JARS v54n2 - The Gardens of Cornwall: An Enduring Legacy

The Gardens of Cornwall: An Enduring Legacy
Part I: Trebah, Glendurgan and Penjerrick
Peter Kendall
Portland, Oregon

In the last week of April 1999, I finally indulged a longstanding desire to visit some of England's preeminent woodland gardens. Among the areas that attracted my initial attention was Cornwall. Noted for its temperate climate (under the influence of the Gulf Stream), remarkably good soils, and interesting topography, this was a natural for people with the means and proclivity to create notable gardens.

Helford estuary during a storm at Trebah
Bank of the Helford estuary during a storm at Trebah.
Photo by Peter Kendall

The opportunity to follow through on just such an undertaking presented itself to the Fox family in the early 1800s. A large, enterprising, and gifted Quaker family with roots in prosperous Falmouth on the Cornish south coast, this family became enamored of an area along the nearby Helford River. It was in the early 1820s that the Foxes employed a measure of the family's fortune in buying up a parcel of some fifty plus acres of land sloping dramatically south to the Helford estuary with the fields and woods of Bosahan as the prospect beyond. They immediately planted massive screens of Pinus pinaster around what were to become the gardens of Trebah and Clendurgan. Other large trees followed in short order - lime, beech, sycamore, oak, and ash. The shelter of these plantings allowed for the future successful plantings of exotic material from quarters of the globe served by the thriving shipping interests of the family.

R. argyrophyllum ssp. nankingense
R. argyrophyllum ssp. nankingense in bud at Trebah.
Photo by Peter Kendall

In the case of Trebah, it was Charles Fox who in 1831 planted the ravine garden as we see it today. Among the flanking giants of the early years are seen magnificent rhododendrons (some over 60 feet, 18 m, tall), choice camellias, marvelous magnolias, groves of the great tree fern Dicksonia antarctica , and Chusan palms, the tallest in England. A stream negotiates the bottom of the ravine with a waterfall, pools, thickets of hydrangea, Lysichiton amerícanum , and Gunnera manicata . If one were to characterize the most eye catching features of this garden, it is perhaps the contrast of textures offered by the wide array of plants.

In 1939, during the first stages of World War II, the estate was split up and fell into disrepair. During the next forty years, under the hands of many different owners, the maintenance suffered drastically. It has only been in the last few years, under the herculean efforts of the Hibbert family, that the garden has reclaimed its former glory.

Within a shout of Trebah is another noteworthy Fox family garden. The garden is Glendurgan. It was purchased in 1821 by Alfred Fox and from then to the present has remained in Fox family hands. As with Trebah, the glen is a deep ravine studded with notable trees among which are situated rhododendrons, camellias, and magnolias of stature comparable to Trebah. One tree in particular, a giant tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera , features itself near the top of the garden. Just beyond is the famous cherry laurel planted by Alfred Fox in October 1833. It was inspired by the then famous maze in Sydney Gardens at Bath. At the far end of the garden, on the bank of the Helford River, sits the quaint town of Durgan, a hamlet of some twenty cottages occupied originally almost altogether by fishermen but now available for holiday accommodation.

Liriodendron tulipifera, at Glendurgan
Liriodendron tulipifera , the premier tree at Glendurgan,
is perhaps the largest in the country.
Photo by Peter Kendall

A third smaller (15 acres vs. the approximately 25 acres each of Trebah and Glendurgan) but by no means less impressive Cox family garden lies a short distance from the former two. This is also a valley garden sloping toward the sea, but while the character of the two previous gardens is quite congruous this layout exhibits a distinctly wild aspect. The garden is Penjerrick, and here massive old rhododendrons, among which are tender, large-leaved varieties, luxuriate beneath beeches from the early 1800s. Tree ferns ( Dicksonia antarctica ), stands of bamboo, an exceptional dove tree ( Davidia involucrata ), and the most magnificent Podocarpus salignus in the country make for a memorable visit for connoisseurs of the old and exquisite in plant material.

Gunnera and tree ferns at Penjerrick R. 'Penjerrick' at Penjerrick garden
Gunnera and tree ferns by the lower pond at Penjerrick.
Photo by Peter Kendall
R. 'Penjerrick', the signature plant of Penjerrick garden.
Photo by Peter Kendall