Photographs: Charles Francis
August 2014: More than 300 years ago, Fowey landowner John Treffry donated land to the town to build a free school where 30 poor boys could be educated in everything from history and mathematics to navigation. The school has long since been demolished, and apartments now stand on the site — but the garden planted in the school grounds in 1692 is still flourishing.
This small green space in the heart of the town offers unrivalled, uninterrupted views of Fowey’s stunningly beautiful waterfront, and across the estuary to Polruan. Little is known about its original design — any drawings and planting plans have been lost in time — but the garden continued to play a part in the education of local children long after the grammar school relocated to a new building in 1879: it was still in use within living memory, says town councillor Ruth Finlay. ”Our gardener, Roger White, remembers coming here to do some planting when he was at school in the 1960s, and he has told us that herbs were grown here then.”
This year has seen the completion of the first phase of a radical redesign of what is now known as the Old Grammar School Garden. Ruth explains how the project came about. “Some of our visitors were saying that the garden was looking very tired. We thought they were right: all that had happened in the last 20 years was weeding. We realised we needed to do more than sort out some beds.”
The council’s first task was to open up the garden by clearing a jungle of laurel, ivy and honeysuckle. Then Fowey-based garden designer Ali Siddall was approached to come up with a vision for the site, an invitation she was delighted to accept. “I have a strong soft spot for this garden,” she says. “I used to bring my kids here when they were younger, and it’s a great place to watch the Fowey Regatta fireworks. But it looked very municipal, with a row of benches and a single path running through it.”
Her plan was to create a tranquil open space which would lead the eye over the garden wall to the river beyond. Out went the bushes and the crazy paving, and in came gravel, rocks and curved paths, offering a choice of routes through the garden and creating spaces for children to play hide and seek.
Ali was keen to use recycled local materials. “We’ve reclaimed the stone that was on the site, and collected driftwood — some from the harbour, and one large piece from the other side of the river.
There are also some sleepers, which came from a local landscaper: three of them stand together as a nod to the three-masted ships which still occasionally come into Fowey. And we will be having raised sleeper beds around the central gravel garden, with seats to replace the municipal benches.”
Her chosen plants are designed to be reminiscent of the vibrant blues of the water and the sea. “We reused the agapanthus which was already in the garden, and repeated cat mint throughout. And we’ve brought in sea holly and armeria — thrift — which grow among the rocks and cliffs near here. I’ve used white armeria as well as pink to pick up the spray in the waves.”
The garden also features a variety of grasses, including Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ — golden Japanese forest grass — which picks up the colour of the yellow buoys on the river. “As the grasses grow tall, we will get a wave effect as they blow in the wind — and I am sure there will be wind,” says Ali. “We can get extreme weather conditions here, and it’s been challenging finding plans which have the right feel for a tranquil garden, but which can cope with the salt wind.”
This 21st century garden of gravel and grasses, driftwood, shingle and spires of sea-blue flowers is separated from the Esplanade above by a lush, rambling garden, which was also part of the original school garden, although most of Its planting dates from the Victorian era, as Ali explains: “There are palm trees, several acers dotted about, weigela — which you see quite a lot of locally — other traditional things like viburnum and hebes, and several camellias and small rhododendrons.
“I think there was probably some structure originally, but over the years, people have come in and popped a plant in to remember a loved one. The wisteria is now being choked by ivy, and there is a wonderful climbing rose which is also being smothered.
”When people walk through this garden, where the view is almost hidden by overgrown shrubs, I wanted them to have the surprise and delight of coming into a very different garden with a wonderful view.”
The second phase of the Old Grammar School Garden project will focus on restoration of the top garden, and is likely to involve the removal of the overgrown shrubs and rampaging ivy, and the drawing-up of a more classical design, which will reflect the garden’s 17th century origins. “We want to piece together the history of the garden, so we can make considered choices about what we plant,” says Ali.
The Victorian building which replaced the original school was itself closed when Fowey Comprehensive School opened in 1957, but the lintel of the structure was saved, and is now a feature of the new waterfront garden. Etched into the stone are the words “Fowey Grammar School Endowed 1692”.
Ruth says the project has been a pleasure for the town council. “We deal with lots of negative things like parking and toilets, so this is a delight. It’s hard for us to find funds for things like this in times of austerity, but we scraped some money together, as this is such a popular little spot, and we also have donations from local people. They’ve given us a lot of support, which shows how close it is to their hearts. This isn’t just a lovely garden — it’s part of the history of Fowey.”