Photographs: Charles Francis
June 2012: A conversation with project manager Jon Mitchell and landscape contracts manager Simon Penna from Cornwall Council contractor Cormac Solutions
Gyllyngdune has been officially re-opened following a £2.4m restoration programme, which also includes the refurbishment of the Princess Pavilion. What were the aims of the scheme?
Jon: Restoring Victorian landscaping and features — which had become quite dilapidated — and improving public access, by having paths flowing through the garden down to the seafront, and also a step-free route. A lot of the views down to the sea had been lost over the years, and we had to remove some massive sycamores. We didn’t have any plans of the original garden, so we tried to put in plants which are in keeping with the era — although there was some debate about whether we should use newer, better varieties.
Simon: The Victorians were innovators, interested in progress, and they wouldn’t have kept the garden exactly as it was when it was first planted. So instead of using older roses, which don’t do well in the damp Cornish climate, we used hybridised and disease-resistant varieties.
How have the different areas of the garden been planted?
Simon: There are masses of herbaceous plants, and everything is underplanted with fritillaries and other bulbs. In the grassed areas, there are hundreds of snowdrops, and crocusses, iris reticulata and anenomes. The upper garden has a lot of exotics, along with traditional magnolias, and there is a camellia walk, underplanted with azaleas. We got some extra land which was part of the former manor house next door, where we’ve planted exotic trees, including a monkey puzzle donated by a lady in Penryn. There are also some pretty unusual herbaceous plants in this border, like chocolate-coloured foxgloves. We didn’t want a solid shrubbery, so we planted in islands, so you get sea views between them. Above the quarry, there are a lot of succulents, and more will be planted in the seafront area in the spring.
What are the challenges of planting in a quarry?
Simon: It’s very much a place where hot meets cold. Along the top, it is quite arid in summer, so we’ve planted restios and aloes, lampranthus and leucadendron, and a few bush echiums.In the quarry itself, there are a lot of trees and shrubs, such as tetrapanax and psuedopanax. To plant in the quarry, the men had to be secured on harnesses from above, anchored around the base of trees. The bottom of the quarry has ferns, hostas, primroses and hellebores — plants which tolerate a lot of shade.
Throughout the summer there wasn’t a breath of wind down there, and we were fooled into thinking it was totally sheltered. But as soon as we started planting in the autumn, the east wind came through.
The shell seats at the top of the quarry, and the shell grotto at its base, are iconic features of Gyllyngdune. How did you restore them?
Jon: We rebuilt some parts of the seats, trying to match the original shells. There was mineral staining all down the grotto, and you could hardly see some of the shells, so they were painstakingly cleaned. It was all done by specialist contractors working with volunteers. The results are absolutely stunning.
What other special features does the garden have, both new and old?
Jon: Beyond the formal garden, the new roses will be growing up arches fabricated in forged steel by a local blacksmith in accordance with the original design. We have a new children’s play area themed around Morgawr, the Cornish sea dragon, and access to the tunnel has been opened up, so people can walk from the seafront to the quarry.
Simon: There’s a shell sculpture over the original dipping pond. The area around the pond had been done in typical bad-taste 60s crazy paving: we dug down deeper and found granite. The gardeners are chuffed with the new greenhouse, which is where the Victorian one was. We have a lot of succulents in there which we will be able to propagate from.
What can visitors look forward to seeing in the late winter and early spring?
Simon: Snowdrops, hellebores and crocusses will be in bloom early, and the azaleas on the camellia walk start to flower in February. Later, we’ll have big drifts of colour from a variety of herbaceous plants — Gallium oderatum, various sedalcias, epimedium, prunella, delphiniums, digitalis, loads of different hemeracalis, and many more.