Photographs: Charles Francis
September 2013: The bright white summer house perched high above Readymoney Cove offers a seagull’s eye view of a reawakened Victorian garden which rises in tiers on the steep slopes of the valley below. “Garden design is all about creating spaces which are interesting, exciting, fresh and harmonious for people to move through and live in,” says Darren Hawkes, who is giving this historic Fowey garden a 21st century twist. Every garden he creates is a living, growing example of this philosophy, whether its setting is the Cornish coast, or the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, where he was awarded a silver gilt medal this year.
Readymoney Gardens was once the kitchen garden for neighbouring Point Neptune, a grand Italian-style mansion built for William Rashleigh, a member of one of Cornwall’s wealthiest families. After the Second World War, it drifted into decline, and by the 1950s had become a shrubbery.
Darren, whose design, build and maintenance practice is based in Fowey, was working on a nearby site when he first became aware of the garden. “It was being cleared, and I was curious about what was happening,” he recalls. “I put forward a proposal and got the gig.” He was aware of the challenge presented by the long-neglected garden. “The whole site was full of cleavers, mare’s tail, bramble, knotweed — all the worst weeds, six feet high — and there was no water or electricity.”
He emphasises that he is not trying to re-create William Rashleigh’s garden. “Because it has been a working kitchen garden, I wanted to have a nod and a wink to that, but in practical terms it was pointless growing a lot of vegetables which we can’t use. We do have apples, pears and plums to reference its previous incarnation, and I’ve kept some elements of the original Victorian layout, like the steps up through the garden. I also left some of the old ash trees to give height.”
There is no house attached to the garden — it has long since ceased to be part of the grounds of Point Neptune — but the elevated summer house, with its magnificent views, offers an attractive destination for visitors and promotes flow through the garden.
Darren has worked on a variety of projects in Fowey and beyond, ranging from cliffside gardens with steps carved from the surrounding rock to a play garden for Lanlivery Primary School. But designing a show garden at Chelsea was a new experience for him. The opportunity arose following a meeting with Elizabeth Wagstaff, a vice-president of SeeAbility, a charity which offers support for people with sight loss.
“I started to think about how we could create a garden for people who have limited vision — not just touchy-feely, but with contrasts between light and dark, and different colours and textures,” says Darren. ”I also wanted to find a way of getting sighted people to see what it would be like to experience a garden when you only have limited vision, and to highlight the different sight problems.”
The colours he chose were vibrant shades of lime green, yellow, burgundy and orange, and the textures ranged from to rough wooden fencing to 6,000 stainless steel balls, which represented the blind spots caused by macular degeneration. Oak blades covered with trailing clematis symbolised the loss of peripheral vision caused by glaucoma, and a screen made from thousands of pieces of broken glass suggested the effects of cataracts.
SeeAbility garden. Photograph: courtesy Darren Hawkes
Darren also created a circular pathway from 20,000 pieces of roofing slate. “We laid the pieces on edge to create a radiating pattern so that people with limited vision could feel through the soles of their feet where the path was leading them to,” he explains.
Looking back on his debut Chelsea garden, he adds: “It was an honour to be at the number one show in the world in its centenary year, and to be awarded silver gilt. It was also great that everyone who worked on the garden was Cornwall based, like Marcus Lewis, a boatbuilder in Fowey, who made beautiful oak benches using traditional boatbuilding methods, and Richard Harwood, from Michaelstow, who designs furniture and water features. Their enthusiasm and hard work were crucial to the garden’s success. It was lovely to feel we’d brought something special from Cornwall to London.”
Now he is bringing something special to Fowey. “We are creating a garden designed to be viewed both from above and the beach below,” says Darren. “The idea is to have some plants cascading down into the valley like a waterfall, others with strong architectural shapes, and also ferny things with a lot of movement, like the tide down in the cove.
“We are also borrowing a lot from the surrounding landscape — the estuary, the woodland, even the tennis courts next door. The boundaries of this garden aren’t clearly defined, and I like that. In time, we hope to open it for the National Gardens Scheme to allow more people to enjoy it.”