Photographs: Charles Francis
June 2014: A conversation with owners Julian and Isabel Bannerman
Can you give us a potted history of this ancient place?
Julian: There was a Roman fort here, but the castle is Norman. It has belonged to the Duchy of Cornwall since 1270. It has a motte and bailey, and a huge gatehouse, with the earliest documented fireplace in England, which was built in 1350 as a des res for the Black Prince, who was then Duke of Cornwall
Treasure from Francis Drake’s voyage around the world was stored here, and then trundled off in carts to London to show Queen Elizabeth. The castle was never used for defence. It fell into ruins until a 100-year-lease was bought by Benjamin Tucker from the Duchy in 1807. He built the house in the castle courtyard where we now live.
Isabel: We first saw the castle in 2003, and we thought it was wonderful, but all our children were in school in Bath, and it didn’t seem like a good idea. It was available again in 2011, and we couldn’t resist it.
What was the garden like when you arrived?
Isabel: There were brambles and weeds everywhere. But the orchard had some apple trees and a mulberry, and the previous owners had planted a lot of camellias and rhododendrons, especially in the woodland, along with some specimen trees, and a grove of tree ferns. A lot of lime has gone into the soil over the years as the castle walls have crumbled. We discovered that there’s a special fern growing in all the walls here because of the lime: it doesn’t even have a name, because it is a variant. In the woods we found a mad walled garden, covered in ash, sycamore and brambles. It’s steep, facing north, with a double wall. The only explanation anyone’s been able to conjure up is that it was used for fruit growing, so maybe they needed lots of espaliers on the walls.
How did you start?
Julian: We’ve got rid of an acre of bindweed and an acre of ground elder, and Petasites fragrans — winter heliotrope, which is the curse of Cornish gardens. It was everywhere, and getting rid of it was a lot of work. But if you became compulsive about it and keep digging up and spraying, you can do it. Then we started planting snowdrops and magnolias everywhere.
What was your vision for the garden?
Julian: We wanted a William Morris/Pre-Raphaelite look which would work with the woodland and the orchard, and the steep bank on the side of the bailey, which is full of wildflowers — daffodils, primroses, bluebells and purple orchids. It was an adventure in horticulture.
Alice Boyd, our neighbour at Ince Castle, kept bringing us lots of special daffodils and other bulbs which she has had in her garden for 40 years. We made borders full of colour and scent, and planted an awful lot of climbing roses and other climbers — over 100. There is also an exotic bit in a small sheltered area where the tunnel goes through the bailey wall and out into the orchard. The area between the house and the ramparts was just grass and weeds. The garden designer Norah Lindsay came here in the 30s and planted a border there — she was one of the first people to let flowers self-seed everywhere, before Vita Sackville-West did it — but all that was left was a couple of magnolias, a Cornus capitata and a wisteria stretching 130 feet along the ramparts. We created a deep border by the wall, with a path down the middle and green oak steps, and obelisks on both sides of the steps. The planting includes elysium, campanulas and lupins.
What can visitors see in June?
Julian: At this time of year, there is a lot of scent from all the different philadelphus varieties — it’s like bubblegum in the wind. There are also lots of peonies and roses and a huge collection of sweet peas.
Isabel: People come here mainly for the setting. When Benjamin Tucker was here 200 years ago, he took one of the walls down so that the house would have a view of the Lynher and Tamar estuaries. You can also see Dartmoor. The thing I love most about living here is the view, and it changes all the time.
Do you have any plans for further planting?
Julian: No. Gardeners have to know when to stop.
Isabel: A garden is very mysterious and exciting if it looks as though it’s not too well looked after.