Godolphin House

Photographs: Charles Francis


December 2014: A conversation with gardener in charge Juliet Turner

It is seven years since the National Trust acquired the historic house and garden at Godolphin. What was the trust’s vision for this special place?

The trust wanted to preserve the peaceful, tranquil atmosphere, to garden organically and keep the garden wildlife-friendly — and in a state of ruin. The house was to become a holiday let to create funds for the restoration of the former farm buildings. Until the last few years, the style of trust properties across the UK was very similar, and Godolphin was the first not to be “trustified”. The idea was that it wouldn’t have a massive tea room, an art gallery and car parking for 5,000.

The inner courtyard

Have you been able to keep to the plan?

Visitor numbers have been more than we expected, so we now provide a cup of tea and a slice of cake! But we are still looking at ways to preserve the ramshackle air of the garden — we don’t want it to look too chocolate boxy. The Godolphin way is “take a few out, leave a few in”. It’s hard for some of our garden volunteers, who love straight lines and order. Ivy has been stripped from the garden walls, so you can see the structure, and we hope to raise the quality of the borders with native plants.

What has been happening in the garden this year?

We lost a big magnolia in the winter storms — but its loss has let in lots of light, and the rose garden has done better than it ever has. We’ve planted loads of bulbs: tulips, cyclamen, snake’s head fritillary and Madonna lilies. In the spring there are primroses everywhere, and bluebells and campions in the orchard. We’ve now got a really nice mix of fruit trees there, mostly traditional Cornish.

The side garden is one of the oldest of its kind in the country. How much is known about its history?

There would have been raised wall walks all around it, which looked down at a very formal parterre, with terraces, hedges, sunken lawns and water features. The terraces have survived, along with some of the raised walks. People ask us if we are going to restore it as a Tudor garden — but the Tudor period was just a snippet of Godolphin’s timeline. This is a formal garden gone wild. You can still see the ghost of that formal garden in the yew trees and box hedges — but it has since been a farm garden and a family garden. In the 18th century, it would have been surrounded by smoking mine chimneys: there are mineshafts quite close to the house. This place was a hive of industry, not a romantic wilderness. The garden has never been developed in the fashion of the time, and we don’t want to create a Tudor knot garden just to reflect what we think was once here.

How have visitors responded to this low-key approach? 

If you come here expecting a perfect garden, you’ll be disappointed — but a lot of people love the fact that Godolphin isn’t your traditional National Trust property. There is a relaxed atmosphere, and in the summer it’s full of families sitting on the grass having picnics and picking daisies. We’ve turned the potting shed into an informal information point: there are lots of old photos there, and also books on gardening, flowers in jars, and pictures for children to colour.

Between the side garden and the house are the two small walled gardens. What have you been doing there?

The King’s Garden is Godolphin’s showpiece. It would have been a spectacular formal garden, so we’ve tidied it more than anywhere else, and introduced more herbaceous planting.

The King's Garden

We’ve also planted borders in the other garden, which is a private garden for holidaymakers staying in the house. The ash tree in the lawn died last summer, and we’re looking to replace it, perhaps with a walnut. This garden was once the great hall of the original house, and the ash was said to represent its centre.

How will Godolphin be welcoming visitors in December?

The King’s Room is decorated for Christmas. The fires will be lit, and there will be carol singing. The only days we’re closed are Christmas Day and Boxing Day: we recognise that people want to get out and get some fresh air in winter. The garden’s Tudor layout will be visible, and the ancient sycamores growing on the raised walks look fantastic when they’ve lost their leaves. You can walk through the remains of the mediaeval deer park, and up to Godolphin Hill, where you get great views of both north and south coasts.

What are your plans for the future? 

We would love to put water back in the two ponds in the side garden, but we haven’t done any excavations, so we don’t know if they are lined with clay. The water which once supplied them was later diverted to work a water wheel, and if there was ever a leat, it’s probably run off down a mineshaft. We’ve talked about turning one of the ponds into a wild swimming pool. Maybe one day it will happen!

Juliet Turner