Photographs: Charles Francis
May 2013: They say you can grow anything in Ludgvan. The picturesque West Cornwall village enjoys an enviable position at the heart of the Golden Mile, where a mild climate and extraordinarily fertile soil have combined to produce one of the most favourable sites for horticulture in Britain. Daffodils and cauliflower flourish on south-facing fields which slope down towards Mount’s Bay, and generations of green-fingered villagers have enthusiastically cultivated every corner of their cottage gardens.
Visitors will have the chance to have a look round some of these gardens on May 5, when Ludgvan folk stage a charity open day. Twelve gardens will be opening their gates, ranging from a former barnyard now planted with local apple varieties to Hogus House and Ludgvan Rectory, with their sweeping lawns, wooded paths and stunning views across to St Michael’s Mount: both were once part of an exotic garden of national importance created more than a century ago by the celebrated horticulturalist Canon Arthur Boscawen.
Event organiser Jenny Birchall cheerfully describes her own small garden as “tropical chaos”. The centrepiece is a large Trachycarpus fortunei — palms thrive throughout Ludgvan — surrounded by “odd ornaments and garden bits and bobs I’ve collected over the years“. These include pigs with wings, a giant cup and saucer and a toucan on a tree swing. “It’s a bit quirky,” she says.
The Open Village Day will not only be a celebration of gardens of all shapes and sizes, but also Ludgvan’s role as a pioneering place for Cornish horticulture — a legacy of Boscawen’s 46 years as rector of the parish. Aware that the Golden Mile’s sunny setting and well-drained soil enabled it to produce vegetables and flowers earlier in the year than almost anywhere else, Boscawen imported cauliflower seed — always known in Cornwall as broccoli — from Bavaria to be grown by local farmers.
He also had the idea of growing anemones on a commercial scale to fill the gap between broccoli and narcissi crops, which could be delivered by train to flower markets throughout the country. The project was launched in 1925, when Boscawen handed a tin of anemone seeds — thought to have been gathered during a Mediterranean holiday — to the horticultural experimental station then based in the neighbouring village of Gulval. The crop produced from these seeds became the first of many to be despatched to Covent Garden Market.
John Allen, chairman of Ludgvan Horticultural Society, which has staged an annual show in the village for more than 100 years, explains that one of the reasons Boscawen chose to introduce anemone-growing to the village was to provide employment. “A lot of people had little plots — growing anemones in little bits of ground here and there, to supplement their income. Some also grew violets.” Violets were also grown on a larger scale at Varfell Farm, with 10 acres being picked annually, mainly by women, who were paid sixpence for 12 bunches. One picker once achieved a record-breaking feat of 84 dozen bunches.
In the early 20th century, there were nearly 60 market gardeners and farmers in Ludgvan parish. Although the number has inevitably declined, there are now 60 allotment-holders. “Anemones are still grown in Ludgvan, but not on a commercial scale, because they are so labour-intensive,” says John. “In Boscawen’s day, of course, there was a lot of labour available. But the local broccoli industry is still important. It’s a tribute to Boscawen that you look out over the meadows and see so much broccoli flourishing.”
Boscawen’s other horticultural activities included registering two dwarf daffodil cultivars, ‘St Ludgvan’ and ‘Karenza’. Neither is available any more, but the tradition of narcissus growing in Ludgvan continues, with 5,000 tonnes harvested annually at Varfell Farm by leading UK grower Winchester Growers, along with other potted bulbs, and sent to supermarkets and wholesalers all over the country. The farm is also home to the National Dahlia Collection.
The anemone remains an important symbol of Ludgvan’s proud tradition as a centre of horticultural excellence: it is the emblem of the village school. And visitors making their way to the Open Village Day will know exactly when to leave the A30 and head up the hill to Ludgvan: all they need to do is follow the signs bearing an image of a large purple anemone.