Photographs: Charles Francis
November 2014: A conversation with gardener George Mannell and fellow volunteers Irene Necza and Maggie Sheehy
There is a plaque on one of the walls of Chegwyn Gardens, marking the achievement of “George Mannell, who turned a rubbish tip into a rose garden”. How did this project begin?
George: I live in the flats overlooking what was then the rubbish tip. I asked the council if I could look after it, and I have now been doing it for 20 years. My wife and daughter both died of breast cancer, so I decided to have a garden in remembrance of them. I started buying roses with my own money, and then I put a table out and people put plants there that they didn’t want. People come from all over the place now, wanting to plant a rose in remembrance of someone. They pick the rose they want, so we have a lot of different varieties, and a lot of different colours. We have 200 altogether. I did a new rose bed this year, in an area of the garden which was just grass before. Throughout the garden, the roses have flowered for a long time this year.
Irene: The scent of the roses in the summer just knocks you out. This summer, a holidaymaker who is a gardener could smell roses from a long way down the road, and followed his nose and came here. It’s a fabulous thing that George has done here.
How has the garden developed since the early days?
Maggie: Five years ago, a display was done in aid of Children’s Hospice South West, with a lighthouse, a castle, water and fish, where people can make donations, and £4,000 has been raised so far.
George: We have also raised a lot of money for other charities. This summer, I had an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham Palace because of my charity work; 8,000 people were there. It was the first time I’d ever been to London.
You created a special display to mark the centenary of the First World War. Can you tell us about this?
George: I decided to fill the garden with red, white and blue roses, but I also wanted to do something different, and remember all those who went above and beyond the call of duty. There is a display of flowers from different countries: roses for England, lilies for France, cornflowers for Germany and rhododendrons for Gurkhas. We also have a cross with a Union Jack on it, and another with a German flag, and put British and German helmets on top of the crosses and a yellow ribbon joining them together and tied round a tree, to say: “We’re friends now — not enemies”. And there is a football and an England shirt, because the English and German soldiers played a football match in No Man’s Land in the first Christmas of the war.
Irene: Among the flowers, we have sloes and berries and apples, as those are the things people grew in their gardens during the war, and some animal figures like a pig — which would also have been in people’s gardens — and a rabbit, as they caught them for food.
George: There is also a war horse, and a sleeping dog to remind that us of all the animals who died in the war. Mid Cornwall Printing made some wonderful banners for the garden. I told them I wanted to include animals because they did so much, and they included photos of horses with gas masks, and a pilot releasing a carrier pigeon. There is another banner showing a British war cemetery, and one with a candle in a window.
What reaction have you had to the display?
George: One person said to me “Why have you done this?” And I said: “Because we’re friends now, not enemies. The Germans didn’t want to go to war any more than we did.” A German lady who owns a vineyard loved the garden so much that she came back the next day with a bottle of fine wine! There was also a chap from the Army, who said: “You’ve done a very good job, but you’ve forgotten one thing — the lads who were shot as cowards. Some of them were only 15.” So we put up a plaque saying “We will remember them” — along with a rope and a blindfold.
How will the display change for Remembrance Sunday?
Maggie: There won’t be any colour except poppies, berries and greenery, and a wall of flags.
Irene: George found some cotoneaster in the shape of crosses and has mounted them on a wooden cross. Red and green are perfect colours for November.
What are your plans for the future?
Irene: We want to create a sensory garden on a patch of grass here. We’re now raising money for a greenhouse for George — he’s never had one. He’s told us he is retiring, but he still was doing new flower beds a few weeks ago. He is a force of nature, and he’s happiest when he’s with his plants.