Photographs: Charles Francis
April 2017: A conversation with owner Nigel Bligh
Pedn Billy is one of the most popular destinations in Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s open gardens programme. What makes it so memorable?
The garden is 12 acres in size, and features everything from an ancient woodland to formal beds. There’s something different round every corner, and people like the fact that we have some areas which are pristine and other areas which we leave wild. You can go from the garden to our private beach, and walk all the way along it, except for a couple of hours either side of high tide. Visitors also love the setting, overlooking Port Navas Creek.
Nigel and her dog Scamp on the terrace
The Helford is a magical river, and you can sail from here for seven miles to Gweek and only see trees and birds. People are also interested in the history of Pedn Billy.
What is the Pedn Billy story?
Between the ancient woodland and the Ferryboat Inn, there was once a potato farm. It was sold off to create four separate properties, and Pedn Billy was built in 1925. The name means rocky headland. In the Second World War, the house was requisitioned by the SOE (Special Operations Executive) and the owners went to live in the boathouse on the beach, which is still here. The terraces in front of the main house were built from slate dug up from the dell in the woodland, where there is a little waterfall. We came here in 2001. I’m originally from South Africa — I didn’t think it was odd to be a woman with the name Nigel until I came here! My husband Tom and I were living in Ipswich when we saw the house advertised in Country Life, came down to see it and bought it the next day. We hadn’t been planning to buy anywhere, but we used to sail through the Helford and think: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to live here?’
What is your family connection with the great Cornish mariner Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame?
Captain Bligh is Tom’s great-great-great-great-grandfather. There’s a story that, in the early 1800s, during the Napoleonic Wars, he came here to survey the river. He had no clothes on, and locals arrested him at Frenchman’s Creek, thinking he was a spy! He was locked up in the basement of the rectory, and people had to come down from London to confirm that he held a senior position in the Navy. He became good friends with the rector after that.
The mature Monterey pines are a dramatic feature of the garden. How long have they been here?
We have a photo which was taken from Helford village, on the other side of the river, in the 1920s, which shows the Montereys soon after they were planted. In California, they live for 80 years; these are over 90, and are beginning to fall over. We removed some of them because they were dropping huge branches onto the golf course which borders our land. I was on the beach once when a branch fell, and I could feel the ground shaking. We have been replacing them with deciduous trees compatible with an ancient woodland. We also have some young Montereys, which are really pretty — they are covered with little cones which look like candles.
Have you made many other changes to the garden?
We’ve kept the very formal areas, but we also changed things. The pampas grasses were originally in the wood — an idiotic place to plant them, as they need sun, so we moved them to one of the lawned terraces near the front of the house. We also dug up some bulbs, and planted them in this area. There are some other grasses there now, which someone gave me, and a lot of agapanthus, which grows like a weed. The whole of this terrace cost £10 to plant! In the lower part of the garden there was a lot of Rhododendron ponticum, which was removed eight years ago. It was a huge job, but removing it has opened up this area, and wild garlic and bluebells now come up in the spring. I am a random gardener, so I don’t have colour schemes — but if white and purple hellebores come up at the same time as yellow daffodils, I am happy.
How much do you know about the history of the ancient woodland?
We know it was used for charcoal, so the trees would have been chopped down regularly and then grown back up — which is why some many of them are multi-stemmed.
The paths through the woodland were put in by a previous owner. She built a little summerhouse in the wood, so she could have a cup of tea and enjoy the view of Port Navas Creek. On our previous open days, people from the Bat Rescue charity have come here with Cornwall Wildlife Trust, and displayed their rescue bats in the summerhouse. Visitors love having the chance to see them. For us as a family, the woodland is a special place, especially at Christmas. Every year when daughters come down, we go through the woods choosing a holly tree for our Christmas tree – a tradition in Cornwall. We spend a lot of time thinking: ‘Is this one the right shape?’ before we make our choice. It’s a lot of fun.
What do you do to ensure that Pedn Billy is a haven for wildlife?
I love compost heaps, and my ambition is to have one which is bigger than the one at Kew Gardens! I have lots of eco-piles all over the place — which Scamp, my spaniel, thinks I have made especially for him — and you wouldn’t believe how many things live in them. We keep the stumps of trees which have had to be felled, like the Montereys, Buzzards like to sit on them and watch the world go by, and I’ve collected up some of the stumps and made stumperies. When our neighbours removed a leylandii hedge between our garden and theirs, we gathered logs to create a new border, and the bugs think it’s wonderful.
Which bulbs and shrubs are likely to be in bloom at the time of your open day in early April?
We will have snowdrops, crocuses and primroses, rhododendrons and camellias, and bluebells starting to come out.
This is the fourth year we have opened the garden. The first time, Cornwall Wildlife Trust had estimated we would have about 250 visitors, but we had over 500. It’s a huge amount of work, but the people from the trust are so helpful, and when you live in a beautiful place, it’s lovely to share it. We always have a plant sale, but we never know what’s going to be popular. One year, I dug up hundreds of griselinias and potted them up and they went like hot cakes. The next year I did the same, but no one was interested!