Red hot pokers

Photographs: Charles Francis

King George V Memorial Walk

January 2015: A conversation with gardeners Russell Symons, Mike Kemp and Olivia Pellowe

It is almost 80 years since a disused railway line running through Hayle was acquired by the local council. What happened next? 

Russell — gardener 1969-1992: The council cleared the track and developed it into a garden to commemorate King George V. There were lots of trees and beds and three fishponds. By the time I arrived, in April 1969, it was so overgrown that you couldn’t see a pathway — it was all brambles and weeds, with ivy in the beds. A lot of the original trees were still here — monkey puzzles, bird cherries, a big elaeagnus and some Prunus autumnalis, as well as birches and limes. But some had been attacked by honey fungus — the more unusual ones were particularly susceptible. I thought: “I’ll soon whip this into shape”.

How did you do it?

I decided to make 24 new flower beds: there are 70 now. All the shrubs which went into the beds were home-grown. I brought things like pittosporum and buddleias from home, and I took 200 dahlia cuttings from my brother. I split them, and before I knew it, there were a couple of thousand. I stuck to herbaceous perennials, as honey fungus doesn’t attack shrubs. Over the years, a few have died, and Mike has filled the spaces up with new stuff. He came here when I retired in ’92. The council couldn’t have picked a better chap. It was like looking at myself 20 years before.

Russell must have been a hard act to follow. What was your vision for the garden, Mike?  

Mike — gardener 1992-2014: I wanted to carry on with what Russell had done, but gardens evolve all the time.  When an Indian horse chestnut was taken down there was a large space. A choisya and a strawberry tree — both originals — were still there, and I put in some bamboo and fan palms. Nearly all the plants have been propagated here, because we have a limited budget. By splitting up, transplanting and redesigning, we keep costs down.

In 2000, the Memorial Walk was chosen as Hayle’s main Millennium project. What benefits did this bring?

We had funds to put in Victorian-style lamps and new benches, and a sensory garden. I decided to go for some more exotic species throughout the walk, because it’s really sheltered here, and we get sun all day. Many are from the southern hemisphere. Some are frost-tender, but we thought we might get away with growing them here, and a lot have survived. The other end of the garden has a different climate, because it’s more exposed — you have to put hardier stuff there. We lost a few trees when there were two bad winters in a row. And we lost some of the garden’s original trees in the winds last winter, like a Tree of Heaven and a laburnum. They just keeled over.

Under your tenure, the garden has become a vital part of Hayle’s continuing success in the South West in Bloom competition. How did you become involved in this?

In 2000, Mike Foy, who was then parks manager at Penwith Council, put us in for South West in Bloom, and we did reasonably well. The following year we were highly commended, and we decided to set up a Hayle in Bloom committee. We were awarded silver gilt in 2002, and since then, we’ve kept on winning prizes, including gold in 2014, so we must be doing something right. The community has really pitched in. A few years ago, we started the Adopt a Plot scheme along the Walk, so that people can tend an area of their own.

What has been your most recent project?

We’ve created what we call the architectural bed. At the back are the old sluice gates which were used for more than 100 years at Copperhouse Pool. It was decided to display them here, as the garden overlooks the pool. In this bed, we’ve also got part of an old cast iron lamp, and bricks from the quarry, and we’ve put in some architectural plants alongside the yucca and trachycarpus which were already here.

Sluice gates

And what of the future?

This is a garden for all seasons. There will always be something in bloom, even in January. People who love plants come here every week because there’s always something different to see. I’ve got everything looking as good as I can, and now it’s down to the new gardener, Olivia, and the volunteers who help her.

Olivia — gardener from 2014: We’re creating a new rose garden, and loads of people have already donated roses. Apart from that, my plan is to maintain what’s here, and see what happens. One of the things I love about this job is being so close to Copperhouse Pool and watching the birds — we get some really unusual ones. It’s a very peaceful place.