Photographs: Charles Francis
February 2011: A conversation with warden Georgina Schofield
This was once a busy industrial area. How did it become a garden?
Harvey’s Foundry started in the 1780s and this was the site of the boring and hammer mills, and a five-storey grist mill, which was still in use until the 1930s. Later, it became a dumping ground for old scrap metal. In 1984, Penwith Council were planning to hand it over to a housing developer — even though it was in their district plan as a children‘s play area and amenity site. An action group was formed, which became Hayle Town Trust, and Millpond Gardens was our first project. We got a grant to restore the derelict land, and then we laid it out and planted trees. Then we restored the walls, and put in the main flowerbed and a small butterfly garden. We even have an amphitheatre where we have concerts in the summer, although it wasn’t part of the original plan.
A path leads from the main garden through the old Ropewalk to a wooded riverside walk. What was this area like before?
It was quite amazing when we first went into the wood. It had been closed off for 50 years, and it was a little ecosystem all on its own. There were walls there from a brass foundry, which once made ship’s bells. This summer, we had bats living in the walls — it was a maternity roost for female pipistrelles. The Ropewalk dates from 1793 and was worked until 1916, when most of the men had gone to war.
There are the remains of a furnace where they used to boil tar for rope-making, and a pit where the rope was soaked. We created the river walk in 1990, when the National Rivers Authority put in a river bank as part of a flood prevention scheme.
What part did the millponds play in the site’s industrial heyday, and what is their role now?
The inner pond was originally an ornamental lake for the people living in the villas in Millpond Avenue. The outer pond powered the foundry. There’s a wheelhouse there housing three waterwheels, which has now been repaired. We have a lot of wildlife: as well as ducks, there are egrets, a heron, and sometimes spoonbills, blackcaps and redwings.
The outer pond is known as the swan pool — but our swan decided to decamp this summer and join the swans on Hayle Estuary. The pond has a silting problem, and we want to find some way of dealing with the mud, even if it involves waders and a shovel. But one good thing about the silting is that the cress beds have come back — and the birds do need the green stuff. Last year, we had ice on the ponds for the first time in 20 years. It was amazing how quickly it iced up this winter.
How have you managed to get children involved in the garden?
As well as the play area, children from Penpol School have two beds, where they grow their own seeds every year for the Hayle in Bloom competition. They love going round with the judges, showing them what they’ve done, and they have a picnic here at the end of term if it’s decent weather. Most children appreciate what we do here, and they come and ask questions. We like to encourage them to get involved, and help to keep the place tidy. Quite a few broadleaf trees were planted by children who were at the school in the late 1980s. Some of them now come back and point out those trees to their kids.
What are your plans for 2011?
We’ve just formed a Friends of the Millpond group, and we’re putting together a programme of things we want to do to improve the area. We’ve already cleared a lot of dead bamboo, and a dead tree from the outer pond. We now want to open up the area by the river through the woods to make it more attractive, and coppice the willow. We don’t ask for people’s money as much as their time. We’d like to say to them: “Come and give us a hand and make the place look good“.
You’ve been involved with the garden from the beginning. What’s special about it?
It’s an iconic place which has survived a lot of upheaval. We never forget that we had to fight to save it. Not only could it have ended up as a housing estate, there was also a council plan to drain one of the ponds to make a car park. It would have been interesting to see how they got on if they’d gone ahead with that: the pond is 30 feet deep!