Godolphin Rises

As I make my way home from Cornwall I have time between snoozes to reflect on how lovely the last few days have been. The weather has been vastly better in the West Country and England’s gardens are sprinkled with a floral confetti of pink, white, yellow, blue and mauve. (In Cornwall, thanks to a preponderance of camellias and rhododendrons, the spring palette also includes red and magenta.) It’s time to get out and enjoy gardens again, in the company of friends and family, or in delicious solitude.

On Monday we visited Godolphin for the first time. Godolphin is an ancient, once pivotal Cornish estate which found itself falling slowly and quietly into obscurity and neglect after the 1700’s. The house, gardens and farmland are now in the hands of the National Trust, who are restoring the place with particular sensitivity. Surrounded by bluebell woods, fields and historic, mined landscapes the atmosphere at Godolphin is one of antiquity and serenity. It’s as if the clock stopped at the end of the 18th Century, with few obvious clues as to what happened thereafter. I am half inclined not to give too glowing an account lest the place become overrun with visitors, but somehow I doubt it.

The gardens at Godolphin are of significant historical importance. They are considered to be among the earliest ‘designed’ gardens in Britain, made at a time when most houses would have been surrounded by defensive earthworks or deer parks rather than beds of flowers. The original house of 1310 is thought to have stood at the centre of a grid of nine square garden enclosures. This was updated to create a formal, Italianate garden around 1475, complete with ponds, fountains, gilded statues and elevated grass paths allowing the gardens to be viewed from above. At Godolphin the Cornish elite would have met and marvelled at the jewel-like gardens, the likes of which most would not have laid eyes on before. The Godolphins, who were later to become Earls, used their garden as a demonstration of power, wealth and taste. The contrast with the rest of rural, isolated Cornwall must have been stark.

When the National Trust considered how to breathe life into Godolphin’s gardens they had a difficult decision to make – restore, probably at immense cost, to reflect a particular period in the estate’s evolution, or leave them be and let them develop from there. The Trust chose the latter path, restricting digging to a single spade-depth to protect hundreds of years of history lying just a few inches beneath the earth. Hence the garden is quite unlike many National Trust properties in that it’s particularly casual and approachable. One might even describe it as very large cottage garden.

There are no fancy or rare plants, just the sort of things we all associate with an English country garden – roses, foxgloves, aquilegias and in spring, primroses ….. tens of thousands of primroses. Sprouting from every path, wall, border or lawn there are tender young primroses in abundance. The intermingling of our native Primula vulgaris with garden primroses and polyanthus has resulted in all sorts of curious antique-rose, pink and cream variations. They may not be thoroughbreds but they are completely charming and not at all out of place. Along Godolphin’s raised grass walks primroses mingle with snake’s head fritillaries, daisies, celandines and violets, just as one might find them represented in an Elizabethan tapestry.

Godolphin has the sort of garden I might consider manageable if ever I had the means to buy a country house or the time to tend to it. It sits carefully on the boundary of wild and well maintained. The formality of the layout and the structure afforded by low walls and box hedges permits the rest of the planting to get a little blurred. I should like to visit Godolphin again in late May or early June to see how the gardens look during those more exuberant months. Just now, when the bare bones are starting to be covered by a delicate mantle of blossom, the gardens give the impression that they have changed very little over the last 700 years. Long after its glory days have passed, Godolphin looks forward to a long and peaceful retirement.

Godolphin is situated at Godolphin Cross, near Helston in Cornwall. Visit the National Trust website for information and opening times. Leave it a couple of weeks and the woods will be carpeted with bluebells.