Photographs: Charles Francis
June 2012: A conversation with owner the Earl of St Germans, and head gardener Michael Warr
What is your vision for the garden?
Earl of St Germans: When you walk around the garden, you see very little of the touch of human beings. The idea is to make it look as natural as possible. I like to see trees coming straight out of grass. I am not a gardener or a plantsman: if I need to re-do the rhododendron garden, I ask an expert, a neighbour, who makes recommendations. I have an idea where to put plants, but not an idea as to how they’ll look in 30 years.
What’s special about Port Eliot?
Earl of St Germans: There was a monastery here, established in 960, and the garden has been under cultivation since. It’s a very mature garden, and a lot of it is under a closed canopy, so it’s a bit like being in a cathedral. It’s a garden of lawns and gigantic trees and old rhododendrons and camellias. The estuary is lovely at high tide, and interesting at low tide.
The Port Eliot Festival attracts thousands of people. This must be quite a daunting experience for both you and the garden.
Earl of St Germans: Places like this have always been open to the public: I don’t have any problem sharing the place. Six weeks after the festival, you wouldn’t know it had happened. Our drives are wide enough to drive a horse and carriage or a 10-tonne lorry, and the garden always re-establishes itself.
The house is surrounded by lush parkland and woods. Was there ever a port here?
Michael: It was called Port Priory when the monastery was here. The river would have come all the way up to the house then, so when the tide went out, you had to wade through a lot of mud. In the 18th century, the Eliot family dammed it up, and Humphry Repton came to landscape the park in 1792. There are 39 acres of woodland garden and 22 acres around the house. The gardens and house are both Grade I listed, which is unusual.
How do you manage such a large garden?
There are only three gardeners here, and it can be a struggle. If we cut all the grass, it would take six days. We try to maintain it as a woodland garden, and let wild garlic and primroses come up. We don’t cut anything until the bluebells have finished.
How has the garden changed since Repton’s day?
Almost every Earl of St Germans has added something. The rhododendron garden was planted in the 1930s, and the present earl planted the maze.
Since I’ve came here in ’85, we’ve planted various oaks, and laurels as windbreaks. No matter what time of year it is, whether it’s cool or warm, you can always find shelter.
The Orangery is one of Port Eliot’s most romantic features. What is its history?
It was built in the 1840s as a greenhouse. There are big doors at one end, so the orange plants could be taken outside in the summer. When I came here, it was a total wreck, but it’s been restored. The Orangery garden has yew hedges and a fountain, and is the only formal bit of garden we’ve got. In the last few years, I’ve stuck some white roses in there, with white tulips.
Can you describe some of the trees in the garden?
Repton planted a lot of the trees. Near the house are weeping birch, green maple and Japanese laurel, and on the riverbank there are 17 different types of oak. We have Indian bean trees, American chestnut, Mississippi cypress, and two rare trees found in a valley in Australia by helicopter, which were thought to be extinct until then. I planted the South African pine in 1988. The cones stay on the branches for years, and then they’re burnt, fall to the ground, open up and the seeds germinate. It’s an amazing trick.
What can visitors see in June?
June is the end of the floral season. There will still be rhododendrons and azaleas, but then it reverts to being a purely woodland garden. The trees are out, and there are lots of different greens. It’s very pretty.