Photographs: Charles Francis
June 2015: A conversation with owners Jonathan and Victoria Ball
Tregarthens has an intriguing history, doesn’t it?
Jonathan: The house is a Georgian rectory, which was the family home of Robert Stephen Hawker, the eccentric Victorian cleric. It was later home to Marjorie Colette Thomas, Sir Rex Harrison’s first wife: there was a grand party on the lawn to celebrate their engagement in the 1930s. By the time we came here in ’86, most of the original rectory garden had been sold, leaving a small cottage garden. We acquired the remainder of the rectory woods in ’89 — the rest had been built on — but there was no link to the house until we acquired the land in between. We have now reassembled two acres of the rectory garden.
Victoria: I love the way the garden becomes less and less formal, if you start at the top and walk down to the woods. The cottage garden had been owned by a flower arranger, and there are plants which have been here for 30 years. The boundary of the cottage garden was marked by a beech hedge, and we didn’t know what was beyond it, although we had tantalising glimpses of apple trees in the old orchard.
How did you decide what to do with the extra areas of garden which you acquired?
Victoria: In the orchard we cut the trees down, except for one, because they were so old, but we’ve planted three new ones. In the area next to the orchard, which was full of builders’ rubbish, we used the rubble to make a retaining wall.
That left an area in full sun that was completely bare, where I started a massive flower bed, using ideas from Tresco Abbey Garden. We grassed the rest of this part of the garden, apart from an area we call Mondrian — because it looks like a Mondrian painting — where we’ve put slate and brick tiles and a water feature.
The woodland is a sea of wild garlic in spring, and we plant a rhododendron there every year. This part of the garden is very boggy, so we put in a pond and boardwalk.
Jonathan said the pond would be expensive and troublesome. It’s both — when the filter gets clogged, we have to get in with our wellies and clear it — but it’s worth it. We grow plants we couldn’t grow otherwise: the candelabra primulas and the flag irises do well, and the gunnera is massive in summer.
Jonathan: We’ve sourced virtually everything we’ve used in the garden from within 25 miles. The bricks used in Mondrian come from Whitston Brick and Tile Company, five miles away, which closed when the railway line to Bude closed. There’s a caravan park there now, but our new gardener, Richard, foraged there and found bricks marked with the firm’s name. The slate comes from Delabole; the granite boulders came from a landfill site; and the marble bench in the shed was once the buffet table at Bude Station.
Our rainwater pipe is a beautiful piece of stainless steel, with the original lampshade from Bude squash court on top — we got a local plumber to sheath it in lead. As well as having a practical purpose, it’s a work of art.
Is Tregarthens a high-maintenance garden?
Victoria: I spend most of my time in the cottage garden. I‘m always having to dig out conker trees, and I have a constant battle with slugs and snails: the hostas are in pots, so I can keep moving them around. Some of the roses have been here for years, and are prone to blackspot. The newer ones come from the Cornish Rose Company, so they’re more geared up to the climate here. In the wood, we don’t do anything at all, except pull out the odd bramble.
Jonathan: We did have to chop down some trees to make the boardwalk, but we used the stumps to create the Stratton Habitat Arch, a home for insects and small animals surrounding the door at the bottom of the garden, which was once the front door of our house. On the other side of the door is a public footpath by the River Neet. On our open days, people can walk by the river and enter the garden through the wood.
Who does what in the garden?
Victoria: My grandmother and mother were both keen gardeners, so gardening is in the genes, and I absolutely love it. Our previous gardener, Alan, was with me for 20 years, and when he retired, I got into a complete panic — but I soon learned a huge amount about pruning and planting. Now I enjoy working with Richard, who’s really good with concepts, designs and ideas.
Jonathan: I’m not a plants man; Victoria is in charge of everything which grows. My interest is in genius loci, the spirit of a place. My feeling is that landscape is a mixture of nature and man-made assets. All sites have voices, and you must listen to them. We’ve gathered fragments from the past — the bricks, slate and boulders — for the next generation.