Main pool

Photographs: Charles Francis

January 2010: A conversation with owners Rob and Stella Hore

What made you decide to create an oriental garden close to the coast of North Cornwall?

Rob: When we lived in London, our space was limited, and we found that bonsai was an ideal form of container garden. But you have to imagine yourself really small to fully appreciate it. With a full-sized garden, the concepts and visual necessities stay the same — every placement matters, and you can make people look wherever you want them to look every time they turn a corner.

Stella: We wanted to find somewhere to live where we could have a bonsai nursery. Rob is Cornish, so he knew this area. The valley is so beautiful, and we knew it would be a perfect place to have a Japanese garden – even though the house was derelict…

Rob: …And the garden was a wasteland. It used to be a smallholding, but nothing had been done with it for more than 10 years.

How did you turn your plan into reality?

Rob: We started with the nursery. There are very few bonsai nurseries in England, and most just import and sell, but we grew a lot from the beginning, and sold each young tree with our booklet on the care of bonsai. The garden was always destined to be open to the public, but it took six years before it was ready. I couldn’t think of any worse reaction than people saying: ‘It will look lovely when it’s finished’!

Stella: We wanted to give the feeling of an established garden, so we planted groups of azaleas to look like one, but when one is doing well, Rob now takes the others out. It’s a process of removal and refinement. Everything grows so well here because it’s so wet.

Rob: There’s a lot of clay in the soil, which means there’s a huge reservoir of nutrients — as long as plants don’t drown! 

What do you admire about the Japanese style of gardening? 

Rob: There are so many styles of Japanese garden — minimalist gravel and rock, woodland, and formal courtyard gardens. The beginning of our garden is the most formal, and as you walk through, you end in wilderness. The essence of a Japanese garden is that there are areas which look like a part of nature. If you can create a dry river bed and people think that there was once a river there, that is success. With bonsai, the Japanese are very precise in their approach. Their style is very formal, whereas the Chinese will clip their trees in the shape of a dragon.

How did you adapt these principles for this site? 

Rob: We worked around the existing trees wherever possible. The Japanese use whatever is available; it doesn’t matter whether you use a sycamore or Acer palmatum as a backdrop.

Acer palmatum 'Kotohime'

Acer palmatum ‘Kotohime’ 

For bonsai, we’re led by what we see around us, so we go for an informal, natural look. Some people still think bonsai is a specific species. They say: “Have you got any bonsai seeds?” But the literal translation of bonsai is “tree in a pot”.

Stella: An oak tree fell and kept on growing so we left it where it was, and we’ve since done the same with other trees because they make interesting shapes.

Red and yellow acers

 We’ve had a lot of compliments from Asian visitors — Chinese and Thai as well as Japanese — and even from the Japanese ambassador. The biggest compliment is when they say we’ve got the feel of a Japanese garden.

Rob: The garden will never achieve Japanese standards — we would need a team of 20 people to maintain it — so for the ambasssador to be so positive was quite an accolade. Invitations to an exhibition at the Japanese Embassy in London even had our garden on the front.

Japanese gardens are noted for their tranquility. How did you achieve that quality here? 

Rob: We have granite lanterns all around the garden, and there are “guardian” lions on one flight of steps, which lead the eye to the temple at the top.

Granite lantern

On the balcony of the tea house, people can listen to the waterfall. When people are walking around the garden their voices go really quiet. This is a particularly tranquil spot, and the epicentre is the Zen garden. People have come out crying because they felt so moved, and we have had to wake two people up who have fallen asleep.

Zen garden

What can visitors see in January?

Rob: Early azaleas and camellias, woodland cyclamen and crocuses. Japanese maples are my passion. There are about 120 named varieties in the garden, and their forms can be seen most clearly in winter after the spectacular colour of the autumn leaves.

Ornamental bridge

What are your plans for 2010? 

Rob: I intend to put in a formal brick path in the most informal part of the garden – the wild bit at the bottom. Just one path, so it won’t change the feel of the place. It’s easy to keep pushing ahead, but maintenance and refinement are the most important things.