Azaleas and rhododendrons

July 2010: A conversation with owner Sally Searle

This is a place which inspired a great writer to produce some of his best work. What’s the story?

Thomas Hardy first came here in 1870 as a young architect, to draw up plans for the restoration of the church. He fell in love with the rector’s sister-in-law, Emma Gifford, and she eventually became his wife. Hardy’s Seat at the end of the garden is a peaceful spot overlooking the Valency valley, where they often sat together.

View of the Valency Valley

Their romance was immortalised in his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, and in 1913, years after Emma’s death, Hardy came back here and wrote some beautiful poems about their young courting days.

Your family has been involved with the Old Rectory for more than 70 years.  How did this involvement begin? 

At the outbreak of war in 1939, my great-grandfather, retired head of the cathedral school in Truro, offered to look after a parish somewhere in Cornwall. He was sent to St Juliot. The garden was then nearly 100 years old. The paths and walls had been laid out when the house was built in 1847, and the big trees like the monkey puzzle, and some fruit trees, were also put in then. My great-grandmother was a keen gardener and took over the walled garden to grow food for her family. Two other vicars lived here after the war, and then the Church of England decided to sell. My grandparents came here in 1956, after Granddad retired from the RAF. When they saw that the rectory was for sale, they jumped at the chance to buy it. The garden was very overgrown. My grandparents had never had a garden before, so it must have been overwhelming. They spent the first year of their retirement trying to tame it.

Azaleas planted by Sally's grandfather

Scented deciduous azaleas planted by Sally’s grandfather 

When did your connection with the garden start?

 As a child, I came here with my family for Christmas and Easter, and later I used to help my grandparents in the garden. When my husband Chris and I moved down from Devon to look after them in their old age, we had a horsebox full of plants, and Granddad was gracious enough to find space for them! Over the years, I was promoted from under-under-gardener, and it’s lovely now for us to be able to do what we want with the garden. We’ve made the walled garden more productive and extended the season, so that the garden always looks good for our B&B guests; they are welcome to use it at any time during their stay. We like to have plenty of flowers for the guest bedrooms.

Entrance to the Old Rectory

The garden isn’t often open to the public. Why did you decide to open it for two days this summer?

 From the garden there is a glimpse of St Juliot Church. Work needs doing to the tower, and the money we raise will go towards that, and also some information boards we have commissioned about Hardy and his connection with the church. We chose the last day of July and the first day of August: the herbaceous borders should be looking good, the hydrangeas will be out, and the kitchen garden will be in full glory.

What do you grow in the kitchen garden? 

We’ve planted apple, fig and espaliers of pear trees, and we try to grow as many fruits and vegetables as we can, specialising in things guests really enjoy, like asparagus and rhubarb. There are also courgettes, marrows, pumpkins and artichokes, and tomatoes and salads in the greenhouse. We’re proud to show guests where their food comes from: not many other people grow nectarines for their guests’ breakfast! We have peaches and apricots, as well, and plums, loganberries and strawberries. Our ducks, Tracey and Jemima, go in amongst the strawberry plants — they’re great for getting the slugs and snails.

Jemima and Tracey

The redcurrant was planted by my great-grandmother during the war, and it’s still going great guns.

What are the challenges and joys of gardening on such a steep and spectacular site?

Everything you cut needs to be hauled to the top of the garden, and I have to use a ladder to weed the vertical rock garden behind the house. We get 100-mile-an-hour winds coming off the sea in the winter, but we’ve planted shelterbelts. The worst of the gales go straight over us, and the agaves in the rock garden have now survived two hard winters. In a garden like this, you have to accept that some plants need replacing or pruning heavily. But it’s a real joy to work in a garden with such maturity. There is a very Victorian feel to it. The garden is south-facing and has really good soil, and there is a lovely view of the sea from the end of the garden.

Garden path

Do you have any favourite plants? 

We have an oak which was planted on the day of Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965, and a redwood my father left in the propagator, which we found after he had died. The large monkey puzzle tree won’t always be there, and I planted a replacement on my birthday one year. My husband looked at it and said: ‘Couldn’t you get a bigger one?’ But it’s doing very well, as is a silver birch, planted by my daughter on her 16th birthday eight years ago.