Photographs: Charles Francis
April 2014: Every summer, from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, a family of ten from the Scottish city of Stirling would squeeze into an Austin Cambridge and drive more than 500 miles to enjoy a holiday in Polzeath — and they always stayed for a whole month.
Viv Peace was one of the children in the car: her first visit to Cornwall was when she was three months old. She and her brothers and sisters always knew they were close to the end of their epic journey when they spotted a tea garden at a bend in the road between Wadebridge and St Minver. “I used to call it Cream Tea Corner,” she recalls with a smile.
“When we were all grown up, we started coming back to Cornwall with our own families. I always wanted to live here — and about 20 years ago, I just decided to bite the bullet.” With a background in social services, she was offered a job at the Child Protection Unit in Tavistock, and lived initially in Polzeath, and then Pendoggett. “Then one day I saw a sign saying: ‘Two-bed cottage to rent’. And I discovered that it was the cottage at Cream Tea Corner.”
The scene of so many memories is now Viv’s Tea Garden. Viv’s aim is to offer the very best locally-made scones, clotted cream and jam — along with a warm welcome — and her reward is the comments such as “lovely”, “delicious”, “friendly” and “splendid” from her many enthusiastic customers. Yet she says: “I didn’t come here with the idea of doing cream teas. I just thought: ‘Why not put a couple of benches in the garden?’ I thought I’d have 20 people a day in the height of the summer. I now do 1,000 cream teas a year.”
The cottage was once the gatehouse to 17th century Dinham House, and is more than 200 years old. Some of the trees in the surrounding mixed woodland date from the same period, although most were planted at around the time of Viv’s childhood visits.
“The house had been empty for many years when I came here, and I had to go round the garden with a pair of secateurs and cut my way through. I just thought I’d tweak it a bit. But I fell in love with the garden, and I could see its potential.”
Viv admits that she gets her plant knowledge from “Mr Google”. “Customers started asking me: ‘What is this plant?’ so I decided to learn one new thing a day. I made a lot of mistakes with planting, but Mother Nature is awesome. She does it all — I just help. And I’ve discovered there’s no such thing as a weed. People told me to dig up the pink campions, so I did — but they’re so pretty. I scattered their seeds to replace the ones I’d dug up.
“In my second year here, I discovered a wildlife pond, which was fab. There are insects and bees here, and butterflies and birds. I also have newts, slow worms and bats. I don’t want to take away their habitat to fit in with other people’s ideas of what a garden should look like: they have as much right to be here as we do.”
Viv has restored the terraces she remembers from the 70s and built both a summerhouse and heated log cabin, so customers can enjoy their cream tea whatever the weather.
She has also created a Wishing Tree. “The idea is that you wish what you want for a loved one. You can etch a name or a date onto a beech slate, and hang it on a holly tree. In a few years’ time, the tree will be full of colour and messages.”
The garden also has a Fairy Village for children, with tiny wooden houses and furniture.
Last year, Viv started tackling a copse choked with stinging nettles; beyond it, she hopes to create a waterfall. This will be the last major part of the restoration she began in 2008 — but as she says, a garden has no end date. “I have known this garden all my life, and it is a lifetime project.
“Visitors often say to me: ‘What a magical garden’. I feel privileged to be able to share it with people. I want the children who come here now to come back when they’re grown up with their own families and say: ‘I saw my first newt here’. My holidays in Cornwall gave me the courage to take a gamble and follow my heart. They gave me the life I have now.”