March can be a wild and windy month, especially in the far south-west of Cornwall. So it was that we turned up at Trewidden to view the magnolias only to find the garden was closed owing to the inclement weather. All Cornish gardens of note rely heavily on shelter created by large trees and shrubs. Now, with many of the original plantings reaching maturity or senility, there is a very real danger that branches might sheer off and crush someone in a gale. Disappointing as it was to turn back, safety always comes first in these situations.
Having marvelled at the lipstick-coloured camellias gracing Trewidden’s sunken drive, The Beau and I were full of anticipation and determined to sate our appetite for spring flowers. A few days before I’d seen a couple of Instagram posts highlighting the marvellous display of magnolias in Morrab Gardens, a public park in Penzance. Remarkably, neither of us had visited before, so we loaded the dogs back into the car and set off for town.
Morrab Gardens sits just back from the town’s sweeping sea front, surrounded by some particularly fine houses. This sheltered enclave is home to an extensive collection of subtropical plants that have been gifted to the people of Penzance over the years by some of Cornwall’s most noted garden owners – the Bolithos of Trengwainton, The Williams’ of Trewidden, the Dorrien-Smiths at Tresco Abbey and Canon Boscawen, rector of Ludgvan and horticulturalist extraordinaire.
Morrab House and its walled gardens date back to 1841 when a wealthy brewer, Samuel Pidwell, purchased a grassy plot running down to the sea. An important man at the time, he invested in mining and the fledgling West Cornwall Railway. He was twice Mayor of Penzance. Following Pidwell’s early demise – he died at the age of 46 – Charles Campbell Ross, MP for St Ives and five times Mayor of Penzance purchased the handsome villa and lived there until 1881. Following a brief period when the house was let, during which time Ross lost his seat at parliament, Morrab House was eventually purchased by a Mr King, His Majesty’s Inspector of Schools in the district, for the princely sum of £2,800.
The next time Morrab House was sold, in July 1888, it was snapped up by the Penzance Corporation to provide a park for public recreation. Since 1867 the town had been accessible directly from London via the Great Western Railway, becoming extremely popular with holiday-makers. A park was needed to give Penzance the air of gentility expected of a Victorian seaside resort; Morrab offered the Corporation a head start. The Georgian-style villa became a library and a competition was launched to design a three acre park in the walled gardens. Competition was fierce, with ten designs shortlisted and four winners selected. A London designer, Reginald Upcher, was declared the overall winner, claiming 20 guineas for his trouble, equivalent to £21.
Upcher’s architypal Victorian park plan was faithfully followed and swiftly executed. His design included serpentine paths, expansive shrubberies, fountains and flower beds, all focussed around an elegant bandstand (finally installed in 1897). Taking advantage of the mild, almost frost-free climate, an already mature planting in Morrab Gardens was enriched with a palette of tender and hardy exotics. It must have created quite a stir as new plants flooded in from surrounding estates, many of which had been the first to successfully cultivate foreign species. The Victorians were fascinated by exotica and here was an opportunity to put Cornwall’s horticultural prowess on public display.
When the park opened in September 1889 the occasion was marked with a half day holiday and a procession through the streets. The Gardeners’ Chronicle wrote: ‘One of its features is a Palm-grove, where tourists may fancy themselves in the tropics or on Mediterranean shores.’ There are still numerous palms, mainly Chusan, possibly surviving from those original plantings, along with a wealth established shrubs and trees. The famous avenue of cabbage palms, Cordyline australis, has sadly been diminished by recent cold winters, with only a handful remaining. The extent of Cornwall’s typically mild climate is evident in just how early plants such as Hedychium and Canna start into growth, with many herbaceous plants not even taking the trouble to die down during the winter months.
On our mid-March visit there was more than enough to keep two plant enthusiasts happy for an hour or two. A favourite tree of mine, Drimys winterii was flowering in the lee of a wall, surrounded by wide-spreading camellias with large, heavy flowers. Towering above a collections of shrubs close to the bandstand, a mighty thicket of Tetrapanax rex had begun to produce new foliage.
Walking towards Morrab House one passes through a damp glade filled with enormous tree ferns underplanted with Aspidistra elatior. This Victorian classic houseplant is perfectly happy growing outside in sheltered gardens, although it can look rather tatty. There are magnolias here, as well as on the main lawn. Everywhere you turn there are feathery rosettes of Geranium reuteri (formerly Geranium canariense) from the Canary Island and Madeira. This is not one of the tender geraniums I have in my garden, but I shall certainly try it now. Geranium reuteri resembles an especially large and vigorous herb Robert, with much smaller flowers than either G. palmatum or G. maderense, but equally pretty foliage.
Sheltered beneath the villa itself a granite retaining wall provides a sun-kissed environment for succulents, including the mighty Agave americana, opuntias, aloes and aeoniums. I’d love a similar feature in my own garden, but since the only way to achieve it would be to dismantle my greenhouse I might find it a wrench. It has, however, sown a seed in my mind.
We came to see the magnolias and we were not disappointed. A brisk and boisterous breeze off the sea means that Morrab’s magnolias have assumed an attractively low profile. This in turn imbues the trees with an air of antiquity which may or may not be an accurate reflection of their age. The shrubberies surrounding the main lawns are jam-packed with out-of-the-ordinary plants, some of which I could not identify and remain on my ‘must find out’ list (am I alone in having such a list I wonder?). Camellias are planted in abundance as is Pseudopanax laetus (a fantastic foliage shrub) and Luma apiculata, the Chilean myrtle.
It is something of a mistake to imagine that every example of our Victorian public park heritage is now desecrated and irrelevant. Naturally some simplification has been required to make parks viable in this era of drastic public spending cuts, but, assisted by a sympathetic local authority and the Friends of Morrab Gardens, it’s evident that this particular example of Victorian munificence is being actively managed and enormously appreciated by a new generation of visitors. Having reluctantly changed our plans, The Beau and I not only discovered a new special place, but also saved ourselves an entrance fee. Sometimes the best things in life really are free. TFG.
Morrab Gardens (Penzance, Cornwall, TR18 4DA) are open every day of the year during daylight hours. Parking is available on seafront and there’s a small, zebra-themed cafe at the park entrance. And why not?