-----In 2004 we bought a falling-down house and 30 acres. This blog documents our progress-----

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

remembering Cornwall

I just came across this article in the New York Times about one of my favourite gardens and it sparked some great memories: The New York Times > Travel > A 'Lost' Cornwall Garden Regains Its Glory

Back nearly a decade ago(!) when I used to work in management consulting, I spent nearly 5 months based in St Austell, which is in the heart of Cornwall, on a project. It is only about half an hour's drive from these gardens. It was the off-season when our team were working there so instead of staying in some nondescript chain hotel we convinced a local B&B to open especially for the winter to put us up. Because we were the only guests there, we were able to keep our rooms from week to week so it came to feel like our home... I still vividly remember my room as it had such lovely floor to ceiling bookshelves stocked with all sorts of old paperbacks, and whitewashed timber walls. Anyway, it was so lovely that often instead of me going back to London for the weekend, Dave would catch the evening train down. The journey took around 5-6 hours, so if he got the train in the early evening he'd arrive in time for me to pick him up late evening. Usually I used to work really late on Fridays so as to have the weekend free for exploring. Dave always had a nice trip, there was a proper old fashioned dining car with starched tableclothes etc, so you could have a relaxing dinner and bottle of wine en-route! The way back was even better because there was a sleeper train... you caught it around 11pm on Sunday night from St Austell and woke up 7am in Victoria station in central London and could just go straight to work. (I think the train on the way back went slower so as not to rock the sleeping passengers!) I still adore sleeper trains, and partly it was because of the Cornwall experience.

Anyway, it meant we spent many weekends exploring Cornwall, and the Lost Gardens of Heligan were my second favourite place to visit. My absolute favourite place was the tiny little beach cove at Polkerris, which had just space for 1 inn (great evening meals), 1 beach shop (selling old fashioned buckets and spades, those funny little windbreaks that English people love, etc) and a little window serving icecream cones. Maybe only about 10 houses in the village in total. It was also not far from the house that Daphne du Maurier lived in and modelled the house in "Rebecca" on... the fictional house was called Manderley - the real life one is called Menabilly. Sadly it wasn't open to the public when I was there, but if you were adventurous you could go walking along the cliff path and see it from the distance. The road down to the cove is very steep and only wide enough for 1 car, lined either side with steep rock faces covered in climbing ivy. My technique for getting down it was to go carefully till the first bend, and then on the straight bit just go like the clappers to get off it as quickly as possible, since if you met another car coming the opposite direction someone had a difficult backing-up job! Fortunately, it was such a small place that there wasn't usually much traffic.

But back to Heligan... over the past 8 years since I first started visiting, it's grown a lot. They've uncovered whole sections, like the ravine, that were still overgrown and impassable when it first re-opened. But there's just something so romantic about the garden's history and the way it was rediscovered. The most wondrous parts for me are the little details which survived... like this paving they uncovered in the garden shed, and the hooks for hanging hand tools with the gardeners names next to them. Little pieces of inconsequential history but they impart so much.

stone and pebble paving (Lost Gardens of Heligan - Tim Smit)
Originally uploaded by lynetter.

I love the whole garden at Heligan, but my favourite part is the vegetable garden - here's a blurb from the NYT article that does a good job of describing it:

"At the heart of the operation stands the brick-walled vegetable garden, a two-acre trapezoid whose northeast corner stretches out to catch every last bit of warmth from the early-evening sun. Divided by an apple arbor and footpaths into six plots, each with rows up to 40 yards long, the garden is dug (and manure is dug in) exclusively with hand tools. Parts are covered in winter with seaweed brought from the nearby village of Portmellon, which imparts both iodine and other beneficial trace elements to the soil... In keeping with the Victorian ethos, rows are straight, plants are evenly spaced, everything is in its ordained place.

Heligan does not limit itself, of course, to common vegetables; it grows salsify and scorzonera and parsley root, cardoons and borecole and sea kale, all highly valued a century ago but now largely ignored. Nor does it focus on long-lasting if often tasteless supermarket varieties; in an effort to preserve diversity the gardeners grow heirloom gems - six kinds of broad beans, five kinds of peas, a dozen kinds of cabbage and brussels sprouts and no fewer than 27 kinds of potatoes, including yellow-fleshed rattes, beloved by French epicures but hard to find, at least through commercial channels, in Britain or the United States. There are red, black, purple, blue, brown and white spuds, still only a fraction of the 1,500-odd varieties seen at London shows in the 1870's.

Special corners are reserved for princely species like the purple-tinged artichokes, relatives of thistles, and asparagus, with its feathery foliage climbing high above elevated beds. Rhubarb is grown under ancient terra-cotta bell jars, scarlet runner beans climb bamboo tepees and pears and plums are espaliered against the old walls.

In spring and early summer, the garden seethes with color - not only the florid gladioli, snapdragons and other flowers raised for cutting but also the more delicate blossoms of the gooseberries, currants and raspberries growing in cages off to one side, and a sizzling array of chards, with wrinkled, prominently veined red or green leaves and stems of orange, yellow, red, peach and pink. More hues of green than the most avid gardener has ever seen provide a subtle and ever-changing background.

But some of the most dramatic achievements at Heligan take place out of sight, notably the culture of pineapples - yes, pineapples, real Jamaica queens and smooth cayennes - far from their natural habitat. They are grown in pits heated by decaying horse manure, laboriously shoveled by hand, 30 tons several times each season. The first to be produced in the reborn garden were presented to Queen Elizabeth II"

1 comment:

Jocelyn said...

How fortunate you are to have been able to enjoy those gardens. That pebble floor photo is gorgeous too. Small and beautiful-thanks for sharing!