Photographs: Charles Francis
April 2012: A conversation with gardener Michael Harbage
How much is known about the history of the house and garden here?
There was a vicarage here for at least 300 years before it was enlarged to become the home of the first Bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson, in 1877. Not much is known about the garden before then. The bishop’s son, Arthur Benson, later wrote: “In the soft air, trees and shrubs grew with great luxuriance. Camellias flowered and hydrangeas grew richly out of doors”. Joseph Hunkin, who was bishop from 1935 to 1950, was a keen horticulturalist and plant collector, and he brought in a lot of different trees and shrubs. The garden was much bigger then than it is now.
The garden in 1912. Photograph: courtesy Epiphany Houae
After Bishop Hunkin’s time, the house was part of Truro Cathedral School, and when the school closed 30 years ago, all the surrounding buildings and some of the garden were sold off. What is now Epiphany House became a convent, the Community of the Epiphany, until 2001. It is now run as a retreat and conference centre by a charitable trust.
How has the garden developed in recent years?
The whole garden was a mess when I took it over seven years ago. A lot of dead shrubs and trees had to be taken out, and we had to bring in lorryloads of topsoil to cover the stumps. There was also a lot of Cupressus macrocarpa in front of the house, originally planted to screen it from the outside world, so we thinned it out so people could view the cathedral and the river. I’ve put in large herbaceous borders in the front lawn. It’s primarily a spring garden — daffodils climb up the bank in front of the house, and then there are the camellias, rhododendrons, magnolias and cherry trees — so the borders prolong the season. I have also created a woodland walk.
What are the special qualities of this garden?
This is a beautiful spot. When you stand here listening to the birds singing, you wouldn’t know you were in Truro. We have a great variety of birds, including robins, blackbirds, thrushes, chaffinches, and woodpeckers. There are also squirrels and rabbits, and I have seen the odd fox. Epiphany House is affiliated to the Quiet Garden Trust, which promotes gardens where people can go for rest, contemplation and prayer. People always seem to want to go to a garden when they need somewhere quiet. The memorial garden is an area created in memory of Mother Constance, Reverend Mother of the Community of the Epiphany from 1968 to 1994.
By the time I came here, the beds were full of overgrown weeds, so we took all the plants out, and put in grass seed and chippings, with a bird bath in the middle. The hedges in the memorial garden are in the shape of the Epiphany Star. We have also created a spiral prayer walk in an area of the garden which was one metre high in grass. It is a curved path where people can walk in contemplation or prayer, watched over by Grace, a bronze statue by Annie Henry, a sculptor from West Cornwall. The walk leads to an arbour with glorious view across the countryside, and it is surrounded by many lovely mature trees — beech, cherry, Monterrey pine.
Do you have any help in the garden?
My assistant, Nick Penwarden, works three mornings a week; he’s the muscles of the garden. Peter Horder, who was head gardener at Trengwainton for many years, is our advisor. Two heads are better than one, and when I’m not sure what to do with certain plants, Peter always comes up trumps.
Michael Harbage with Peter Horder
When is the garden open to the public this spring?
On our Open Day on April 28, people are invited to spend as much time as they want in the garden just having some quiet space. There will be coffee, tea and cake, crafts and an art exhibition, guided tours of the house and children’s activities. The garden is at its best in late April and early May: the rhododendrons should still be out, and there will be pieris and azaleas. All will be made most welcome. We also open the garden on Tuesdays in May, June and July to artists who would like to spend time in prayer and reflection. It’s a chance to have time alone in a lovely environment, just to be creative.