Photographs: Charles Francis
December 2010: A conversation with landscape architect John Moreland
The gardens at Tregenna Castle are less than 15 years old – but the estate has a long history. How much do you know about it?
The house was built around 250 years ago, and later owned by the Bolitho family. Then in the 1850s, the Great Western Railway bought it — that’s the reason that there’s a railway in St Ives. For a long time, the hotel was the jewel in the crown, but about 15 years ago, it went downhill and ended up in receivership. It was bought by a syndicate of hard-nosed businessmen who had a minimalist approach: green space didn’t feature in their plans. But after we’d landscaped the car park, they could see it made a difference. I thought I’d be here six months: I’ve now been here 15 years! It’s been a fantastic experience.
How did you come go about landscaping a 72-acre estate?
When I first came here, it was mostly grass with a few bushes, and there was one gardener responsible for the whole estate. The hotel can look quite bleak when you look up at it from the town, because of the large Victorian wing which was added to the original house, so the planting was designed to soften it. There is not a straight line in the design — it’s all curves and hidden areas. As new lodges go up, we plant around them to ease them into the landscape.
How did you create the circular walled garden?
The owners’ original plan was to put self-catering units in that part of the estate, but I said it would make a great walled garden, and they came round to the idea. It developed around a seating terrace and pond, and has curved box hedges. We bought cordylines as big as possible, to give the impression that the garden is a lot older than it is. People think it has been there forever, but it’s not much more than 10 years old.
The walled garden is on an exposed site. What challenges have you had to overcome to create such a haven of tranquillity?
The terrace is the lowest part of the garden, so it is the coldest: frost comes down the slope like water. We’ve had a lot of problems with the lavender round the pond. We’ve tried both French and English and neither of them worked — but we’re going to try again with another variety which has more fleshy leaves. Another problem is the east wind, which howls in at the end of the walled garden. We can’t plant a tree there because it would block the sea views, so we just have to make sure we put the tougher stuff there. There’s a windbreak with olearia and weigela.
What’s the story of the woodland walk?
A stream runs through the valley, disappears underground, and pops out as a waterfall. We started restoring the walk last year: it was totally overgrown. With something on this scale, you have to clear an area at a time. We got rid of the brambles and some self-seeded trees, to open up the area. There is a shelterbelt of sycamore, lime and oak, and we planted half a dozen beech trees at the start of the walk. We also reinstated old paths by the side of the waterfall. It can’t be too gardeny, as there’s woodland beyond.
We’ve started to put in a backdrop of rhododendrons and camellias. I was inspired by the classic Cornish valley gardens like Heligan and Trebah — planted 100 years ago for us to enjoy now. We’ve also put in some tree ferns, and thousands of lacecap hydrangeas which look glorious in late August and early September — a blue haze. There’s a turf bridge by the waterfall, made from two sewer pipes. The waterfall used to flow into a grotty ditch, so we took the boulders away and created a bog garden. Water is magic — it gives life to a garden.
How did last winter’s weather affect the estate?
The garden was devastated by the frost. This part of Cornwall is almost like perpetual spring, wet and warm, and if you get a sudden cold snap, the plants are vulnerable, and you get really severe damage. Near the entrance to the walled garden, we lost an escallonia hedge, and the hot bed had to be replanted. A10-foot datura in the walled garden was clobbered, and we thought it was dead, so we started replanting — but it’s popped its head up again this year.
What can the hotel’s Christmas visitors see in the garden?
Magellanica fuchsias have beautiful slender scarlet flowers, and we also have magellanica ‘Versicolor’ and some yellow fuchsias. The reason I use fuchsia so much is that it flowers and flowers.
There are also early camellias, and grasses: the pampas ‘Pumila’ has small plumes, which go russet – lovely when the sun’s on them.