House and French garden

Photographs: Charles Francis

Rosteague Manor

May 2016: A conversation with owner Jay Milton

The garden at Rosteague Manor is open for the National Gardens Scheme for the first time this month. What can visitors look forward to seeing?

The French garden was laid out in the 17th century as a box parterre. I have colour-coded the four sections to follow the seasons: spring is green and yellow, summer pinks and mauves, autumn russets and reds, and winter white. In May, the roses and peonies will be out, and some of the many bulbs which have naturalised here may still be in flower. The flower beds are full of bluebells. We haven’t been able to dig them out, so they’re here to stay! From the garden, there is a path down into the woodland — very pretty when the primroses are out — where there are more bluebells. There is also a pond there, and a series of waterways.

How much do you know about the story of this fascinating place?

It has a very woolly history, but there are a few pieces about it in various books, which gave me some clues. The first mention of the manor of Rosteague — which means “fair heath” — was in the 13th century. The house has its origins in the 11th century, but it has Elizabethan, Georgian and Edwardian additions. Rosteague has had some very grand times and some very poor times. It has been used as a farmhouse, and it was requisitioned during the Second World War for the Land Army. We’ve had letters from people who were stationed here, and also from the sons of former gardeners. Historically, there would have been coloured gravel and evergreen shrubs in the parterre. I don’t think there would have been many flowers, but we’ve found urns and statues everywhere, so the garden must once have been very decorative. The thatched summerhouse was built in Victorian times.


There is talk that there was an aviary nearby: it’s possible, as the French garden is sheltered by a granite and cob wall.

Was the woodland once part of the garden?

There would definitely have been a path through the woods, as when we were clearing overgrown trees, we found gravel underfoot. I imagine it was part of a pleasure garden walk, because there are remnants of the things that must have been planted there: rhododendrons, Monterey pines, a lovely collection of skunk cabbages, and some other interesting trees. In the woods is the remnant of a dovecote, and an old well, which was once the door frame of the house: it was moved here, for some reason. We also found an amazing granite millstone, which must be very old. We don’t know if the pond was part of some kind of industry, a swimming pool, or stocked wildfowl for food — it’s a complete mystery. There is apparently a smugglers’ tunnel going from the house to the sea, and another to the woods. Part of the lawn collapsed around 20 years ago — that must have been part of the tunnel.

How did you discover Rosteague?

My husband and I had a flat in Portscatho — but we didn’t know Rosteague was here until we saw it advertised in Country Life! When we came to see it, we fell in love with it. We spent so much money on the garden when we first came. We restored the summerhouse before we had central heating in the house, so you can guess where our priorities lie.

What did the garden look like when you came?

There wasn’t very much here. The box hedges were incredibly overgrown, and a lot had to be replanted. Trees were growing in the middle of the hedges. We removed most of them, but left the more interesting species: there is a gingko which I am loath to remove, as it is a magnificent tree. There were some great Irish yews, which were so out of place, but we started shaping them, and now they work very well.

Knot garden

What did you do next?

We renovated the summerhouse. Then we started spreading out beyond the French garden, clearing 10-foot brambles — which gave me an empty palette where I was able to plant drifts of daffodils — and then the path to the woods. In the woods, we planted gunnera, ferns and bog primulas. We restored the sluice gates, as the pond was empty and boggy. Now there are mallards there in the spring.

What are the challenges of gardening here?

Rosteague looks straight out to sea, and everything is hit by salt-laden winds.

Sea view

I don’t think we’ve ever had a spring when the flowers on our only magnolia weren’t blown off. It can get quite wild in the woods, and in March, a tree came down in the pond. Trees don’t grow very tall here because of the wind, and plants are stunted in terms of root growth, as they have to compete with the box and the bluebells. I breed horses, so I put a lot of manure into the soil. It isn’t particularly acidic, so azaleas and rhododendrons need a lot of top dressing, but once they get going, they love it here.

Which are Rosteague’s other horticultural success stories?

Sweet chestnuts, beech and cherry like it here; so do monkey puzzles. Ground cover roses come up flowering again and again, and climbing roses are fine too, although they do get blackspot, because it’s so damp and warm. My previous garden was in the Cotswolds, where you couldn’t grow echiums or agapanthus, so it’s quite exciting to grow them here and spread them around the garden.