Photographs: Charles Francis
November 2009: A conversation with owner Nick Wilson-Holt
You’ve created a garden at Kennall House which has plenty to interest visitors in every month of the year — including November. How did you go about it?
My wife and I acquired a lovely house with about six acres of grounds which had become terribly overgrown over the previous 20 years. It was quite oppressive, with a lot of Rhododendron ponticum and brambles, and our initial objective was to clear all that. From the word go, we decided we didn’t want a typical Cornish spring garden. Our overall philosophy was to have all year round colour, but there was no planning — we have gradually developed the garden as seemed appropriate, and tried to do it as naturally as possible, with due regard to the landscape and the rocky obstacles. When we drained the pond; there was six to eight feet of silt. We created terracing using wonderful weathered stone which was already here, and probably came from the river bed. We started a collection of hydrangeas, because they seem to grow so well.
What can visitors see in the autumn and winter?
I have gone out of my way to get trees with plenty of autumn colour, so we are quite keen for the garden to remain open in November and December. Depending on the amount of wind and rain, there should be widespread colour: the last couple of autumns have been glorious. The parrotia by the river is golden; the tulip tree looks absolutely gorgeous, with its yellow leaves; and the acers are wonderful. The anemones will still be in bloom, as will some of the lilies. There are lovely silhouettes down in the water meadow in the winter; the walls of the kitchen garden almost glow, and so does the bamboo.
How much do you know about the history of the house and its grounds?
This was once an industrial area: until 1910, it was the Kennall Vale gunpowder factory. The house started off as a small count house and developed into a more substantial dwelling. The garden has been almost entirely created by us over the last 17 years, although the large rhododendrons at the entrance were here when we arrived, and the pond is probably Victorian. There’s an island in the pond which we had to reconstruct. There may have been a garden — the fact that someone put a pond in suggests that — but we don’t know for certain.
What are the good and bad points about gardening here?
It’s pretty damp down here, and we’ve had to work round a lot of stone. There are severe frost pockets, and we get very little light near the house in winter. December can be quite gloomy. But we were lucky in that we had what was essentially a blank canvas, with lots of room to grow large shrubs, trees and moisture-loving plants. The river is constantly changing, always giving us something new to look at.
The pond is fed by the river via a leat, which in turn feeds a succession of ponds which we have created.
Do you have a favourite area of the garden, or any favourite plants?
The walled garden is wonderfully secluded and a bit of a sun trap. We have some unusual exotic trees there, such as Cupressus cashmeriana, and rare tree ferns. But we love all of the garden, really. We have loads of beautiful specimens – like Cornus controversa ‘Variegata‘, the wedding cake tree, and the wonderful tulip tree, which is very hardy and very old indeed.
Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
What’s been happening at Kennall House this year?
The garden took a hammering last winter — we went down to minus 10C — but some herbaceous plants enjoy a period of dormancy. Although some of the small tree ferns didn’t survive, others are regenerating from the base. We lost an enormous beech, but we now have a vista over the bog garden and arboretum, and the meadow, which is full of wildflowers.
What are your plans for next year?
Opposite the house, on the other side of the river, it’s a bit of a jungle. We’re going to create paths up through the wooded bank, so visitors can view the garden from different aspects.
You and your wife are both doctors. How do you find the time and energy to manage a large garden?
We do have help one day a week with the heavy work, like sawing trees and mowing fields, but I deal with the herbaceous borders. I am a plantaholic, and for me, gardening is therapy. You can’t rush anything. You have to let nature take its time. It’s a very relaxing and creative pastime – if sometimes frustrating!