Photographs: Charles Francis
January 2017: Beyond the westbound platform at Hayle Station is a hidden garden. Screened by ivy, honeysuckle and hawthorn, it is a haven for wildlife and a magical space for families who come to stay in the vintage railway carriage stationed at the garden’s entrance.
Harvey, a 1950s corridor coach, is owned by Railholiday, a company run by train enthusiasts Lizzy and Dave Stroud.
At the other end of Cornwall, next to St Germans Station, the couple have three other carriages, each with their own landscaped gardens.
Earlier this year, Railholiday won the Visit England Gold Award for Sustainable Tourism — the latest stage in a journey which began nearly 20 years ago, when Lizzy and Dave came to live in the former station house at St Germans. “We found a siding in the garden, covered in brambles which we hadn’t known was there,” says Lizzy. “We decided to put a railway carriage there and convert it so that friends could come and stay. Then we started renting it out, and soon it was fully booked, so we approached the British Railways Property Board and asked if they had any other carriages we could buy.”
The three carriages at St Germans are The Old Luggage Van, the Travelling Post Office, and Mevy, a first-class Great Western Railway coach. Lizzy knew she wanted each of the three to have a garden as part of her planting plan for the whole site. “I come from farming stock, and I’ve always had an interest in wildflowers — but my knowledge of garden flowers was minimal. It’s been very much a matter of finding out about them as I went along.
“We now have a large herb bed, with 20 or 30 different varieties, a rose garden, an autumn garden with rudbeckias, alchemilla, astrantia, artichokes and a few sculptural things, and a winter garden which is particularly good between January and March — it has loads of hellebores, daphnes and viburnums, and lots of small bulbs like hyacinth and Narcissus ‘Tete a Tete’.
“There are lawns underplanted with crocus, and a meadow, and I’ve made loads of bug hotels.
“About five years ago, I started a wildlife hedge, which is 70m long and has loads of different plants in it, including hazel, guelder roses and apples. It’s looking really nice now, and I’ve planted fruit trees in front of it. What I’d really like is for our guests to be self-sufficient in fruit: there is also a big strawberry patch. I’ve also planted flowers for cutting.”
In 2013, Lizzy began work on the Hayle Station garden. “We rented this site 15 years ago, but for a long time, we didn’t do much with it. It was brilliant for wildlife, but quite overgrown, so we decided to landscape it into distinct areas.”
She discovered from old photos that station buildings had once been located on the site, and the area of the garden where Harvey now lives has been designed to reflect this heritage. “We put down rails, where we now have pots full of herbs, and some pelargoniums, which are good because they have such a long flowering season.
Photograph: courtesy Lizzy Stroud
“And we got a friend to build a playhouse and bird hide, which looks like a signal box.”
The half-acre site also has a butterfly garden, nature area, mini playground with swings, and barbecue area with tree stump seats.
In the centre of the garden, there are well-established apple and cherry trees, and young pear, damson and plum trees.
“This garden is not a beautifully-manicured space, because it’s designed for wildlife,” says Lizzy. “I’ve tried to make everything as pollinator-friendly as possible. Right at the end of the garden is a stumpery, which is good for beetles, and there is a bird box which has had a family of blue tits in for the last two years. It’s a lovely place for visitors who come from the city and don’t have any experience of wildlife. And if you’re on holiday, it’s nice to be able to pick blackberries.
“I’ve put in a roof garden at St Germans, which is good for spiders and burrowing insects, and now I’m doing one in Hayle. It’s not a green roof, but a brown roof — you don’t do anything to it. Anything that’s no good dies, and anything that copes with drought will survive and become an extra habitat. I’m just starting a wildlife hedge, and there’s quite a lot of self-seeded stuff like hawthorn, which looks lovely — the flowers first, and then later the berries.”
Last year, Lizzy embarked on another green initiative — a wildlife pond. “A pond is the most beneficial thing you can do for birds and insects,” she says. “We used an old drainage ditch which runs through the garden, and it’s establishing itself really well. Birds really appreciate having the water here. It’s amazing how many we’ve seen in the last year.”
Lizzy is grateful for the support Railholiday received from the Cornwall Sustainable Tourism Project (CoaST) for the pond scheme. “CoaST runs environmental growth workshops which are extremely and they gave us a grant for a pond liner. Being a member of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and getting advice from them has also been really helpful.”
Gardening on two sites 60 miles apart — even though they are conveniently linked by train — is time-consuming, but Lizzy says: “I have a great gardener called Jay at Hayle, who understands what we’re aiming to do. He doesn’t use chemicals to spray everything to within an inch of its life. He and I work together as a team.”
Another challenge is the need to work within a limited budget. “I’ve got very into cuttings and dividing things, and taking things from friends’ gardens, so the garden hasn’t cost us a lot of money. It’s the structural things which are expensive. I get some of my plants from Tartendown Nursery near Landrake, which is a really super little place. They’ve supplied me with a lot of local varieties of trees, and they give me good advice: ‘Don’t get that — it will spread like wildfire!’. But there are some things which can be allowed to spread, like Vinca major and Viburnum tinus, which are very good in the winter.”
The Hayle Station garden is never dormant, even in the shortest, darkest days of the year. “I like to have year-round flowers so we have things like pineapple sage, which doesn’t start flowering until November, and has really beautiful bright red flowers, and Clematis armandii, which is brilliant in February,” says Lizzy. “We’ve found that the climate in Hayle is usually drier and milder than in St Germans. And because the garden is enclosed, it gets amazingly hot.” And that’s good news for families planning a holiday in a railway carriage with a view of the sea.