Photographs: Charles Francis
August 2013: Honeysuckle and old roses twine around the oak bower in the herb garden at Pengersick Castle. Carved into the wood is the crest of John Milliton, who came to live here in the 15th century — before the castle was built — when his wife inherited the house which once stood close to the garden. “The story is that the herb garden was already here when John Milliton arrived, but he added the bower,” says Dan McLaughlin, who has been working on a major restoration project at Pengersick.
But, as he admits with a smile, it is just a story. The reality is that the bower and the garden were designed and created not by a medieval nobleman, but by Dan — a joiner and fine furniture-maker based at St Columb Major — and plantsman Phil Martin, gardening contractor at the castle at Praa Sands. Less than five years ago, the garden was a thicket of brambles and blackthorn. “When Phil cleared it, crab apple trees were all that was left,” recalls Dan.
When they embarked on the project, under the auspices of the Pengersick Historic & Education Trust, Dan and Phil decided to construct a narrative to help make the garden feel authentic. “After looking at the family tree, we picked on a particular time — the 15th century, when Thomas and Isabella Worth owned Pengersick, and their daughter Elizabeth married John Milliton,” says Dan. “It was John’s son, also called John, who built the castle A lot of the stone from the castle comes from an older period, and it is thought this was from the original family home.”
The house was probably situated just beyond the garden, on the hillside above the castle, which over the centuries became an overgrown woodland. When Phil thinned out the woods, a long-abandoned gateway was discovered, and Dan has now made a medieval-style gate for it.
He also designed the decorative raised beds in the herb garden, and the Gothic archways and intricate oak trellis which surround it. “We wanted to use Cornish oak and I found a sawmill at Saltash which sources oak from the Caerhays estate,” he says. “I used freshly-sawn oak which goes twisted to suit medieval design. The timber has saw marks, just as it would have done in medieval times, when people used handsaws.”
This imagination and attention to detail helped Dan to win the Cornwall Today 2013 Cornish Distinctiveness Design Award. ”It’s nice to get a bit of recognition and appreciation,” he says. “This project has opened my eyes to the possibilities of doing joinery in a garden. And I got great satisfaction from working at Pengersick: it’s a fascinating place.”
The impetus for the creation of the herb garden came from the discovery that Pengersick was granted a licence to grow medicinal herbs and poisons by Henry VIII. As well as verbena, fennel and golden rod, there are beds for culinary herbs such as sea kale, rock samphire and parsley — and poisonous ones like mandrake and henbane. As the trust’s chairman Jay Hodgetts remarks: “It’s a lovely idea that this garden, tucked away in Cornwall, was being used to produce poisons for Henry VIII”.
An archway from the herb garden leads into a medieval-style pleasure garden, with a green oak bench created by Dan, and planting inspired by tapestries of the time. “We tried to use plants sympathetic to the age of the castle, such as early varieties of roses,” says Jay. “But we also wanted year-round interest, so we have modern varieties with a longer flowering period which fit in with the feel of the garden.”
The tower, which retains some original beams and stone mullioned windows, is all that survives of the Tudor castle: the rest is a 1920s reconstruction. By then, much of the surrounding land had been sold to local farmers.
Angela Evans, who bought the castle and the four remaining acres, and lived there for more than 40 years until her death in 2008, formed the trust to protect Pengersick for posterity. Her vision for the grounds included a formal Tudor-style knot garden with fountains in front of the castle, and this is being completed as a memorial to her.
The castle’s reputation as one of the most haunted places in the country means that ghost-watching evenings provide a useful source of income to supplement bequests from the Evans family. Pengersick is a grade I listed building, and the trust hopes this status will unlock further funding for a restoration which aims to retain the character of a special place. “It’s like being in a different world,” says Jay. “A world where time has stood still.”