Trebah Gardens, Cornwall


On the steep sides of the Helford River in Cornwall lie two famous gardens, as similar in style as the two halves of a 1920’s semi. The likeness is not so surprising when you discover that both were influenced by the same family at a crucial point in their development. The Foxes, a large, wealthy quaker dynasty, created at least six of Cornwall’s finest gardens. Being shipping agents, they were well placed to organise the transportation of thousands of new species to England. Their neighbouring gardens offered ideal conditions for plants from warm temperate regions of the world, with fine houses at their heads, warm valleys sheltered valleys in their midst and waves lapping at their feet. Their names were Glendurgan and Trebah.

The view from below the top terrace at Trebah with the Helford River in the distance

The view from the lawn path at Trebah with the Helford River in the distance

When Trebah first opened to the public in 1987 it put the National Trust’s Glendurgan in the shade. Here was a ‘new’ garden being bravely rescued from an uncertain fate. There was no visitor centre, no smart guide book and little in the way of interpretation. Trebah was The Lost Gardens of Heligan before Tim Smit had even set his sights on rescuing them. It was an exciting and brave development on an otherwise established garden scene. Back then I was still in my teens and I loved Trebah for not being as stuffy as Glendurgan, which had been open to paying visitors for many years.

An unusual hydrangea without the usual large petals

An unusual hydrangea without the usual mop-head flowers

Fast forward to 2014 and Trebah has in many ways become as prim and proper as its neighbour. It is still a fine garden, full of fine plants, but has somehow lost its magic. It is not my style to be critical of gardens, the pleasure in which is such a personal thing, but in this instance I confess to being disappointed. The visitor centre, comprising a very good cafe and less praise-worthy gift shop, feels overly extravagant for a garden of this scale. Named the Hibbert Centre after Major Tony Hibbert, who donated the house and garden to the Trebah Garden Trust, the building cost over £1M to construct. However it’s Trebah’s branding that offends me the most. The garden’s logo, fashioned in an unpleasant combination of bright purple and emerald green, has been devised in a style I could only describe as ‘provincial leisure centre chic’. It is entirely at odds with the garden and one can only imagine that the designer must have been asked to come up with something ‘trendy’. Adding insult to injury, it is repeated continually on too many irrelevant and repetitive pieces of signage and interpretation. The National Trust must be wondering what drove their neighbour to put up the graphical equivalent of stone cladding.

Amaryllis belladonna relishes the conditions provided by Trebah's warm, sheltered, south-facing slopes.

Amaryllis belladonna relishes the conditions provided by Trebah’s warm, sheltered, south-facing slopes

Sadly, and I will be kind shortly, the garden trust’s latest project, a lofty amphitheatre, smacks of well-intentioned folly. Stark, hard-edged and miles from the carpark, one wonders how well this feature will be used and if the money might not have been more wisely employed elsewhere in the garden, or on a rebranding exercise. One hopes that appropriate planting, moss and lichen will quickly soften the granite blocks, but I still question the appeal of such a monument for the vast majority of regular visitors.

Less than impressed, friend Beth and Him Indoors vote with their expressions.

Less than impressed, friend Beth and Him Indoors vote on the new amphitheatre with their expressions.

At this point I will get back to the plants, which is what this blog is all about. Entering the garden at the foot of the top terrace, visitors are greeted by a fine collection of mediterranean shrubs, agaves, aeoniums, echiums and other tender exotics. Notable among these are Kniphofia rooperi and Grevillea victoriae. These foreign imports appreciate the more open, well drained conditions found in this part of the garden and flourish outside all year round. The path winds up, past lush clumps of hydrangea and hedychium, to a crystal-clear koi pond fed by spring water and fringed with tree ferns.

Water from a spring cascades through cool greenery into the koi pond

The pond flows over into a narrow channel which feeds Trebah’s water garden, completed in 2010. This is an altogether more appropriate feature which blazes with primulas, zantedeschia and lysichiton in spring , mellowing to shady green as the year progresses. Pops of colour are introduced for autumn in the form of golden rudbeckias and Lobelia tupa. Venerable tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) are everywhere at Trebah, some having been planted as long ago as 1880 when Charles Fox took delivery of no less that 300 trunks shipped over from New South Wales.

By early autumn, the vegetation in the Water Garden has almost obscured the complex layout of pools and cascades

By early autumn, the vegetation in the Water Garden has almost obscured the layout of pools and cascades

From the water garden a path meanders through dense thickets of tree fern, giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) and bamboos to what must be one of the greatest swathes of mop-head hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) in the country. Again, I have to admit this feature is not particularly to my taste, the bumpy landscape created by the dumpy bushes adding up to a rather ill-defined and crude scene. Most visitors appear to love it, and during late summer it’s one of Trebah’s biggest attractions. I will temper my dismissiveness of the hydrangeas by praising another new feature, a Monet-style bridge over the Mallard Pond, which greatly improves the view of the garden from where it meets the sea at The Didi, back up to the house.

The new Monet-style bridge

The new Monet-style bridge crosses the Mallard Pond amidst two acres of hydrangeas

Trebah’s diminutive beach, affectionately know as ‘Yankee Beach’, has seen more action than most. During World War II, it was used by the 29th US Infantry Division, comprising some 7,500 men, to launch an assault on Omaha Beach in Normandy. The back of the beach remains concreted over from that time, but the views out into the Helford River and to the sea beyond are beautiful at any time of year.

I have been hard on Trebah, but I mean well and would still encourage you to visit. Here is a garden which has a remarkable history and a bright future, but which needs something other than expensive amphitheatres to recapture the raw magic it possessed 25 years ago. It’s time to take the stone cladding down and invest in a can or two of Farrow and Ball … you just need to look next door to see that I’m right.

Click here to visit Trebah’s website and experience that lovely logo first hand!


Even Trebah’s garden plan can’t avoid looking like a map of a zoo