Photographs: Charles Francis
October 2013: The courtyard at the Ring O’ Bells is one of the smallest gardens in St Issey — yet tomatoes flourish there, among pots of lavender, basil, mint and thyme. This is a village with a passion for plants, and the pub is at the heart of a horticultural revolution which has given residents renewed pride in their community and brought St Issey national recognition.
It was here that the St Issey in Bloom group was launched in the summer of 2010. Two years later, the village won a silver gilt award in the RHS Britain in Bloom contest, and this year, it is going for gold. “We’re representing the whole of the south west, right up to Gloucestershire, and we’re one of only seven villages across Britain competing for the award,” says group chairman Brenda Wright with pride.
Yet in 2010, she points out, St Issey was reeling from the loss of two garages, its village store and post office — all within two and a half years. “The village was losing its identity. Over a glass of wine at the Ring O’ Bells, a group of us decided to do something to put St Issey back on the map. We had an open day for villagers, and the response was absolutely fantastic. At the end of 2010, we had our first village Christmas tree, and by March, we had raised £3,000.”
The group’s first action was to build raised beds using Delabole slate, to create impact in the centre of the village. A range of projects then took root. Wasteland opposite the village hall was planted with multi-coloured grasses and heathers, and a wildlife meadow was created near the parish church.
Outside the village school, there is now a shrubbery and a sensory walk, and pupils have created tiny gardens in containers such as an old tyre, a boot, a watering can and a toy tractor. A Celtic cross made from willow grown in nearby Mellingey has become the centrepiece of the traffic island on the approach to the school. It is surrounded by a rockery with stone from Tredinnick, another hamlet just down the road.
A major addition to St Issey’s floral display this year is the Heritage Trail, which tells the village’s story through illustrated boards and artefacts, and, of course, flowers: along the route, there are bicycles decked with hanging baskets, to emphasise St Issey’s location bordering the Camel Trail.
The theme for Britain in Bloom this year was Edible Britain, which St Issey embraced with enthusiasm. Ring O’ Bells landlord Chris Evins, who supplies around most of the flowers used in the displays from his smallholding, also grows vegetables and soft fruit. “Chris has shown at the pub that you only need a small corner to grow vegetables and herbs,” says Brenda. “We’ve also created displays on an edible theme like a scarecrow dressed as a shepherd and surrounded by runner beans, tomatoes and tree spinach. Most of the salad we served to the Britain in Bloom judges when they came here in July was grown by us.”
Some of this produce came from allotments created on unused land next to the senior citizens’ bungalows. “We do our own composting and a farmer gives us manure,” says resident Marjorie Flint.
“We’re looking forward to getting our own potting shed, and we’re trying to sell excess produce and preserves to make money for the allotments. I’ve grown a lot of rhubarb and courgettes this year, and made cake — courgette and cheese, and plum, rhubarb and ginger — and harvested my gooseberries to make jam.”
At a time when it is becoming difficult for community groups to source grants, generating money for St Issey in Bloom is crucial, says Brenda. “We do a lot of fundraising events at the Ring O’ Bells — it’s the hub of the village, and we think of it as the home of St Issey in Bloom.
“One of the things the judges said last year was that they liked our community spirit. We set up the group to bring people together, without thinking about entering competitions. But because we’ve done so well, a lot of pride has built up in the village now. The judges asked us where we see ourselves going from now. I said we wanted to maintain and improve what we’ve got. We’re not trying to change the village — we’re trying to enhance it. It’s vital that we keep our rural identity.”
She hopes that the next generation will be inspired to play their part in St Issey’s floral future. The signs are promising: families with young children now tend the kitchen garden beds in the school grounds. “When the judges came round, one little boy saw a weed in one of the beds, and said: ‘That’s not meant to be there’,” says Benda with a smile. “Then he threw it over the wall into the garden next door.”