Two days before Christmas, the people of Torpoint will gather under the stars for a candlelit celebration in the town’s new walled garden.

Benodet Park bandstand

The bandstand seen from one of the corner beds. Photographs: Charles Francis

The event, featuring choirs, carol singing, mulled wine, and a nativity play starring local children — plus a real live donkey — marks the triumphant conclusion of a scheme to transform a council dump into an open space for the whole community to enjoy.

A year ago, Benodet Park did not exist. The seeds for its creation were sown when the site was offered to the Torpoint Allotment Association by the town council. Association chairman Peter McLaren looked beyond the rubbish and the rubble, and saw the sunny, sheltered kitchen garden which once served Thanckes House, a mansion long since demolished.

red crab apples

Red crab apples of Malus ‘Neville Copeman’

“The walls were built in 1709, so the garden is 300 years old this year,” he says. “As soon as I saw it, I thought: ‘I’m not going to put allotments here!’  With the council’s backing, he secured more than £40,000 from the National Lottery Community Spaces scheme to give the site a new life as a public park.

Peter had previously helped create a vegetable garden at Torpoint Infant School, in partnership with Alan Walker, who runs the Outdoor Living Company, a local garden design and construction firm. Alan was delighted to come on board as project manager, particularly as he had always been fascinated by the garden. “I went to school in Torpoint, and I used to peek in through the walls,” he recalls. “That was before it became a dump, when the council used to grow things in here.”

It was agreed to dedicate the garden to the twinning link between Torpoint and Benodet in Brittany, which has flourished for many years. When he drew up the design, Alan was determined to make the garden a place where townsfolk and visitors could feel truly welcome. He decided on three small corner gardens providing year-round colour surrounding a lawn, with a stage at the front, and a café in the fourth corner.

Planted corner Bedonet Park

One of the planted corners of the garden

Before he could begin, hundreds of tonnes of concrete and subsoil had to be removed. “It was hard work; I had a digger in here for weeks,” he says. “But I did find some large pieces of granite buried under a pile of stuff, which was a real bonus, as they go nicely with the garden.”

He adds: “It’s wonderful to have a site where anything will do well as it’s so sheltered. Once it all matures, it should be quite spectacular. One of the corner gardens gets full sun, and so we’ve got rowan and acers, which will be rich with colour every autumn, and in the foreground, it’s predominantly blue and pink, with fuchsias, lavender and rosemary.

“The second garden has red, pink and white flowering hawthorn and cherries for spring interest, a yew presented by the president of the Benodet Twinning Association at the opening ceremony, and camellias and agapanthus donated by Mount Edgcumbe Park. The other garden is the shady corner, where we have Mahonia japonica, variegated pittosporum, false fig, tree fern, acacia, weeping acer and pieris.”

Alan used local materials as much as possible for the construction of the stage and cafe, including oak from nearby St Germans, and waste company SITA donated £1,500, for lights for the walls, floodlighting in the corner beds and theatrical lighting on the stage.

Many local organisations offered help at various stages: recruits from HMS Raleigh came to rake and lay turf, and Torpoint Community College students designed a mosaic to cover up a cement block in the centre of one of the walls. It celebrates Torpoint’s heritage, and includes images of a galleon and a lighthouse, a fish, a seagull and a crab, with Thanckes House at its centre.

Torpoint mosaic

Mosaic of Torpoint by Torpoint Community College

Benodet Park Walled Garden of Friendship was officially opened in September by Torpoint mayor Michael Pearn and Elisabeth Rose, president of the Benodet Twinning Association. A celebration cake was cut with a traditional French ceremonial knife, and the new stage was put to good use for the first time with performances by local bands and choirs and Cornish and Breton dancers.

Plaque from the twinning ceremony with a Taxus baccata

Peter is full of praise for the support of Torpoint and Cornwall councils, as well as the many private companies and community groups which played their part in the project. “When different sections of the community work together, it’s amazing what can be done,” he says. “And, of course, Alan has done a fantastic job. He has a passion for what he does, and the end result is stunning.”

Alan says it has been a privilege to work on the scheme. “It’s extremely satisfying to see the garden put to some use again,” he enthuses. “One of my old teachers came to the opening and said it was the most exciting thing that has happened to Torpoint in years! I’ll be staying involved, particularly to promote the music side. The acoustics are so good because the walls retain the sound. Next year, we’ll have an all-day music festival with local bands.”

Although the project was completed in time to meet the Lottery’s September deadline, there have been a few hitches along the way. The construction of the café was held up to accommodate some of Torpoint’s feathered residents, as Peter explains. “There were swallows nesting in the rafters, which meant there was no progress for six weeks until their brood hatched and they went. So we called the café the Swallow’s Nest!”

A well close to the centre of the lawn has been covered over for health and safety reasons, although the crystal clear water can still be brought to the surface via an antique pump.

Antique water pump

The newly-installed water pump

And plans for oak doors in the bricked-up entrances in the garden walls had to be abandoned, as the ground level in the walled garden is higher than in the parkland beyond. It is this land which Peter dreams of turning into a public pleasure ground, to complement what has already been achieved in the walled garden. The park, which sweeps down to the banks of the Tamar, was once the ornamental gardens and woods of the Thanckes House estate: the site where the house stood is now a bowling green.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren beside the Tamar in Thanckes Park

This new scheme, currently awaiting Lottery approval, includes improving the tennis courts and children’s play area, restoring a quarry once used as a vinery, and reinstating a woodland walk. “The woodland is covered with bluebells in the spring, and it’s a lovely place to walk,” says Peter. “But it needs some tender loving care and dead trees need to come out.

“The parkland comes right down to the waterfront, and we don’t know whether to leave it natural or have some kind of feature, like a promenade with flowerbeds. There was an orangery, which must have been lovely. It’s probably too expensive to re-create that, but we’d like to reinstate the Victorian bandstand.”

Between the woodland and the waterfront, Peter plans to re-establish a large ornamental lake which was converted into a swimming pool by American servicemen in the 1940s, and has long since been grassed over. “We’d also like to have some water spurts for children to play in, which could be lit up in the evenings, and have lights playing on the quarry wall. That would look stunning,” he says.

It may even be possible to create a stop for the proposed Tamar waterbus, to give people the opportunity to enter the park from the river, just as visitors to Thanckes House did 250 years ago.  

The old carriage drive would have taken guests on a scenic tour through the parkland, winding from the waterfront to the house. The route is still there, although some parts of it are now just faint markings in the grass. “Whenever I stand here, I get a real feeling for those days,” says Peter. “I can almost hear the jingling of the horses’ reins.”