Photographs: Charles Francis
April 2016: A conversation with owner Elisabeth Prideaux-Brune
Prideaux Place has been owned by the same family for hundreds of years. How much is known about the origins of the garden?
Sir Nicholas Prideaux acquired the land after the dissolution of the monasteries, and the house was completed in 1592. We have no knowledge of any garden at that date. The first records are drawings by Edmund Prideaux, who inherited the house in the 1740s. In the garden, he created the Temple — thought to be the first use of Bath stone outside Bath itself — an obelisk and a grotto.
The Gothic double dairy was built in about the 1760s: I love the stained glass windows. It is in the classical style at the front, yet there is wonderful grotesquerie at the back.
How did the garden evolve in the Victorian era, and beyond?
The garden’s heyday was from the 1890s to 1914. This period is quite well-documented, as my husband Peter’s great-grandmother was a keen photographer. There were 14 gardeners, and the garden was divided into eight sections. The style in the flower gardens was very busy, with a lot of cannas, phloxes and roses. The woodland was full of spring bulbs, including some wonderful old species of daffodils. Then the First World War came, and no work was done in the garden for many years. The only thing that survived virtually unchanged was the big lawn.
How old is the deer park?
It is thought to have been here in some form for centuries. The tradition is that if the deer die out, so will the Prideaux family. George V once sent a buck from his herd at Windsor to help improve the bloodline, but unfortunately, the gamekeeper killed it by accident! In the last few years, we have begun a breeding programme, and there are about 100 deer now. They are a wonderful attraction for visitors.
What state was the garden in when you arrived?
When Peter inherited the house in 1988, there was dry rot and wet rot in every single room, so I was banned from doing anything in the garden until the house was shored up. The laurels were like a jungle, and the woodland walks had disappeared completely. How do you start to restore a historic garden? Everyone said: “Start near the house and work your way outwards”. We decided to recreate the Victorian formal garden, but we had to simplify the structure, as we don’t have 14 gardeners! We discovered all but two of the original urns scattered in the woodland, and there were herms — statues in the Ancient Greek style — which had lost their heads just lying around. We also found about a third of the obelisk which featured in the 1740s drawings. We had help from Tom Petherick — who was involved with the restoration of the Lost Gardens of Heligan – Cornwall Gardens Trust, and the National Trust, who lent us Tommy Teagle, head gardener at Lanhydrock; he was wonderful. The Cornish Nurseryman’s Association gave us some plants, which was brilliant. We cleared the pond and created a fountain.
What was the next stage of the restoration?
We attacked the laurels, and I tried to replant the woodland walks: I haven’t been very successful, but they look very pretty when the wild garlic is out. We’ve made a lime tree avenue and an acer glade. We plumped for euonymus as hedging. It grows like a weed here, and is weather-proof and sea-proof: we are surrounded on three sides by sea. I also decided to have a hornbeam allee, underplanted with camassias, tulips and Casablanca lilies. We created a green walk, and put in thousands of spring bulbs, which are a great joy to me; my granddaughter, who is eight, loves deadheading daffodils. We restored the Temple, and I now have a wonderful folly, an obelisk made of polished steel. We’re dying to restore the obelisk from Edmund Prideaux’s day, but it would cost a lot of money.
What are your more immediate plans?
The aim is to make this a garden for all seasons. My next project is to cover a ghastly brick wall — all that remains of the Victorian conservatory. I’m growing clematis, Himalayan musk and passion flower, which are very effective in the summer, but in the winter, there is nothing there.
What are the attractions of the garden in spring?
As well as all the bulbs in the green walk, there should be camellias and wild garlic. The formal garden is lovely in spring: there are thousands of primroses, and the box hedging is fresh green.
The sundial in the formal garden
Quite a lot of the 350 plants in the acer glade will be out, like scillas, which I love. The Colonel’s Walk — named after Peter’s great-grandfather — will be covered in bluebells.
Have you always been a keen gardener?
I learned from my mother how to plant and prune — and weed, which I didn’t enjoy so much. I made mistakes, as everyone does, and I learned to be patient. We have a rhododendron which has been here for years, but didn’t flower until last year, which was so exciting. My mother used to say: “You have to plant as if you are going to live forever, and weed as if you are going to die tomorrow”. She planted an arboretum at 90. You never finish making a garden, but I feel I am getting somewhere. One day last June I went for a walk round the garden. The roses were out, and it looked fabulous. I thought: “f I could just capture this moment …”
Peter Prideaux-Brune adds: The entire garden is here because of Elisabeth. When we came here, it was a complete mess: you couldn’t walk through it. I am very proud of her.