collection of plants, both common and rare, from many of the world's temperate climatic zones.

As one who has visited Trelissick numerous times, I've seen the dramatic improvements made to the garden under Barry's leadership, so it's no surprise to me that the horticultural world has bestowed many honours on him. The most prestigious - and the one that made Barry very proud - is the Associate of Honour, bestowed by the Royal Horticultural Society in 2003, an award that only 100 people can hold. He may be retiring from Trelissick and the National Trust, but with Cornish gardening in his blood, Barry will maintain an influence on gardening in 'his' county.

Trelissick Garden, Feock, near Truro (01872) 862090, www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Most Read

Latest from the Cornwall Life