Tamar bridges

Photographs: Charles Francis


Mary Newman’s Cottage

July 2016: A conversation with gardener Sandra Pitkeathly

This cottage is thought to have been the home of Mary Newman, first wife of Sir Francis Drake, and has been restored to look much as it did in the 16th century. How does the garden reflect the life of the time?        

It’s been laid out in the style of a Tudor housewife’s garden, with a knot garden and arbour with a sundial in the centre. A garden like this would have been designed to be viewed from an upstairs window — but the family would have been self-sufficient, so it wouldn’t have been totally neat and tidy. They grew vegetables, fruit and herbs and probably kept chickens and a pig at the bottom of the garden. We worked with a plant historian, and put in things that would have been around in the period, like gooseberries, strawberries, turnip and beetroot, and many herbs traditionally grown for their scent or their culinary or medicinal value.

Can you describe some of these qualities?

Sweet cicely and lemon balm were used in cooking, and the roots of elecampane were used as a sweetmeat: it’s an interesting plant which grows to about 5ft, and has yellow flowers like a sunflower. Bay leaves were used in flour to keep vine weevils away. Tansy was put on meat to stop it going rancid, and the leaves rubbed into the coats of dogs and cats to rid them of fleas.

Curled tansy

There was fennel for indigestion, feverfew for headaches, and pot marigold as an ointment.  Dried sweet woodruff smells of freshly-mown hay, so was useful for bedding, and was also strewn on floors. In the New World bed — where we’ve got plants that would have been brought over from the Americas — we have woad, used for dyeing and Drimys winterii, used on ships to treat scurvy.

Woad plant (Isatis tinctoria)

Elder was said to be the mother herb, and would have been grown outside the house to protect it from witches. The young leaves of sweet rocket were eaten, and it was also used in pot pourris. I’ve made one for the house, which uses all kinds of herbs and spices, including cinnamon, lemon balm and rose petals. I heard that if you add a little vodka to a pot pourri, it lasts longer, and it seems to work!

How much is known about the history of the garden in the four and a half centuries between Mary Newman’s era and the present day?

We can’t find out anything about who else lived here. Before the Tamar Protection Society took on the management of the site, there wasn’t much here at all. When I first came here 16 years ago, this was a mature rambling cottage garden, full of things like forget-me-nots and granny’s bonnets. The society thought the garden would go better with the house if it looked like it did in Elizabethan times.

Besides the plants, what are the other Elizabethan features?

There’s a mound at the back of the garden of the kind which would have been a lookout post to watch out for vagabonds and thieves, and to light fires. It’s full of primroses in the spring, which looks very pretty. The cedar fences are the sort of thing they would have had. You don‘t have to paint or stain them, and they give a rustic feel to the garden.

The mound

How has the garden evolved in the last few years?

At the back of the garden, we’ve decided to keep an area as a wildflower area. There is a ‘Cornish Aromatic’ apple tree, a variety from the Tamar Valley. The apples are very sweet and absolutely gorgeous. We also have ‘Pig’s Snout’, another old Cornish apple which would have been around in the 16th century. There is a sweet cherry espalier, but we’re going to have to cover it, because the birds eat all the cherries!

Considering its location, so close to the Tamar road and rail bridges, this is a surprisingly peaceful garden …

People come and sit at the back of the garden with a cup of tea, and you forget they’re here. The trees outside the garden have self-seeded over the years, which made it very secluded. We get lots of robins, thrushes, wrens and blackbirds, little field mice, and a few slow worms. We did have a hedgehog, but sadly we lost him.

What are likely to be the horticultural highlights when the garden opens for the National Gardens Scheme this month?

All the roses are varieties which were around in the 16th century. They’re in flower in June and July, and look absolutely gorgeous. The scent of ‘Apothecary’s Rose’ and Rosa mundi as you come up the path through the garden is fabulous. Most of the herbs will be in flower, and so will our ox-eyed daisies — I’ve grown a lot from seed.

Mixed flower border

Do you have other special open days?  

Last month we had our annual Plant Swap Day, which is always busy. A Mind, Body and Spirit Day is coming up. We’ve had Shakespeare performed here, and at Christmas, we decorate the house with greenery, as would have happened in Elizabethan times, and have mince pies and mulled wine.

What are you planning to do next?

The central bed is being redesigned. At the moment, we have things in pots there — calendula, snapdragons, perennial geranium — with winter savory and nasturtiums growing around the sundial in the centre.

Central bed and sundial

There are junipers in each corner and dwarf box all around. We use the style of pots which would have been around in Mary Newman’s time: terracotta with a basketweave pattern. Lots of pieces of pots from different eras have been found in this garden. Even now, when it’s been raining, we find different bits of pottery, in all colours.

The cottage