Cob structures

Photographs: Charles Francis

November 2008: A conversation with owners Louise McClary and Matt Robinson 

What brought you to Caervallack?

Louise: We were living in St Ives, where we had a tiny garden, and we dreamed of having a larger space.

Matt: We drew a map of what we wanted — which included an orchard, and space for a studio for Louise and a workshop for me. We found all those things here, along with a listed 17th century farmhouse — but there wasn’t much in the garden except some trees, two small beds and billions of docks! We spend the first summer weeding.

How did you go about creating a garden?

Louise: I thought I could design a garden on paper, but I realised I needed to get down with hosepipes and string and sketch out the shape I wanted. The first thing we did was put in brick paths. I knew I wanted a garden with rooms and a strong structure, with an avenue, hedges, a frothy flower garden and an ornamental vegetable garden. I also love the tinkling sound of water. Sissinghurst and Hidcote are our favourite gardens: they are formal yet intimate. Cornish gardens full of rhododendrons and camellias don’t really fire me up in the same way. I like the idea that a garden can take you on a tour, where you don’t know what’s round the next corner.

Matt: We both like English arts and crafts gardens, with places where you can sit and meditate. We do have zones which we argue about. Louise likes the paths to be jungle-like and I like them to be clear!

You have cob walls, a thatched summerhouse and a spectacular wooden bridge across the lane between the main garden and the field. Did you decide from the start that Caervallack would be a showcase for traditional architectural techniques?

Matt: It is not just plants which create a garden, but plants and landscape together. I’ve always been interested in vernacular architecture, and designing buildings in a garden is lot of fun. We used materials which age well — cob and slate, and also oak, which will get lots of lichen and age gracefully, giving it a timeless dimension.


Building a timber bridge is the ultimate structural challenge. The wood is mostly from Cornwall and Devon, and we made use of the natural curves in green oak. The bridge also uses stainless steel wire, so it’s a fusion of the traditional and the contemporary. It’s a bit of theatre, a folly.

Covered bridge

How did you create the pond room?

Matt: We built a cob wall halfway round the pond, with a yew hedge on the other side, and commissioned the mobile fountain at the centre from the sculptor Michael Chaikin. It’s copper and has a circle of flower petals with two birds above.

Louise: The pond had a black liner and we re-puddled it with clay, but it leaked. I felt this was a message from God that we’re not meant to have a pond! We then decided we wanted the pond room to be like a Spanish courtyard garden.

What are your favourite features of the garden?

Louise: I love the frothy bed, when it is full of roses in June, and the old-fashioned plants like delphiniums, with their towering blue spikes. I used to think dahlias were vulgar, but I’ve come to see their beauty.

Frothy garden

The sculpture of a horse was found in a junk shop. It is now cradled by rosehips, which looks really lovely.

Metal horse

Matt: I find the spring bed near the bottom of the garden very exciting, especially the combination of black tulip and blue camassias.

What are the problems with gardening here?

Louise: The garden faces east, and the mud is vicious. The soil is heavy clay, and you’d think it would hold moisture, but it doesn’t.

Matt: We have to put 20 tons of dung on the beds every year and leave it to rot down. Mice and squirrels eat all the bulbs.

What are your plans for the future?

Matt: We’ll continue working with Paul Clayden, a craftsman gardener who has helped look after the garden for 10 years.

Louise: Paul understands that I am really finicketty, so we work really well together! We are constantly tweaking. The nice thing about a garden is that it’s never finished. We would one day like to do something with the field on the other side of the bridge so there is something for people to go over to, perhaps a formal pond with clipped yew around it.