Photographs: Charles Francis
June 2009: A conversation with owner Sue Nathan
It’s taken you less than 10 years to create a stunning 20-acre garden. What was Bonython like before then?
hen my husband and I first saw Bonython, we fell in love with it. The manor house is Grade II* listed, and parts of it date from 1680. But there was no history of a grand garden here, nothing to uncover that could be re-made. So we had a blank canvas. There wasn’t a garden around the house, and I felt it was something that was needed: when you look out of the window, you want to see a garden. There was a very old walled garden, but it was divided. Half of it was used as a vegetable garden, but with no design to it, and the rest of it was a swimming pool with a run-down pool house.
How did you go about designing the garden?
I’ve done a lot of interior design, but I don’t have a horticultural background. My knowledge has come from my passion and interest. It was very exciting learning to do the drawings and then creating a garden. We started down in the valley. The previous owners had put in some shelterbelting, and there were a few big trees. We planted 1,500 trees — and they are already 30 to 40 feet tall. It’s extraordinary: I thought we were planting them for the future, but we are enjoying them just nine years on, thanks to the Cornish weather. We then worked our way back towards the house. Most Cornish gardens are spring gardens, but I wanted this to be a real summer garden as well. I am from South Africa, and I have created what is very much a South African garden, with cannas, rudbeckias and ornamental grasses. There’s excitement all the way from May to September.
Closer to the house, there is more formal planting, and an orchard of Cornish apple trees.
What’s the history of the three lakes?
The previous owners created two lakes, but the second one had not been maintained and it had got grown over. The third pond was just a bog in a quarry. Creating a lake there was a major undertaking: the bottom of the quarry had been silted up with cattle slurry. Because of the sheer rock face, I would love to have made a waterfall there. It wasn’t feasible to do that — but it’s very dramatic as it is. I love going down there in the evening because of the light and the wonderful atmosphere.
What are Bonython’s other special features?
The first thing people see when they come here is a drive of blue hydrangeas. It’s very beautiful in the summer, and we are now adding magnolia trees in front of it for spring colour. On the way down to the lake is a very pretty tree house which was built by the German company which produces films of Rosamund Pilcher’s books. Outside the walled garden we have a grass maze which is planted with daffodils in the spring. In front of the house there’s a simple water feature: a pool which reflects the house.
It’s a surprise — you don’t see the pool until you walk right up to it. People say there’s a lot of harmony and peace at Bonython. You can make a cup of tea, sit inside the little thatched tea house and enjoy home-made cakes and big, wide views.
What can visitors see in June?
The walled garden is purple, blue, mauve and white, and has the magic of a secret garden. It’s a real delight in June.
The potager will be looking terribly pretty: it is the working part of the garden, but I try to get vegetables with burgundy leaves. There are five-foot delphiniums in the herbaceous borders, and the ‘New Dawn’ pink rose is at its best. The formal areas around the house are also very good in June, especially the thyme walk, and the courtyard, where Stipa gigantea creates wonderful movement around a formal granite water feature.
What plans do you have for the garden now?
I saw a chapel made out of yew in a garden in the south of England. I’ve decided to create one, so that people can get married here and then have their reception in the farm buildings. Every year I think: “No more ideas!” because of the work involved in maintaining the garden. But every spring I want to start all over again. Bonython has been chosen as one of the 15 Great Gardens of Cornwall, which is quite an accolade. The garden is a full-time, ongoing job — but I have two wonderful gardeners and a marvellous builder.