Viaduct and agapanthus

Photographs: Charles Francis


Isis Gardens

November 2016: A conversation with Jacqui Owen, visitor and community engagement officer at Cornwall Council contractor Cormac Solutions

This garden has been the subject of a major restoration project this year. How did it begin?

The garden was closed during a £7m project to reinstate the viaduct decking, and the construction of the neighbouring Asda supermarket. Network Rail and the developers, Bowmer & Kirkland, agreed last year to fund the reinstatement work. While the construction work was being carried out, we were asked by the project manager, Jon Mitchell of the Cornwall Council environment team, to develop an appropriate scheme for this high-profile site. After analysis, we discovered that the only original plants left of some value were a Dracaena palm and two clumps of agapanthus, so it was a blank canvas. We pitched a design to Jon for subtropical planting — we called it “a bit of Tresco” — then he pitched it to John Coombe, a town and Cornwall councillor, who has been the driving force behind the plan to get the garden back to how it should be for the people of Hayle. During May, Cormac Contracting laid a new granite walkway, built walling and created seating areas. When the hard landscaping was finished, our gardening team came back to finalise the planting design.

What factors influenced the design?

We wanted a look which captured the essence of Hayle. The subtropical look builds on the style of planting at King George V Memorial Walk, which is just a short distance away. We’re so close to the sea here, and we don’t get frost, so that enabled us to have agaves and aeoniums.

Aeonium and palms

The council also wanted several stand-out plants to give instant height, so we went for a series of architectural plants, like the trachycarpus and olive trees which alternate around the edge of the garden. There is also an avenue of trachycarpus, to give impact. There were some constraints: we couldn’t plant anything within two metres of the viaduct, so we turfed this area and broke it up into beds. We wanted to plant hot beds featuring orange, yellow and red, and cool beds with white and blue flowers.

What plants did you choose?

In the hot beds, along with the olives, trachycarpus, agaves and aeoniums, we have butia palm, yucca, restio, a lot of different aloes, alstroemeria, helenium, rudbeckia, leucadendron, euphorbia and echium.

Hot bed

There are about 30 different varieties of agapanthus in the cool beds, and also artemisia, fuchsia, convolvulus, eucomis, echeveria, sempervivum.and different eryngiums. It’s not just about the garden looking pretty: it gives interest not just through colour, but also texture and scent. There is a spiky bed, and different salvias which release their scent as people brush past. The tea tree bush gives off a lovely scent as well. There’s movement in the garden, with plants like Verbena bonariensis swaying n the wind, and there’s also the wildlife aspect, with plants which support bees and pollinating insects. Veronica is very popular with bees — they’re always buzzing around it. Sedum is another perfect example of a plant for bees, and so is liatris, which has long purple spires. Eryngium doesn’t look as though it would have much for insects, but they absolutely love it — there is obviously something that draws them to it. The big plant stock was from Trevena Cross Nurseries, and Hayle Plants, which is just a mile up the road. They were so supportive. We also used stock grown by Cormac’s in-house gardening team. The aim was to use local and sustainable plants.

How did you manage to complete the restoration within a few months?

In Falmouth, where we’re involved in several garden projects, we work closely with the local community. It’s something we feel passionately about: if people are invited to feel that it’s their garden they’re more likely to look after it. We were acutely aware of how important this garden is to the people of Hayle — people were constantly coming up to us and asking when it would be finished. Hayle in Bloom and Ellie Giggal, the town clerk, were fantastic, and gave us contact details for local community groups. We worked with the Air Cadets, volunteers from Asda, a group from the Prince’s Trust – who came with the Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service – and other volunteers. It’s been a really good project to work on, as so many community groups have been involved. The turf was laid in two days. The planting of the beds were staggered because we had different groups coming on different days.

The garden is dedicated to the RNLI. How did this connection come about?

There were lifeboats stationed in Hayle from 1866 to 1920, and the garden is named after the first lifeboat, Isis, which was given by the University of Oxford. It was a rowing boat, which was in service for 21 years, during which it went to the aid of 11 ships and saved 51 people. On one occasion, it was taken by boat to Portreath and launched from there, but still managed to rescue several people. It was really important that the RNLI was represented at the Isis Gardens re-opening ceremony. Phil Drew, who is the RNLI chairman in Hayle, and also manager of the lifeguards on the local beaches, raised the RNLI flag, and the garden was officially re-opened by Pauline Marks, president of RNLI Hayle, and John Coombe, who was there with other representatives of Cornwall Council and Hayle Town Council. The voluntary groups involved in the project were also represented, and it was great to see so many members of the public.

What has been the reaction to the garden now that people are ready to enjoy it once again?

John Coombe has told us he is delighted with it, and we’ve had very good feedback from people who live in the town. It’s wonderful to hear that it’s fulfilling the need it was designed for. People say it’s beautiful, and they love sitting there: as well as the benches, the grass paths provide space for seating for picnics or reading a book. It is an oasis in a very busy area.

Cool bed