Photographs: Charles Francis


Anvil Cottage

June 2016: A conversation with owners Geoff and Barbara Clemerson 

Your garden is barely ten years old, but it has one feature which is much, much older …

Geoff: The yew tree was the only plant in the garden when we came here. You’re supposed to be able to date yews by their girth, and I thought it was about 500 years old, but a tree surgeon who came to do some work here said it showed signs of having been pollarded in the Middle Ages, so it’s probably nearer 1,000 years old, and contemporary with the ones in the churchyard. We’re just below St Sampson’s Church, one of the oldest in Cornwall.

How much is known about what is clearly a fascinating place?

Geoff: The church is a tiny medieval gem which was rebuilt over 700 years ago. It’s one of only two in Cornwall dedicated to St Sampson, who came to Cornwall from Ireland. Any history of that period is surrounded by uncertainty, but the general feeling is that this may well be the site of his monastery. In the churchyard there is a standing stone with a Latin inscription. In our circular rose bed, we have a statue we call Samspon — although the Bishop of Truro did suggest to us that the original Sampson probably wore more clothes!

Sampson and statue

What made you decide to create a garden here?

Geoff: We were looking for somewhere we could take on as a project. In the 1920s, this was part of the rectory garden, but the land had not been cultivated for many years, and it was completely covered with waist-high grass and weeds. We had moved from a large garden in Leicestershire, and were excited by the challenge of having a blank canvas. We were also attracted by the fact that this is a unique bit of Cornwall — it’s the back of beyond, and rush hour is two tractors at 5pm. This is a lovely site, with views to the west to Bodmin Moor, with Caradon Hill, the Cheesewring and Sharp Tor. You can see the sun set while you relax with your glass of wine.

Caradon Hill

Did you know what kind of garden you wanted to create?

Geoff: We started out with a plan, but not a tremendously detailed plan. A real garden cannot be created overnight, whatever the television makeover programmes might suggest. It has to grow and develop, and we were prepared to change our plans – even quite drastically – as plants grew, and we got to understand the site better. We were going to have a large croquet lawn, and we got it levelled and laid out – and then decided it was a waste of space, and divided it into small plots, each with a different style. So many gardens in Cornwall are spring gardens, and we quite deliberately set out to have colour through the summer. We started with a formal rose garden, where we had white ramblers representing purity, with deep red ‘William Shakespeare’ for passion, but the Shakespeares didn’t do so well, so we had to move them.

Barbara: The Shakespeares have spread through the garden. Most roses seem to thrive here, surprisingly – I was told roses wouldn’t grow in Cornwall. We now have two ‘Proper Job’ Cornish roses. The garden is very much set out in a cottagey style where I let things ramble into one another.

Who does what in the garden?

Barbara: My grandad was a head gardener on a country estate in Leicestershire, and I was brought up to gardening as soon as I could toddle around.

Geoff: Barbara has been the driving force behind this project.  She is truly green-fingered. As a retired engineer, I’m very much the hard landscaper.  There is only limited access for heavy machinery, so most of the work had to be done by hand.

What are visitors likely to see in your garden on your open day this month?

Barbara: Roses, campanulas, lupins, Robina lilies … There is a new bed underneath the climbing roses which I’ve made into a herbaceous border, and I’m hoping that will look good. There’s also two gunnera, which we’re trying to make an arch, and the jungle bed. It has a lot of bamboos, and other bright and vibrant plants, like a really striking orange hardy ginger.

Geoff: One of the more unusual plants which seems to thrive in this garden is Tetrapanax.papyrifera. It’s a curious and quite exotic plant, and should be looking quite spectacular by the end of June. It usually sheds most of its leaves in winter, but this year some have survived. We should have a number of baby plants from it to sell. 

What are the challenges of gardening here?

Geoff: Wind!

Barbara: And the wild bit is boggy in the winter and bone dry in the summer. I never realised before I came to Cornwall that I would need not just a spade and a shovel, but also a pickaxe!