Gravel garden

Photographs: Charles Francis

August 2010: A conversation with owner David Eyles

You’ve described Arundell as “a garden where no garden should be”. It’s true that there aren’t many notable gardens on the north Cornish coast. What made you think you could create one?

Soon after we came to live here in Crantock, I went to a lecture on shelterbelts — and the lecturer said that if you chose to garden on the north coast of Cornwall, you could not have a sea view. Being bloody-minded, I decided to take on the challenge! Having said that, I must admit that the information he gave us was critical: that the most important thing is to filter the wind, not to stop it, by using fences and then growing hedges inside the fences. He had a list of various New Zealand plants which could be used in hedging. We’re lucky to have access to three beaches from here – but it also means that salt winds come furiously around the garden. So we put in shelter everywhere. But we did cut a high hedge back when it started to take away our view.

Shelter from coastal gales

What do you know about the history of Arundell?

It was built in the mid-1700s, and was probably the first farm cottage of what was then known as Arundell Farm, which incorporated all the land from West Pentire to Crantock.  When we arrived, a lot of farming paraphernalia was still around, and there was a huge ash heap — our cottage was once two cottages, and they both had inglenook fireplaces. We were left with bedrock, shillet and not a lot else. In front of the house, there were grass rectangles on each side of the path and just one shrub, a Euonymus japonica. It couldn’t have been more boring.

How did you go about designing a garden when faced with such unpromising raw material?

It is a garden which evolved. I never sat down with a pencil and paper and created a grand design. The first thing we did was to make a small cottage garden from the boring front garden. I don’t like straight lines, so we created a curved path and planted cosmos, peony, stock, alstroemeria and bonica rose. We’ve gone for a fairly restricted palette: I tend to like pinks, purples and whites: they’re not too in-your-face. The lawn has got smaller over the years as I have taken more of it for planting.

Cottage garden

  What was the next stage?

 Next to the cottage were some derelict barns, which we made into a holiday home. We created a Mediterranean garden in the courtyard, with stone slabs, gravel and Cretan pots. We planted succulents and herbs, and also figs, vines and an olive, which is producing fruit this year.

Herb garden

We made the back garden child-proof and dog-proof, but for a long time, we didn’t do a lot more than that, as we were running the Crantock Bay Hotel, and didn’t have time. When we did make a start, we had to create beds from nothing: there was no soil there at all, so loads had to be brought in. We started a shelterbelt, but made the mistake of planting some shrubs before we’d done it, and they curled up and died.

The area beyond the original back garden was a field. How did you go about making it into a garden?

The field was once known as Calves Meadow, and had been used as a small paddock, and later to grow potatoes. When we came here, my two teenage daughters used it for their donkeys and later their horses. When the kids went to college and we were doing slightly less at the hotel, we looked at doing something with what had become a redundant field. We did have a long garden at the side of the field, where we grew cut flowers for the hotel, but we don’t need so many now, so some of that area is now a kitchen garden, and some is a pinetum, which is underplanted with spring bulbs like snowdrops, daffodils and Anemone blanda.

What made you decide to create a gravel garden and a haven for exotic plants?

We had to have a hedge to protect the pinetum, and on the other side of that we thought a Beth Chatto-style gravel garden would be perfect. You just get a packet of seeds, fling them around and pretty little things come up. The plants grow on top of each other, which eventually smothers the weeds. The gravel garden needed a feature, to draw the eye, and we thought it would be fun to use a piece of wood which was dried in a barn after being found on a beach.


For the last area, we were going to have a wildflower garden, something which was in vogue at the time – but they are extremely difficult to create and maintain, and are only in flower for a short time in early summer. So we decided to think again. In a magazine which a guest had left in the hotel, I read about an exotic garden in Norfolk. I thought if they can do it on the cold east coast, we should be able to do it in Cornwall. We planted succulents and used rocks to set them off — they come from a quarry between St Ives and Penzance. This year, an agave has flowered for the first time, after five years.

Agave celsii

Agave celsii 

There’s a real microclimate in the exotic garden, because it’s so sheltered. Bamboo filters and wind and is tall and narrow, so you don’t lose much of the garden. At the edge of the garden we have Olearia traversii, a New Zealand plant which can stand any salt wind thrown at it.

Exotic garden

How important are the stream and the pond to the overall shape and style of the garden?

I was very keen to have water going down through the garden, even though there is no natural water here, as I love the sound of it. We created a stream which goes under the lawn in the front garden and then emerges as a natural-looking spring. The pond was the next thing we did, and a bog garden was the natural progression. We had a rose garden close to the stream, but we realised it was in the wrong place and moved it, so we could plant water-tolerant plants, like some irises which a local farmer let me take some irises from his stream. We only put netting on the pond this year. We had been very proud of the fact that we didn’t need to — but a heron found us, and the fish spent all their time under the water.

You opened the garden under the National Gardens Scheme for the first time this year. What made you decide to take this step?

We opened in aid the local Methodist Church for two or three summers, and we always had a lovely day. I was taking guests at the hotel around Cornish gardens, and some of them were kind enough to say that our garden was nicer than the ones I had taken them to! And when you’ve spent a lot of time creating a garden, it seems a shame not to share it. We had 150 people for our first open day in June, but we didn’t know whether to expect 50 or 500, so my wife made 700 biscuits.

What can visitors see at Arundell on your August open day?

Achillea, eschscholzia, Love-in-a-mist, and American pokeweed, which is here, there and everywhere.. The Beth Chatto garden will be in full flower, especially the helichrysum and medullaris. In the exotic garden, there will be arctotis, canna lilies, gingers and echiums. Succulents come into flower whenever they feel like it, and the cottage garden just goes on producing things all the time.

Standing stone