Photopgraphs: Charles Francis
December 2008: “I have blundered into a Garden of Eden that cannot be described in pen or paint. There is a degree of beauty that flies so high that no net of words or snare of colour can hope to capture it, and of this order is the beauty of St Just-in-Roseland.”
So wrote the writer and traveller H V Morton in his book In Search of England in 1927. Describing the 13th century church as “one of the little-known glories of Cornwall“, he enthused: “I would like to know if there is in the whole of England a churchyard more beautiful than this. You stand at the lychgate and look down into a green cup filled with flowers and arched by great trees. In the dip is the little church, its tower level with you as you stand above. The white gravestones rise up from ferns and flowers.”
Eighty years have passed since Morton’s visit, and the flowers are now even more abundant, and the great trees even greater (there are more gravestones, too). But the church and churchyard are no longer “little-known“, as the Rev Ken Boullier, recently appointed priest-in-charge at St-Just-in-Roseland and St Mawes, can testify.
“My last parish was in Somerset, and when I announced to the congregation there that I was coming here, there was a kind of murmur of recognition,” he says. “When I asked how many people had been here, half the congregation had their hands up. Even people who have never been here know of it.
“It’s absolutely unique, and very special. It has similarities to other gardens in Cornwall in that a lot of exotic plants were brought here from all over the world — things grow here which may not have survived elsewhere. But it’s also different from any other Cornish garden because it’s a churchyard which is open to everyone. A lot of visitors are impressed that there is no entry charge.
“There are many reasons why people enjoy coming here, but one is the setting by the creek, the fact that the churchyard is on the coast but enclosed. There are always people around, even in bad weather. On windy days, it is very sheltered.”
It was almost by accident that the churchyard became one of Cornwall’s great gardens. Towards the end of the Victorian era, Cornish gardener John Garland Treseder returned to his native land from Australia laden with semi-tropical species, and went in search of a suitable site to plant them. He found it in St Just-in-Roseland.
The nursery which he established on land bordering the churchyard featured tree ferns, pittosporum, Gunnera manicata and Chinese palms (Trachycarpus fortunei), all of which thrived in the mild, sheltered microclimate. Encouraged by their success, Treseder planted camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons and magnolias, and saw them grow lush and healthy. Also flourishing within a few years were berberis and bamboo; hypericum and laburnum, skimmia and the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). Chinese myrtle and New Zealand holly were equally happy to put down roots thousands of miles from their original homes.
Over the years, the nursery grew into a garden, and the garden branched out into the churchyard — but the roots of the original project remain: groups of Western red cedars still stand in the rows in which they were first planted.
The Treseder family continued to take an interest in the garden throughout the 20th century, and in 1984 when it was refreshed and replenished under a Manpower Services Commission community scheme, Neil Treseder was on hand to offer advice on the best ways to preserve his grandfather’s legacy. At the same time, a memorial garden was created on steeply sloping banks across the road from the churchyard. Between red oak, weeping spruce and southern beech trees, there are breathtaking views of the creek.
But within six years, the optimism which the scheme had generated about the future of the garden was severely shaken when the great storm of January 1990 inflicted brutal damage on both new and mature trees. A subsequent survey of surviving trees revealed that many were in a poor condition and would need to be replaced.
Raising the necessary funds was a daunting task for the parochial church council — but many visitors with fond memories of the garden were happy to make a contribution to the parish appeal, and Cornwall County Council offered a selection of new trees.
In 2004, the PCC launched a further 15-year restoration programme, with expert guidance from John Lanyon, ex-head gardener at the National Trust estate at Cotehele.
Former churchwarden James Thomas, who was born just across the creek from the church, is keen to stress that the character of the churchyard is not going to change. “We don’t want to bring in things which don’t belong here. We want to protect what we’ve got,” he says.
“We have a very special churchyard, and we want it to be special not just for the next generation but for many generations to come, I got married here, my daughter got married here, and I want people to be able get married here in the future.
“The palms are an important feature, but if we leave them until they’re 100 years old, they’ll all die and we’ll have nothing left. We are now planting new ones so that in 20 years’ time, there will still be palms here. We learned our lesson when we had the gales.”
James emphasises that the aim is to cause as little disruption to the peace of the garden as possible. “We work on trees which were once planted as windbreaks and have never been thinned, and if a big tree needs to be taken out completely, we don’t do it all in one day — we cut some branches each time, so that people hardly notice what is happening.
“We are continually planting and rejuvenating the garden, and we are now planning what we are going to be doing in the spring. But we won’t be digging up all the grassland by the church to make more burial space, as we know that people like to sit there and look across the creek. Our gardener, Clive Johns, always takes time to talk to visitors. He is very proud of the churchyard and he has a say in everything we do — he is a valuable member of the team.
“One recent visitor who had been to a lot of Cornish gardens said that this one beats them all. People find peace and tranquillity here. It’s a garden to enjoy — but it’s also a sacred place,” adds James.
Along the main path through the churchyard, nestling among fuchsias and hydrangeas, are a series of granite stones etched with biblical texts, hymns and poems. They were laid by the Rev Humphry Davis, rector of St Just in Roseland from the beginning of the 20th century until 1930, and still attract a great deal of interest.
“The texts give the feeling of being on a pilgrimage,” says Ken. As the new priest-in-charge, he sees part of his role as offering ministry to people passing through the parish. “We are conscious that a visit to the church and the churchyard gives people a spiritual dimension to their holiday.”
Visitors are intrigued by the ancient well close to the creek side footpath, a source of water for baptisms for many centuries — and they are fascinated by the legend that Jesus visited Cornwall during his boyhood, and his boat landed in St Just Creek.
New light was shed on the story earlier this year, with the publication of Did Jesus Come to Britain? The book’s author, Glyn Lewis, is convinced that Jesus visited the country with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea, a metal trader thought to have bought tin in Cornwall, as well as copper and lead in Somerset. Lewis points out that both counties have legends describing the visit — and both say that Joseph was accompanied by the young Jesus.
An analysis by an archaeologist of hieroglyphic carvings around the 1,000 year-old south door at nearby St Anthony-in-Roseland Church revealed interesting results. “He interpreted the pictographs as telling of Jesus’s birth and his visit to Cornwall,” writes Lewis. “The lamb and the cross face the rising sun, meaning that he was here in his early life. Because it is on the left of the centre line it indicates he was here just before the turn of the year, probably December.”
In his well-known hymn Jerusalem, William Blake wonders: “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountain green?“ It is a hymn which has special resonance when it is sung in St-Just-in-Roseland Church.
The legend says that Jesus and his uncle came ashore in St Just to seek shelter from stormy conditions at sea, and found refuge in a place which was recognised as sacred even then.
Nearly 2,000 Decembers have passed since this extraordinary event is supposed to have taken place, and no one knows for sure how much truth there is in the tale. But if you take a brisk walk through the churchyard down to the creek on a blustery winter day, it is not hard to picture the man, the boy and the boat. As the church guide book puts it: “All that can be said is that it could have happened — and that it warms the heart to have such a story associated with this lovely place.”