Photographs: Charles Francis
February 2008: Roses help cure inflammation of the brain, and dill is useful for bringing relief from wind. Such were the beliefs of the Tudors, and this interest in the medicinal properties of common plants and herbs was a major factor in shaping the gardens they created.
Mary Newman’s Cottage in Saltash is know to date from the 1480s — the beginning of the Tudor period — and after the Tamar Protection Society decided on a total redesign of the garden, they wanted it to reflect the Elizabethan passion for herbal medicine. The new design also acknowledges that the gardeners of 16th century England — unlike their mediaeval forebears — were strongly influenced by Italian ideas on the importance of harmony and line. For the first time since the Romans departed, sundials and statues became popular ornaments in English gardens.
The Grade II-listed cottage, thought to have been the first home of Sir Francis Drake’s first wife, is the oldest surviving house in Saltash, and is owned by Caradon District Council. Twenty years ago, it was saved from demolition by the TPS, which now leases it, and converted into a fascinating museum. Original Tudor fireplaces surrounded by furniture and artefacts from the Victorian and Albert Museum give an evocative insight into the domestic lives of a middle-class family of the 16th century.
Now, thanks to a £48,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the society has been able to create a similar transformation in the garden. After months of hard work by trustees and other volunteers, the new Elizabethan garden will be greeting its first visitors next month.
Trustee Kevin Proctor says: “The garden was originally laid out in the 1980s, but not as the Tudors would have done it. There were large bushes, a fishpond, a lawn, a rough-and-ready area, and trees at the back.
“About three years ago we started having discussions about the way forward for the garden, and then spoke to landscape gardeners and garden historians about redesigning it to be more in keeping with the cottage. We wanted it to be as authentic as possible. We are lucky that the soil is very good, and the south-west aspect means that the garden gets the sun nearly all day, which can only encourage growth.”
The design drawn up by Peter Leaver of Devon-based landscape architects David Wilson Partnership, with input from students from Plymouth College of Art and Design, replaces the rambling cottage garden with its curved paths and lawn with a far more formal and precise design with hardly a wavy line in sight. Structural features include a courtyard with granite sundial, an oak arbour, willow fencing, and walls made from stone quarried locally.
Paths of slate chippings lead through the garden to a grassed Tudor mound, which in the 16th century would have been used to oversee the layout of the garden, and now offers visitors wonderful panoramic views of the River Tamar and Brunel’s historic railway bridge.
At the centre of the garden is a knot, a prime example of the Tudors’ most prominent contribution to garden design. The intricate pattern, in pink and purple shades, is formed by a mix of thrift and wall germander, with stock and sweet rocket planted in the spaces between them. The knot design is echoed in a ceramic motif in the centre of the courtyard which links the garden to the house.
Four L-shaped beds showcase traditional garden roses — Rosa damascene ‘Versicolor’ and Rosa gallica officinalis — surrounded by summer-flowering shrubs and perennials, including peony, iris and angelica. A kitchen garden in three raised beds is planted with strawberries, carrots, pot marigolds, broad beans, potatoes, leeks, cabbages and lettuces. Throughout the garden, there is a profusion of aromatic herbs, and climbers such as jasmine and grapevine.
Sarah Page, chair of the Tamar Protection Society, says: “The plants we’ve chosen are reflective of those used in the Tudor period, when wives and mothers used herbs and flowers to great effect for medicinal and culinary purposes, as well as air fresheners, hair dyes and deodorants.”
The project manager, Sarah’s husband Jim, adds: “Wherever possible, we’ve used locally-sourced materials and traditional techniques. We’ve also discovered a hoard of other useful little treasures during the excavation, from bricks that we’ve recycled for steps, to old roots that have been used for foundations in the viewing mound. Nothing has been taken out of the garden. We’ve recycled plants, as well as over 100 tonnes of soil, some of which has been used in the viewing mound.”
At the construction stage, Jim’s team of volunteers faced the logistical nightmare of having to bring in, through the museum’s narrow front door, tonnes of granite, paving slabs and walling stone from local quarries, plus a considerable quantity of cedar from the Tamar Valley. They also had to battle against last summer’s unseasonal wind and torrential rain.
The TPS team are confident that they have created a beautiful, tranquil and peaceful haven that the local community can be proud of. “We hope that the historic garden will appeal to tourists, as well as those who want a quiet place to retreat to and relax in during their lunch break and at weekends,” says Sarah.
A covered seating area in the courtyard will be used to serve refreshments, as well as accommodating a wide range of activities, likely to include wine-tasting, Elizabethan musical evenings, and education days for local schools. There are plans for demonstrations of how a Tudor household would have used the herbs and plants on a day-to-day basis, which in time will include the making of herbal remedies.
As well as receiving almost £50,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to create the garden, the TPS has also been presented with £11,000 from the Cory Environmental Trust, which has been used to renovate the cottage windows, carry out work to interior wood panelling, upgrade an outdoor toilet and modernise the kitchen.
There has always been considerable interest in the cottage because of the Drake connection, explains Kevin. “The last people who lived here, in the 1980s, used to have people knocking on the door, wanting to look round, not realising that it was still somebody’s home,” he says. “We believe that the garden will bring in even more visitors. The views are fabulous, and I am sure it will become a jewel in the Tamar Valley’s crown.”