Photographs: Charles Francis
November 2015: A conversation with head gardener Andrew Gregory
Penlee Park is home to a museum and art gallery, open-air theatre, football and tennis clubs, children’s playground and education centre — but it also has a parkland of mature trees and a walled garden. What is its history?
Penlee House dates from 1864, and was built for the Branwell family, who were mill and ship owners. Their land, which was all fields when the house was built, went right down to the seafront at Penzance. The fields were separated by Cornish hedges: one of them is still here, and there are remains of some of the others. The Branwells made a lawn in front of the house, with shrubs beyond it. J R Branwell and his son Alfred sent botanists out in their ships to places like India and Australia to catalogue and bring unusual plants back to this country. Some of the specimens went to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and some stayed here. In 1946, the town council bought Penlee Park as a war memorial, and a garden and park for the people of Penzance.
How much of the original planting remains?
Many of the rhododendrons in the park date from J R Branwell’s time, and some of the oaks and chestnuts are between 80 to 130 years old. There was a line of trees on both sides of the main drive, and in the fields beyond, Branwell grew more big trees to shade his cattle. He also had sheep and a piggery: you can still see the foundations of the old pigsty. The pond was here then. It was fed by spring water which came down from the top of the park. The Branwells had a rockery above the pond, made from black volcanic stone shipped from somewhere exotic, but we had to take it up, because montbretia and brambles had taken over.
How did the walled garden become the Penzance Garden of Remembrance?
It was originally the kitchen garden, where the Branwells grew pineapples, oranges and lemons. The chapel was built in 1947 on the site of the old orchid house, in remembrance of those who died in the two world wars, and the garden was laid out with lawns, box hedges and narrow paths. By the time of the Millennium, Penzance Town Council wanted to modernise it and make it more appealing, as disabled access was difficult and the hedges had become very tired. It was redesigned to have one big lawn, with more areas where people can sit when there are services here.
People love the garden because it’s so quiet, apart from birdsong. We have blue tits, chaffinches and woodpeckers, and even had a green and yellow parrot which escaped from somewhere and nested in the trees. The sun shines in here all day, and the garden is very, very warm. There is a 5ºC difference in temperature between the Garden of Remembrance and the park beyond the walls.
How did you decide what to plant in this suntrap?
The new design gave us more scope for planting. We’ve grown most things from seed, and we then transfer some of them outside to the park when they’re bigger. We had a bird of paradise flowering in here – it took 15 years to do it – and we have grapevines, bananas which have fruited, and a lot of exotic species. Eupatorium ligustrinum – known as incense bush – grows in Mexico and Costa Rica. Paulownia tomentosa, the Chilean foxglove tree, has bluey-purple flowers which come before the leaves. Dianella tasmanica, or flax lily, is from Tasmania, and has flowers like stars – blue with yellow centres – followed by purple berries.
Tasmanian flax lily (Dianella tasmanica)
What can visitors see in the Garden of Remembrance in November?
Many of the flowers carry on way into December. There will definitely be myrtle, and the agapanthus may still be going. The buds of spring-flowering species like mahonia and pieris also start to come out in November. There is always a quiet service in here on Remembrance Sunday. The chapel was refurbished last year to mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the start of the First World War, and two olive trees were planted in front of the building, as a memorial to the war dead on both sides in the conflict, which is a lovely idea.
How has the park evolved in your time as head gardener?
The Branwells had 14 outdoor staff. When I came here 23 years ago, nothing had been done to the park for a long time. There are now two permanent gardeners — my assistant and me — a part-time gardener and a part-time groundsman. In the last five years, we’ve planted lots of exotic trees in the lawn, like trachycarpus and fan palms. You wouldn’t believe how quickly they grow. Near the house, we also have a sensory garden, with has running water and touchy-feely things. As well as lavender, rosemary and sage, and grasses with feathery leaves, there is a 17th century granite cider press, and hand-made copper leaves in the fountain from Newlyn Copper Works.
We now want to open up the area behind the sensory garden, which is quite overgrown. We hope to let some light in, and have bluebells and other woodland plants.