How time flies! I was just contemplating whether or not it was too soon to write another post about one of my favourite Cornish gardens when I realised that almost eight years have elapsed since I scribed the last one. I reflected then that visiting Trengwainton was like seeing an old friend who has moved overseas and returns once in a blue moon: much time has passed but we pick up exactly where we left off. There have been a few subtle changes since I last wrote about this wonderful garden, but nothing that would frighten the horses. Indeed, it’s still very much as I remember it as a child. For that reason, I invite you to read my original post for the story of Trengwainton’s creation so that today I can concentrate on what there is to enjoy in this timeless garden during April.
Trengwainton is one of the UK’s most southwesterly gardens. As such it’s blessed with a relatively mild climate, such that winter is more of a wet, windy blip than a long season of sub-zero temperatures. Frosts are extremely rare here and, in the event that they do occur, the garden has been designed and developed to protect tender plants from cold. Visitors may be surprised that such a large garden has no great greenhouses – at least for the public to visit – because there is little need for them. What grows well at Trengwainton grows very happily outside, many plants sheltering within a series of ten walled gardens built to the exact dimensions of Noah’s Ark. They house some of the most borderline hardy plants you’ll find in Britain, east of Tresco.
As small country estates go, Trengwainton is endowed with all the usual riches – woodland, walled gardens, a long drive, a big house, sweeping lawns, shrubberies and a sunny terrace – only they’re not arranged as you might normally expect. This is a long and slightly disjointed garden; from above the outline reminds me of a running hare, long and lithe. Despite the gentle topography, the garden feels varied and interesting thanks to the maturity of the planting offering height and volume.
If one follows the prescribed walking route, one first finds oneself wandering through groves of magnificent tree ferns along paths bordered by glossy camellias. (Don’t miss the almighty clumps of Blechnum chilense behind the gate lodges – they are spectacular, especially in late spring when new fronds unfurl.) The spaces in between are planted with swathes of perennials and shrubs that cover every inch of the damp ground. Particularly beautiful at this time of year are the Erythroniums (dog’s tooth violets) and Lamium galeobdolon ‘Variegatum’ (yellow archangel). Weaving its way artfully through the trees and emerging for a moment of glory by the drive is the Larriggan River, making its way to the sea over a series of low granite waterfalls. (A stream is at the top of my list when I come to look for the garden of my dreams. Running water offers so many sensory and planting possibilities that I have never been able to explore before.) In April, the stream banks are already dense with Caltha palustris (marsh marigold), Zantedeschia aethiopica (calla lily) and Primula prolifera (candelabra primula): later there will be astilbes and dense clumps of Hedychium (ginger). This is my favourite part of the garden at Trengwainton. Somewhere in the family album I am sure there is a picture of me as a boy standing by the stream in springtime.
After much joyful meandering and choosing of paths, one arrives on the edge of a great lawn. The sward falls away from the solid-looking granite mansion towards the distant Atlantic. Across the lawn is a long terrace with lovely sea views. However well-manicured, this part of the garden always feels like a dislocated arm – slightly awkward and shooting out at an odd angle. The terrace leads nowhere but is anchored at either end by newish, whitewashed wooden pavilions. Facing southeast, a long border planted with all sorts of tender exotica is warmed by the Cornish sun. We admired Echium candicans (pride of Madeira) in full bloom and smothered in bumblebees. Further back we spotted a less familiar shrub, in this country at least, the state flower of New South Wales, Telopea speciosissima (waratah – see lead image). This spectacular plant is a member of the Protea family and is rarely seen growing outside in the UK. Surprisingly, they can take a few degrees of frost but the main issue for gardeners is that waratahs are sensitive to the phosphorus that is the base of most general fertilisers. One can’t plant them anywhere that’s previously been cultivated and even in pots they’re tricksy because most composts include phosphorus. Having tried and failed to grow one in a container I am now content to see them flourish elsewhere – a waratah’s needs are much too specific for this humble plantsman! (If you do want to give a waratah a home, Cross Common Nursery on The Lizard has a small selection of imported plants.)
At one time visitors could explore the most extraordinary walled garden close to the house. This confined space was, as I recall, home to a venerable old fig tree, or perhaps it was a magnolia? Whatever it was, this space had a wonderful sense of antiquity about it. Thick, lichen-covered boughs scraped the floor before rearing up again like angry serpents. I must dig out old photographs as it was magnificent. This area is no longer accessible which is a pity, but the family in residence doubtless values its privacy.
Now it’s a case of backtracking across the lawn. The Beau was much taken by a rudely healthy camellia in full bloom – the label told us that it was Camellia × williamsii ‘Anticipation’, a popular cultivar with an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. The flowers reminded me of vintage swimming hats with their big, unapologetic ruffles.
The rain set in at this point. Precipitation of one kind or another is always a hazard when doing anything outside in Cornwall and in April it’s not uncommon to experience four seasons in one hour, let alone one day. Whilst an irritation, high rainfall and humidity are what make Cornish gardens so comfortable for their resident flora. Indeed, a gentle shower enhances their jungly, Jurassic other-worldliness so one must accept and embrace it.
The path wanders through a boggy area with more tree ferns and bamboos. We noticed that the garden benches have a design that allows the seat to be tipped up and back to prevent it from getting wet. Standing beneath the most glorious Magnolia doltsopa (once was Michelia doltsopa, the temple magnolia) I realised that my camera was now getting wetter than it should. Sadly, these incredible evergreen flowering trees are so rarely to be seen looking at their best – the display of creamy-white scented flowers is fleeting and the flowers are very prone to wind and cold damage. However, even with a few brown edges, a large tree looks like it has become the perch for a thousand plump white doves when it flowers.
Next it’s a short stroll down the drive. Delightfully landscaped on either side, there are glimpses of parkland and grassy glades surrounded by established groups of azalea and rhododendron. Many of these were just coming into bloom. There are no compromises with azaleas, particularly those with small flowers – they are either plastered head to toe in bright blossom or fairly dull blobs. One needs patience and tolerance of fleeting beauty to enjoy these shrubs, which I do, provided they are not in my own garden. We sheltered under a graceful cherry tree with the most perfect white flowers until the rain eased a little. The cherry was Prunus ‘Mount Fuji’ (Japanese cherry ‘Shirotae’), a tree with a gently weeping form that makes a stunning specimen if given room to develop naturally. Again, the blossom is almost over before it begins, but what splendid blossom it is!
I suspect most visitors skip the lower portion of the drive in favour of taking a detour to see Trengwainton’s superb walled gardens. Constructed by Sir Rose Price in the early 1800s, there are ten, smallish sections, some with sharply inclined beds facing towards the west. The design and layout are all about creating shelter for tender plants. When exotics started pouring into Cornwall from all over the world, their hardiness was unknown and the climate was generally cooler than it is now. Every precaution was taken to protect the new plants. Of course, money was not a limiting factor for many rich landowners, although, as it happens, Sir Rose Price did not leave his affairs in great shape when he died in 1833 and the estate was later sold to the current owners, the Bolitho family. Each of the walled gardens has its own atmosphere. Those nearest to the entrance are dominated by enormous magnolias planted in the 1920s. One, a vast Magnolia campbellii, flowers only briefly in March – alas, we had missed this year’s display of shell-pink, chalice-shaped flowers.
Another garden is filled with fuchsias – the kind we like – including Fuchsia splendens, Fuchsia fulgens and a huge, shaggy-barked species called Fuchsia excorticata. Also known as the tree fuchsia, or by its Māori name kōtukutuku, this New Zealand native is the world’s largest fuchsia, growing up to 15m. Small flowers, each the colour of a black eye bruise, emerge along the length of the stems rather than from the growing tips.
In the middle section of the walled gardens we were stopped in our tracks by two incredible spectacles. One, the flowering of an Embothrium coccineum (Chilean flame tree), and the other, an old specimen of Enkianthus chinensis (Chinese enkianthus) draped in grey lichens longer than Gandalf’s beard. The Embothrium was young, vigorous and loving life in such rarified surroundings, whilst the Enkianthus must have been in residence for many years – possibly almost a century.
Behind the walled gardens is a large, low-walled space that is being redeveloped as an orchard. An army of aloes, agaves and aeoniums have taken up residence in sunny crevices between the stones. There is a small bookshop here and water for dogs – our canine friends are welcome in the garden on leads.
Despite my personal perspective, time does not stand still in any garden, nor are famous ones such as Trengwainton immune from what’s happening elsewhere. Recently an aggressive fungus-like disease called Phytophthora ramorum, and the Cornish strain Phytophthora kernovii, have started causing serious damage to a wide range of ornamental plants. This troubling affliction was originally known as sudden oak death because of its devastating effects on native oaks in the USA, but it now affects a whole range of species. Tragically, several rhododendrons, magnolias, camellias and pieris at Trengwainton have died because of the disease. Those that are left remain vulnerable to infection. Micropropagation techniques are being used to conserve a number of important rhododendron strains for future generations to enjoy.
Whilst there’s no hurry to enjoy Trengwainton’s many riches, it can never be too soon to make its acquaintance. Visit when you can and perhaps you’ll enjoy as long and happy a relationship with this special place as I have. TFG.