Photographs: Charles Francis
August 2014: A conversation with owners Ted, Sarah and Sammie Coryton
It is seven years since you inherited a castle with 55 acres of gardens, and parkland designed by Humphry Repton. What did you find when you first came here?
Ted: The castle and grounds had been neglected for 25 years, and the gardens were almost totally overgrown with laurel and rhododendron. You couldn’t get through most of the paths unless you went on your hands and knees. We decided to get the house up and trading first — we knew it would be our major revenue earner — and we rebuilt it in an amazing seven months. The plan was to restore the gardens gradually, but we did open them for four days soon after we started the restoration, and 3,500 people came.
How did you go about tackling an overgrown garden on such a vast scale?
Sarah: In the American gardens, which cover 20 acres, there has been a massive laurel clearance — some were 30 to 40ft high, and totally blocked the view of the river. They do a wonderful job of wind protection, but no air was getting to the roots of surrounding trees, which led to the growth of honey fungus. Foxgloves have started to appear in areas which have been cleared: we had no idea they were lurking there. Some of the trees in the American gardens are 200 years old, and every one of them had to be tested before we let the public in, to see if they were diseased, dead or dangerous. An enormous number were lopped or taken out.
Sammie: We’ve also been trying to work out a management plan for the woodland. Instead of logging with machinery, we’re using a shire horse called Jack. He came here after we were contacted by his owners John Mills and Freya Williams. They’re now living in a horsebox in the woods. It’s lovely to be able to help them maintain an old tradition.
The Victorian walled kitchen garden and greenhouse were derelict, but have begun to come to life again. Has this been a difficult job?
Sammie: We had to restore the capping of the brick walls, which was quite a process, as we had to use half bricks and quarter bricks to fit the space. We’re now trying to get some dahlias for cut flowers on the go, and autumn raspberries, veg and herbs. The husband of one of our cleaners already has a patch here, but he’s had trouble keeping the bunnies out — they’re terrors! The greenhouse has been refurbished, with all new wood and glass. The grapevine in there is almost 40 years old, and has come on by leaps and bounds. We’re also growing lots of sunflowers and bedding plants this year.
The restoration of the estate has included a grand garden mausoleum built by Pentillie’s original owner Sir James Tillie. What’s the story behind it?
Sammie: Sir James died in 1713, and left instructions that his body was to be placed in the mausoleum, tied to his favourite chair. When the mausoleum was being restored last year, we found a vault, where we discovered the remains of both Sir James and his chair. We felt he should be left in peace, so we sealed the vault — but we did put a Tupperware box down there with a record of the restoration we’ve carried out, in case it is uncovered in another 300 years.
What else has been happening at Pentillie in the last year?
Sarah: South-westerly and south-easterly winds have hammered the garden. Some huge eucalyptus were thrown over like upturned wine glasses; we’ve kept some of these where they fell, for Mother Nature’s little critters. On the side of Repton’s Walk — part of Humphry Repton’s original design — there were some massive holm oaks. When the wind was blowing in February, you could see the bank rocking. If they’d come down, it would have been the end of Repton’s Walk, so we took them down.
What can visitors see in August?
Sarah: There are lots of hydrangeas, and the herbaceous border generally keeps on flowering all summer. In some years, there has been colour until October, but it hugely depends what the weather throws at us.
Do you feel proud of what you have achieved here?
Sarah: We’ve tried to bring life back into Pentillie: we feel responsible for the future of the place. When people tell us how much things have changed since they first visited us. I feel pretty humble — and proud of everyone involved. Our head gardener, Chris Duke, and all the other people who have worked with us have been outstanding.