Photographs: Charles Francis
April 2010: A conversation with owner Robert Dudley-Cooke
Most Cornish gardens suffered some damage this winter. How did Lamorran House escape almost unscathed?
The garden has a remarkable microclimate, and our last serious frost was at the time of the blizzards in January 1987. We did have frost once last year. There was virtually no damage, but the frost did find every Polynesian Island metrosideros tree in the garden — it was as if it had a mission. But all of them were replaced, and all of them came through this winter. We believe this is the warmest garden in England. It is on a sloping hillside overlooking the sea, so I was very conscious when we came here of the need for shelterbelts. Now there can be a roaring gale outside, but it doesn’t affect the garden.
What are the other effects of this microclimate?
Everything grows so fast. If I haven’t been down to the bottom of the garden for a couple of weeks, I notice the growth. It’s incredible, and it goes on for 12 months a year, so we endlessly prune, prune, prune. We have a Pittosporum eugenoides which does wonderfully well — people visiting from New Zealand say they’ve never seen one that size. A eucalyptus grew 14 feet in one year, so I lopped the top off. It sulked for a bit, but it has now recovered.
What brought you to Lamorran House?
We had been coming to Cornwall for holidays, and we were looking for a house with a garden to be our family home. When we came across the plot here, there was a small garden around the house, but the rest of it was under an impenetrable cover of blackthorn and brambles, 12 feet high. But my feeling was that with such a wonderful backdrop of the sea, I ought to be able to make a most beautiful garden.
How did you go about creating a beautiful garden from such a wilderness?
I had cut my teeth in an even larger garden at our house in Surrey, and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. I hired a mini digger and carved out the framework in a couple of days. It was a case of cutting down, clawing out roots, moving granite stones, and superimposing my design, making sure it would fit in with the landscape. It was my wish to make it an intimate and tranquil garden for the family, with vistas, winding paths, archways, streams and ponds. I was influenced by Japanese style, and this blended with my love of the sort of garden created by English people in the south of France and Italy between 1880 and 1920.
How did you turn these ideas into reality?
There was a conscious decision to plant densely, so that the ground was covered, and to have 90 per cent evergreen plants. I gathered plants from all over the Mediterranean region, and later on, Australian and New Zealand plants, which enable us to have colour all through the summer. The garden could be described as a giant rockery. It has paths zig-zagging across all the way down: it’s very steep, and to go straight down the gradient would be very wearing.
The garden was originally two acres, and we subsequently acquired a two-acre copse. It was very dank and dark, and everything dropped there by birds had taken root. We gutted it and started again, except for two large pine trees. Everything we cut down is shredded and used as a mulch. The close planting and mulching enable the garden to be maintained by just one gardener, Mark Brent, with my help. Mark came from Kew Gardens and had an interest in sub-tropical plants. He asked if we needed a gardener, and he has been here 17 years now.
What are your favourite plants?
Skimmia japonica ’Fragrans’ has white scented flowers followed by red berries throughout the winter. It is evergreen and grows in shade – I’m surprised more people don’t grow it.
Jasmine is all over the garden in the summer – I love the scent. I also love tree ferns. Cyathea dealbata ‘Ponga’ is the national fern of New Zealand; the silver underside of the leaf is the main feature.
What have you been doing during the winter in readiness for opening the garden to the public again this month?
Each year, we take an area of the garden as a winter project and renew and improve it. This year, I wanted to create a vantage point where the less mobile visitor could sit, so I decided to put a new summerhouse, where people could look out at the wonderful sea view.
It’s combined with a little wrought iron bridge, with a path underneath, and on the other side of the bridge there will be a viewing platform looking over to the Lizard, over a massed carpet of azaleas. The high point of flowering throughout the garden is late April and early May, because of the camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas. People write wonderful things in the visitors’ book, and they say our home-made scones are wonderful too!