ESTATE LIFE: LIFE IN ONE OF CORNWALL'S OLDEST FAMILIES
PUBLISHED: 11:11 19 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:40 30 August 2017
Gillian Molesworth St-Aubyn on the vicissitudes of life in one of Cornwall's oldest families at Pencarrow
Gillian Molesworth St Aubyn is better known to her friends as Gilly - here she continues her take on the vicissitudes of life in one of Cornwall’s oldest families
In June, Cornish gardeners can let the trowels slip from their hands, flop down into a chair and blow out their cheeks in a sigh: phhh. Spring exploded upon us with a trumpet of daffodils; beds have been dug over, vegetables planted, pots re-stocked and fertiliser applied. For many, June is a quieter month where you can just stay on top of the weeding.
'Just look at the grey squirrel. This brash, chattery little beast from America has completely overrun the well-mannered red squirrel’s habitat. Not only that, it has introduced a lamentable culture addicted to fast food and knee-jerk litigation.'
At Pencarrow, we can lay down arms after this year’s Battle of the Bluebells. You’ve heard of the conflict between the honest English bluebell and the aggressive Spanish interloper bluebell (I spit on the ground: ptui). Well, at Pencarrow it’s internecine war between bluebells and wild garlic.
National profiling can be enacted through flora and fauna. Do you remember in 2011 when the Germans had an outbreak of food poisoning, which for a time they attributed to Spanish cucumbers? It was like the Germans were just waiting to fall back on absurd Iberian stereotypes. Those dirty Spanish plants, you know they really never wash properly. Germany boycotted Spanish cucumbers, crippling the industry. In Madrid, growers dumped trailerloads of unsellable stock at the doors of the German embassy, shouting round curses and waving their arms at steely-eyed diplomats.
The outbreak turned out to have nothing to do with the cucumbers.
Garlic has also stirred emotions.Generations of red-blooded Brits wouldn’t touch the stuff: garlic was the signature of Frenchmen, with their berets and baguettes and unseemly garrulousness. English gentlemen on the Grand Tour of Europe were horrified to see respectable women in the Continent eating garlicky food without the slightest concern for how it would make them (and here I raise a lace handkerchief to my lips), smell.
Mind you, Tudor doctors prescribed garlic for all kinds of ailments, and applied it in a number of surprising ways. I’ll leave that one to your imagination.
Modern cuisine has of course embraced garlic, and it is welcome in most kitchens across the nation. However, its cousin wild garlic, also known historically as Devil’s garlic or stinking Jenny, is the bane of many gardeners, especially those with wildflower meadows - or fields of bluebells.
After the rhododendron and camellia fireworks of the spring, Pencarrow’s bluebells are a jewel in its summer crown. Drifts of cerulean flowers carpet the ground beneath the beech trees and along the woodland walks. Planted in the distant past and multiplied through the generations, they really are breathtaking. Alas, they are under constant assault from the wild garlic: also a bulb, also a spreader, but with broad leaves that choke the surrounding vegetation of light. Everyone on the estate is charged to remove as much of the stuff as we can: so we duly unsheathe our trowels and fight the good fight, knights in the noble order of the bluebell.
As I trowel away to the sounds of buzzing and birdsong, I am reminded of Charles Darwin’s vision of nature. Many Victorians hated Charles Darwin, really hated him, for the way he challenged the tenets they held dear. His theories of evolution suggested that man was not created in God’s own lordly image, but instead spent millennia scratching his armpits as a hairy primate.
Equally as distressing, Darwin’s nature was not a harmonious place. Birds sang not for the joy of it, but to mark territory. Flowers competed with one another, their beauty not an exultation of the Divine but a contest to attract pollinators. Everywhere you looked was a struggle for life and death, in which only the strongest survived. It was a shock for a generation who wrote poetry about Sunshine and Dewdrops and The Robin on the Stile. Mind you, any gardener on a country estate could tell you that beauty in nature entails a lot of artifice. They spend most of their time hacking away unwanted species and carefully coaxing others, usually natives of a different country. On the great estates, landscape artists posed these plants together like painting a still-life.
In fact, Europeans who first travelled to the New World in the 1700s found its true wilderness distressing: too raw, too unkempt. There was no sign in the Hudson Valley of Constable’s landscapes: it was a tangle of vegetation and danger. No one truly civilised, they wrote, could ever come from New England.
Just look at the grey squirrel. This brash, chattery little beast from America has completely overrun the well-mannered red squirrel’s habitat. Not only that, it has introduced a lamentable culture addicted to fast food and knee-jerk litigation. It’s a damn shame, isn’t it. I’ll just lie low and keep weeding.
"We duly unsheathe our trowels and fight the good fight, knights in the noble order of the bluebell"