2008 photographs: Charles Francis
March 2008: A walled kitchen garden in West Cornwall, which first went into production nearly two centuries ago, is waking from a long hibernation.
This was the original garden at the Trengwainton estate, near Penzance, created long before the estate’s lush woodland garden with its spectacular display of rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias. In its Victorian heyday, the one-and-a-half acre kitchen garden was a hive of activity — and not just in the bee house which was used to pollinate the orchard. A team of gardeners worked long hours to ensure that the family who lived in the elegant house overlooking Mount’s Bay had a year-round supply of home-grown fruit and vegetables.
The garden staff in the late 19th century. Photgraph: courtesy National Trust
But as current head gardener Ian Wright explains, the days when Trengwainton could afford to employ 14 gardeners just to work in the walled gardens are long gone. “It was still in full production until the late 1950s, but after that it became too expensive,” he says. “Nature took over the garden.”
Several years ago, in the light of growing interest in locally produced food, Ian and his colleagues at the National Trust — which now owns the garden — decided to try and bring the slumbering kitchen garden back to life, particularly as it is a historically important structure, with sloping beds not seen anywhere else in Cornwall.
Initial hopes were dashed when the scheme failed to win a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. Then last summer, the trustees of the Friends of Probus Garden — the former county demonstration garden – decided to donate all their remaining funds to the Trengwainton project. “They were kind enough to give us £54,000,” says Ian. “It was a big surprise.”
The walled garden was designed by Sir Rose Price, who bought Trengwainton after making his fortune running a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the early 19th century. “One of the first things he needed to do was to grow things to eat: this had to be done before any decorative horticulture happened,” explains Ian.
“Brick walls were expensive and unusual in this part of the world, where everything is made from granite, but Sir Rose must have been aware of their value in retaining heat. There is evidence that part of the estate had brick-quality clay. There wasn’t enough, though, and more clay had to be shipped from Somerset and fired on site.
“Some of what we can see today gives us clues about what he was up against in creating a garden on this site, which had been a barren hillside. The walls are up to 16 feet high, which says a lot about the need for protection in an exposed area.”
During his research, Ian discovered that bizarre local folklore insisting that the garden had been built to the dimensions of Noah’s Ark was actually true. The Bible records that the ark had a length of 300 cubits, and a breadth of 50 cubits, and the measurements of the walled gardens are so close to this that it was clearly no accident. The reason for this curious choice of blueprint is unknown. Ian speculates: “He may have wanted to give religious significance to what he was doing”.
The design of the walled garden changed before a brick was laid, due to an event which took place thousands of miles away: the eruption of the Indonesian volcano, Mount Tambora, in 1815. The effect was to blow vast quantities of ash into the atmosphere, which caused the temperature of the planet to drop by two to three degrees. There was also exceptional rainfall: 1816 was known in Britain as “the year without a summer”.
“Sir Rose must have felt that we were about to return to a mini Ice Age,” says Ian. “The original design was the shape of a swimming pool, and nothing would have grown there in the new climate. The sloping beds were not knitted into the original structure, and were probably put as a panic measure, so that vegetables could be grown even in cold, wet conditions.
“The beds face west, away from the early morning sun — which would be damaging on top of frost – and they are sloped so that water can run off them. They have little topsoil before they go down to knubbly, bricky debris, which points to good drainage.
“When we decided to bring the garden back, our first job was to clear a lot of invasive weeds. We also knew we wanted to work using organic principles. The soil was dead, so it was important to get the life back into it, through plating green manure crops such as buckwheat and red clover. We also created a really good composting facility.“
The first area of the garden to be restored was the bee house, an unusual brick building from the 1860s. “Hopefully, by this summer, we will have bees back inside,” says Ian.
“We then worked out that we needed between 10,000 and 12,000 box plants for the hedges, and we decided to propagate our own, with the help of volunteers. We have also put back the original structure of paths.”
The gateway by the head gardener’s cottage — then and now. Old photograph: courtesy National Trust
Once the finance was secure, Ian was free to think about a full-scale restoration. “A gardener who worked here in the 1950s remembered a bit about it, but other than that, we can only guess what it was like. What we do know is that the garden has always been experimental, in terms of plant-collecting and the use made of its geographical position. We had lost that character over the year, and this was an opportunity to renew it.
“As well as planting heritage varieties, we wanted to use what is available now. Previous owners would not have gone back in time with their planting plans — they would have looked at the new, ground-breaking things. There is a perception that old varieties of fruit and vegetables have more flavour. I would like to see if that’s true. We hope to form partnerships with seed companies and give them the opportunity to use our protected environment here to trial new things.”
He adds: “Forty per cent of the apples we are growing in the orchard are new varieties. Some might work, some might not, but that’s part of the experience of doing it. I would like to try citrus: we already have a lemon against a wall which was put there as a bit of fun, but has over-wintered for several years.
“We would also like to look into growing ‘superfoods’, like blueberries and cranberries. We are trying olives, and a myrtle, Myrtus ugne, which was used to make jelly in Victorian times, but has since gone out of fashion.
“With good husbandry, such as using crop rotation, you can change things every year. The possibilities are endless: that is the beauty of a vegetable garden. If one year, we don’t have the resources to look after one section, we can lay it to green manure.”
As Ian says, walled gardens were not just designed to grow vegetables and fruit. “We would definitely like to have cut flowers as part of the mix. We have already tried planting one area with sunflowers, which looked spectacular, and then we hung up the seedheads for the birds.”
He hopes the Probus Garden donation will act as a catalyst for funding from other sources. “We have already been fortunate to receive National Trust internal money to restore the original glasshouse — the only one left out of the original seven — which will cost £40,000.
“If we have enough money, we would like to restore the old chicken house. After the fruit was finished, the Victorians put chickens into the fruit cages to clear the ground. They are good weeders, and you would also get the eggs.
“The biggest expense will be employing a gardener for a limited time to drive this specialist project forward, It’s difficult to find someone with the right level of expertise, but we would like to think we will be up and running in three years.”
Ian is keen to have a separate theme for each of the five sections. “I would like one to be a community garden, one a fruit garden, and one a glorified allotment, so people can see how to grow things in a small space.
“I would really like to involve the local community. We have five local schools within walking distance of the garden — how many other National Trust properties can say that? We would like to show children that growing isn’t just a bout planting and harvesting, but about good soil preparation.”
Visitors to Trengwainton now have the opportunity to take a guided tour of the areas of the walled garden which are not yet open to the public. “What they will see is a work in progress. Walled gardens were designed as factories, producing foods, and have never been the prettiest places to visit,” says Ian. Nevertheless, March visitors will be greeted by a glorious carpet of anemones, planted to mark commemorate one-time head gardener Alfred Creek, who introduced the long-stemmed variety to West Penwith.
In the absence of a 14-strong team of gardeners, the involvement of volunteers in the project is vital. “They do anything and everything, from propagating to pruning and labelling of plants,” says Ian. “They are a mixed bunch, but what they all have in common is enthusiasm. There were 4,000 volunteer hours in the garden last year — double the previous year, which is brilliant.
“We have about 15 who come on a regular basis, but they are supplemented by students from a Swedish horticultural college, people on National Trust working holidays, and adults with mental health or learning difficulties. We also have an Austrian student, and one from Washington DC.”
Among the regular volunteers are Jack and Meriel Owens, who live in Lelant. “The National Trust do such good work that we wanted to support them,” says Jack. Meriel adds: “I’ve been coming here for years — I used to come with my mother. It’s nice to work in a garden you are fond of and know well.”
Hilary Bradley from Germoe is also enjoying the work. “The team here are fantastic, and you can learn so much from then,” she says. “It will be lovely watching the walled garden develop over the coming year.”