Photographs: Charles Francis
March 2015: A conversation with owner Caroline Richards
This is one of the Cornwall’s most dramatic gardens, flourishing on a steeply-sloping hillside above an ex-slate quarry and mine. How much do you know about its history?
Fourteen years ago, my husband Graham and I bought a house with six and a half acres of wooded valley. It was only later that we discovered that there was an old slate mine and quarry here.
The garden and woodland were very overgrown — a thicket of invasive plants and bramble. The woods are littered with tin and copper diggings, and there is a network of adits in the hillside. There are earlier archaeological remains: I found what is most likely a Stone Age tool among the brambles. The garden was created by the Pascoe family, who came to live here after the quarry closed in the 1800s.
What was your plan for the garden?
My intention was to let the light back into the woodland, to encourage wildflowers. We kept the laurel, because it stabilises the steep rubble bank — we don’t want it to go cascading down into the road. I banished the Strimmer, so the native flowers weren’t slaughtered. It’s lovely to see sweet woodruff pop up every spring; I hadn’t seen it since I was a child. Wood sorrel and bluebells regenerated, and now when a sycamore appears, we coppice it for the squirrels, so they don’t attack the oaks. Then one day, we thought: “What we need is fairies”.
An ancient woodland in Cornwall seemed to lend itself to them. Along the winding footpaths of the terraced garden, we have bronze faery sculptures, with wings in the style of stained glass. They remind me of old Victorian paintings and story books I loved as a child. We’ve made a kettle and a watering can into houses for the faries, and if my groundsman finds an interesting tree stump, he’ll make that into one. The Faery Hamlet was designed by children from St Neot School, and is overlooked by a cave where a dragon lives. We also have an area of the garden dedicated to Peter Rabbit and friends.
Do you have any other creatures living in the garden?
We don’t use chemicals, as we’re very conscious of the wildlife living here. Frogs, palmate newts, slow worms and common lizards live in the rubble heap, shrews and voles tunnel into all the little holes, and bees and wasps nest in them. We have both green and greater spotted woodpeckers, and fallen trees are a perfect habitat for beetles and woodlice. There are also five species of bat here. We’ve had badgers and red and roe deer passing through, and we’ve got foxes living on site. On one school visit, a fox stuck his head out of a hole just as the children were walking past. His timing couldn’t have been better if I’d paid him.
What are the challenges of gardening on this site?
We have to use harnesses and ropes for the slopes. We’re in a south-facing quarry, so we’re quite sheltered, but it is a frost hollow. The first year we were here, I foolishly bought lots of mimosas, tree ferns and bottlebrush, thinking they’d make nice specimen trees, but they all succumbed to the frost.
How do you deal with invasive species?
As far as possible, we encourage native flora and fauna. The Pascoes probably planted all the Rhododendron ponticum on the hillside. It looks pretty but it is an absolute pain — it escapes everywhere. Montbretia is a nightmare, too, and we’re constantly battling bamboo. If I see any bluebells which look like they might be hybridising with Spanish bluebells that have escaped from local gardens, I pick them. People don’t realise the damage they do.
What can visitors see in the garden this spring?
The south-facing bank is a carpet of wood anemones in March, and there will also be primroses and daffodils — there are some native daffodils hanging on, along with cultivated ones. Azaleas and Chilean lantern trees have lots of lovely spring colour, and from mid-April to mid-May, there is a solid four ace swathe of bluebells, which is absolutely magnificent. Dog roses and field roses climb everywhere and are at their best in late May and June, and we have some lovely old cherries. When they drop their blossom, it’s like confetti.
What are your favourite features of the garden?
We have a lot of lichens — it’s intriguing to see so many different species in different shades of green — and moss covering tree trunks.
I love the tranquil sound of running water, and my son created a stream by collecting the water from the adits and funnelling it down. It looks very natural. Moss and streams evoke my childhood — and my parents’ childhood, and my grandparents’ childhood.