Photographs: Charles Francis
October 2016: The giant granite press in the tool shed at Penrose is a tangible reminder of centuries of apple-growing in the fields around Helston. It is a heavy piece of kit. “We don’t know how the press was brought in. Maybe it was there before the shed was built,” speculates National Trust ranger Laura David. This month, the trust, which owns the 1,500-acre estate, will be welcoming visitors to the walled kitchen garden for the Penrose Apple Festival, which offers plenty of fruity fun — including apple bobbing, of course — and a chance to taste freshly-pressed juice and apple cake.
“The festival was born out of the traditional harvest celebrations which took place at this time of year,” says Laura. “It’s a tradition we wanted to continue.” The apples for the event are from the trees in Degibna Wood, which slopes down to Loe Pool, Cornwall’s largest freshwater lake. In time, the trust hopes to reinstate orchards in other areas of the estate.
Penrose was given to the National Trust in 1974 by Lt Cdr J P Rogers, whose family had owned the land since the middle of the 18th century. Their wealth came from mining and they sponsored several plant-hunting expeditions. “The Rogers family started to change the landscape, and most of what we see today developed from the late 1700s — the landscaped parkland and plantations,” Laura says.
“We have some beautiful parkland trees — a mixture of oak and lime, a London plane, a copper beech. There are also tree ferns and trachycarpus, including a lovely New Zealand Chusan palm, which is possibly the tallest in Cornwall.” The plant hunters also brought some Monterey cypress trees from California, which can still be seen close to Loe Pool. “They are quite iconic. We have some saplings grown from seed, which we’ve been planting, but they haven’t done very well. We don’t know what trick the Rogers used to get them to survive!”
The land donated to the trust also includes formal gardens which are not open to the public — “they are in a state of slight disrepair,” Laura explains — and several buildings of historical importance, such as a Victorian bath house, which was originally fed by water from a stream, and a row of houses known as the laundry cottages. “There is a boiling tub in one cottage, and another was probably the head gardener’s cottage. There was also a schoolroom there for the workers’ children — it’s derelict now, and there’s a lesser horseshoe bat maternity roost there.”
The trust is aiming to make use of information about the past management of the estate to inform its future actions. The focus is currently on the 18th century walled garden, one of two adjacent gardens designed by John Rogers soon after he inherited Penrose in 1772. The other is still leased to the Rogers family. “We only know bits and bobs about the history of the walled garden. We haven’t found any historical planting plans,” says Laura. “No doubt they would have cultivated things like raspberries and leeks.
“We have two black and white aerial photos from the 1950s, which show that it was cultivated then. Daffodils come up here every year, which must be a relic of when they grew cut flowers. They also had beehives, and there are shreds of wire, so they definitely used the walls for growing soft fruit. There was a glasshouse which was probably heated, as there is pipework running through, and a nice little dipping pond is still here. We know that the walled garden had stopped being used by the 1960s. What the trust did was turn it into a tree nursery. Conifer trees were planted there and sold locally as Christmas trees.”
The walled garden as a tree nursery. Photograph: courtesy National Trust
The trust has re-introduced vegetable beds in the shelter of the south-facing wall, and is growing a range of crops including beetroot, spinach, chard, swede, turnips, sweet peppers and lettuce, along with mustard and buckwheat as green manure.
Growing against other walls are fruitful pear espaliers and a thriving Kea plum tree.
A range of other fruit trees have been planted in the centre of the garden, to break up the monoculture of the lawn.
They include a white mulberry which commemorates 45 years of the twinning link between Helston and Sasso Marcon: the tree was brought all the way from Italy by public transport, says Laura.
In one corner of the walled garden is a nascent wildlife area, with a bug hotel and logpile, and Laura also hopes to establish a wildflower meadow. An enclosed area in the lawn is home to an old cold frame, where it is thought cucumbers were once grown. It is now enjoying new life as a herb bed.
A plaque commemorates Mike Lemon, a volunteer gardener who died last year. He is described as “a man of Helston who put service to the community before self”. Laura adds her own tribute: “He was wonderful”. The trust has no employed gardeners at Penrose — the Rogers family once had 12 in the formal gardens alone — and without volunteers like Mike, it would be difficult for the planned restoration to become a reality.
Of the walled garden, Laura says: “We’re sensitive to the history of the place, but it’s not going to be a renovation back to how it was. We like the idea of it not being an extremely manicured area — it’s nice to allow people to have a picnic here and enjoy this lovely space. The local Scouts and Beavers have taken on a plot, and another is being used for a gardening course run by Cornwall Neighbourhoods for Change, so it really is a community space.
“Local people used to walk past, thinking: ‘What’s behind these walls?’. Now we can say: ‘Come on in!’.” The Apple Festival provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.