Photographs: Charles Francis
February 2018: A donkey once lived in a shed on the ground floor of the gardener’s house in Morrab Gardens. “The gardener never got up on time,” says present-day head gardener Joe Palmese. “So the people he worked with used to do something to annoy the donkey — and the gardener would come downstairs, angry because of the noise the donkey was making!”
This was back in the mid-Victorian era. The gardener’s house, originally built as stables at the top of the sub-tropical Penzance garden, is still standing, but it is semi-derelict now, its inner walls crumbling within the granite exterior. “Ever since I’ve worked here — and I started in 1989 — the end part has been condemned. We used to store chairs from the bandstand there,” says Joe. There are stories that the lazy gardener haunts the building, he adds with a smile, although he admits he has never had any close encounters of the ghostly kind.
Now the building, adjacent to the well-known Morrab Library, is set to be transformed, with the award of a £70,000 Heritage Lottery Fund development grant to Penzance-based educational charity, The Hypatia Trust. The Hypatia team is working with the Friends of Morrab Gardens and Pengarth Day Centre — which is based in the gardens — on an imaginative plan to create a horticultural resource and community learning centre.
Melissa Hardie, founder of the trust, describes how the Gardener’s House project was born: “I was walking to the library one day, and Joe was standing outside the stables. I said: ‘This is a beautiful building. Are there any plans to make something of it?’ Joe does a lot of work with schools, and he said there had been a plan to have a classroom for when it’s pouring with rain outside — but there was no money to do it. I thought this was a good opportunity for the Friends of Morrab Gardens; and the Hypatia Trust could put forward finance and ideas. I made a plan to take to the Friends, to see if they were interested. They were, of course!”
Along with a classroom, the initial plan included an archive celebrating the garden and the part it has played in the history of the town. Morrab House, now the home of the library, was built on a prime site overlooking Mount’s Bay in 1841. The formal gardens laid out in the meadow below were acquired as a public park by Penzance Borough Council in 1889.
Miki Ashton, who has a background in design and has worked with the Hypatia Trust for several years, became project co-ordinator. “Miki is a very strategic thinker, and very tech minded,” says Melissa. “She was the ideal person for this very special project.”
Melissa Hardie (top) and Miki Ashton
Sensitive restoration of the fabric of the building is an integral part of the plan, as Miki explains: “We’re working with Studio West Architects in St Just, who are used to renovating old buildings and using them for new purposes.
“Joe is a very important part of the project: I wanted to make sure he has a good working environment and storage for his equipment. There will also be a community space where the classes for children — and other events like lectures — can be held, a meeting place for the Friends, and a shop with plant sales outside. It’s a very exciting thing to be involved with.”
Another important feature will be a reading room which will house the Hypatia Trust’s important collection of almost 4,000 horticultural and botanical books, along with ephemera relating to gardening. The room will be named in honour of American academic Dr Elspeth Pope, who left a substantial sum to the trust.
“Dr Pope’s legacy enabled the trust to match fund any grant applications we might make, and I’m sure she would have been absolutely delighted with this plan,” says Melissa. There are plans to digitise the collection, allowing online public access to it for the first time, thanks to seed money from the Tanner Trust, a charity which helps organisations like Hypatia with digital projects.
Melissa is also grateful for the assistance of De Facto Development Consultants in Falmouth, who wrote the funding bid for the development grant. “If our business plan ticks all the Heritage Lottery Fund boxes, we will get further funding of more than £700,000,” she says. “It has been so much fun building a plan for something which can be a lasting tribute to the garden.”
Joe is looking forward to having space to display the garden’s fascinating collection of old tools. “We’ve got things like bell jars, which used to be used for propagation — I took them home for many years to keep them safe, because I didn’t want them to be smashed,” he says.
Above all, he is excited by the prospect of having a classroom, where he aims to inspire the next generation of garden visitors — and potential gardeners. “We already have an area in the garden where I teach children about wildlife and plants in good weather, and this will be somewhere where I can teach them in bad weather. It’s lovely to see kids getting involved in gardening.”