Photographs: Charles Francis
October 2017: There were sweeping lawns at Talland House, an orchard and a kitchen garden, a fountain, cascades and ponds. It was at this enchanting place, with its spectacular outlook over St Ives Bay to Godrevy Lighthouse, that Virginia Woolf spent her childhood summers.
Years later, the celebrated author remembered it as a place where “everything was ripe, humming, sunny … the gardens gave off a murmur of bees; the apples were red and gold”. The “great starry blossoms” of the passion flowers climbed a balcony wall, and deep purple Clematis jackmanii flourished by the greenhouse.
The two-acre garden, which rose in terraces high above Porthminster Beach, was designed as a series of secluded spaces, which included the Coffee Corner and the Love Garden — once the scene of a marriage proposal.
Virginia Woolf’s parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, bought the lease of Talland House in 1882 — the year she was born — and the family spent every summer there until 1894, when the building of the Porthminster Hotel blocked part of their prized panoramic view. Julia died the following year.
The house was eventually converted into holiday flats, which have since been transformed into six elegant apartments. Helen and Paul Collins moved into one of these in December 2015, after years of living above Hobblers, the restaurant they ran in St Ives. Helen was enchanted with Talland House as soon as she saw it: “The whole place had a lovely feel, and I felt completely comfortable here”.
Over the years, parcels of land surrounding the house have been sold and built on, but some of the original garden has survived. “Peter Eddy, who owns the house, has put a lot of effort into restoring the building, and he was keen for the garden to be restored as well,” Helen says. “I realised that it had such potential, and I wanted to give it a bit of TLC.”
She admits that until she came to Talland House, she knew nothing of Virginia Woolf’s connection with it — “I have spent my life in St Ives, but I didn’t even know she had lived here!” — and had little gardening experience. But she adds: “I’m addicted to Gardeners’ World, and I used to love planting up the pots which we had on the steps outside Hobblers. We often won the St Ives in Bloom best business premises award.”
Helen began by weeding the gravel paths running through the garden, and then tackling the overgrown top garden beyond the house. Among the long grass and privet, she discovered a semi-circular pond fed from a spring beyond the garden, which flowed into a series of cascades and then to a lower pond near the front gate. “You couldn’t actually see the top pond, and I didn’t know it was there, until I started cutting back. I excavated the pond and the cascades, which were choked with leaves, weed, branches and dead stuff. The cascades are absolutely lovely now — the water is so clear.
“This area is completed shaded by some of the original trees and shrubs, including a rare red camellia, which hasn’t been identified yet. The temperature can be 40 degrees by the cascades, and 100 degrees on the terrace, which is south facing and gets sun most of the time.”
Paul died last summer, only a few months after he and Helen had moved into Talland House, and working in the garden has been a great solace to her. “I’m out here until dark sometimes, or in the rain, wearing a rain hat and sheltering behind a hedge. You could be in the garden eight hours a day, seven days a week, and there would still be things to be done. It’s a mammoth task, but I’m enjoying it. I’ve bought lots of gardening books, I’ve been given tools, and I now have a shed — well, more of a cupboardy thing!”
This summer, Helen filled the terrace with pots of begonias, lobelias and geraniums, created an aeonium garden in a sunny, sheltered corner, and planted a lavender hedge against the terrace wall.
“What I’ve done so far has been trial and error, really,” she says. “I bought some roses which grew like weeds this summer, but didn’t flower: I’ve been assured that they will next year. I get plants cheap from Trengwainton Garden, where I’m a volunteer — I choose the ones which are nearly dead, and once they get here, they perk up. I battle with slugs and snails all the time. I can’t bear to kill them, so I put them in a shady part of the garden, as far from the terrace as I can. It probably takes them about three days to get back!”
Helen has teamed up with a fellow Talland House resident, Angela Roberts, who works at a florist shop in St Ives. “Between us, Angela and I have decided to see what comes up in the garden before we plant anything else.”
Over the last few months, Helen has been researching the Talland House story at St Ives Archive. “It’s difficult to find out what the garden was like before the Stephen family came, but I searched through everything the archive has about Virginia Woolf, along with her book about her childhood holidays here, and the booklets published by the Virginia Woolf Society. I discovered that what is now the car park was the site of a big glasshouse — the original door is buried in the ivy there — and the orchard was beyond the car park.
“The family had two gardeners. From what I’ve read, Virginia’s mother loved to potter in the garden — but she was a Victorian lady, and she wouldn’t have got her hands dirty. She had red geraniums in urns on the terrace, and I’d like to go for a modern version of that. I’m looking at how the Edwardians gardened, as they were less formal than the Victorians. I can’t put in decking and blue paint — it wouldn’t be in-keeping with the house.”
Helen is happy to welcome the occasional visitor to the garden. “A few weeks ago, an American academic, a world authority on Virginia Woolf, came to look at the garden, and went mad about it. On another day, there was a German film crew here. They were a bit hesitant, and asked if it would be all right to film. I invited them to see inside the house, and they were thrilled.”
When Helen finds time to stop work and enjoy the sea views and floral scents and the murmur of the bees, she often thinks about those who loved the garden in the past, and those who will in the future. “We’re all only custodians of a garden,” she says. “We move on, and then someone else takes it on.”