Photograph: Charles Francis

April 2008: A conversation with owner Valerie Hadley

What’s the history of Poldowrian?

Some of the serpentine walls are prehistoric, and the remains of a Bronze Age roundhouse have been found. The site has been dated from 5000 BC. When we came here form Surrey in 1965, there was no garden at all — and for the first few years, we didn’t garden, as we were running a dairy herd. We couldn’t get from the house to the cliff, so we started by making a small path down through the gorse. We were making planting space by digging up gorse or making a bonfire.

Cliff beyond the garden fence

How did you achieve such an intriguing mix of the wild and the cultivated?

There was no plan put down on paper: the garden just evolved. We would see a wall behind the gorse which looked lovely, and we’d think: “Let’s clear it”. One of the first things we did was to plant a little pine spinney to provide shelter from the south-westerly gales. One day, we were looking down over a big bowl of gorse, and as we had a digger on the farm, we decided to scoop it out to make a pond.

Duck house

When we finally cleared to the end of the valley, we planted a clematis on the rock walls, along with rhododendrons and camellias. It’s always a pleasant surprise for people walking along the coast path when they come across the garden.

View from the coast path

What can visitors see in April?

The wood is a carpet of primroses, Rhododendron ‘Fragrantissimum’ scents the whole garden, and there is also a wonderful waft of scent as you walk past eupatorium — the incense bush. Azalea, ceonothus, spirea, and Viburnum tomentosum – the wedding cake bush — are also in flower. The beech trees are lovely at this time of year, with the sun shining on the new yellow leaves.

What’s been your main project during the last year?    

I always wanted a folly, and my gardener, Bill Penman, has built a splendid octagonal one on an island approached via my Monet bridge over the pond. It is built from serpentine, some of which was found in the garden — the rest came from nearby quarries — and looks out towards the sea. Lines from a poem written by Edward Thomas, written in 1915, are carved on each side of the octagon. It was Bill’s idea. The poem suits the garden: “An acre of land between the shore and the hill”. When the folly was finished, I had a christening party. Lots of friends came, we poured champagne, and Bill’s wife Melanie made a cake in the shape of the folly.

What other interesting features does Poldowrian have?

Bill has carved some sculptures for the trees. Children love the owl.

Carved owl

There are some sculptures of mythical creatures, which my son brought back from China. It’s terracotta with a golden glaze, and it’s on the roof of an old barn. They are the guardians of the garden!

Chinese terracotta figures

What’s good – and not so good – about gardening here?

The garden is south-facing, the setting is beautiful, and I don’t get a lot of frost. Where the gorse has been cleared, there is marvellous soil. The disadvantages are scorching by salt winds, and the gales. A couple of years ago, a few trees were blown down. A fatsia toppled over in one gale. It is being propped up, and I hope it will survive. Badgers do so much damage: they come down off the cliff, dig up the bulbs and make holes in the lawn.

Which plants thrive at Poldowrian?

Roses do very well. I have four beds in different area — ‘Fragrant Cloud’ is the one with the best scent — a big trellis of rambler roses down the drive, and climbers growing up trees in the wood. When people say: “You can’t grow roses in Cornwall”, I tell them: “We do!” Camellias also thrive: I have about 30 different varieties.

Camellia x williamsii 'St Ewe'

Camellia x williamsii ‘St Ewe’ 

There’s a tree-shaped one which looks like a great big cake, and I call that Sugar Pink. The Japanese ‘Komron Kaku’ is very nice: deep red with little pointed petals. But my favourite is ‘Margaret Davis’, a pale pink camellia with a red border, which is spectacular.

What’s special about the garden?

The sea views through the pines, the prehistoric walls, the huge rocks, the running water — a stream rises at the top of our farm, through the garden, over the cliff, and out to sea. But above all, the atmosphere. When people feel stressed, coming here seems to calm them down. They say we must have tranquil ghosts.