Boconnoc Garden

The recording team assembled for the first time on a sunny morning in early 2002 at the Stewardry, formerly the Boconnoc parsonage, and now the home of Captain and Mrs Desmond Fortescue. We were Pam Dodds (team leader, co-ordinator and historical researcher), David Burdekin (tree expert), Jean Sneyd (photographs), plus her photographer Tony Davies, Joy Wilson (special interest in researching Fortescue archives in the Cornwall Record Office), and Ian Martin. For all of us, the drives through the Boconnoc estate to the gardens had begun at a lodge. Some, coming eastwards through Lostwithiel, took the road to Couch’s Mill and entered Boconnoc at Park Lodge, traversed the mile-long drive through the deer park and woods, passed the lake, crossed the Lerryn River over a stone bridge and took a left turn northwards on to the Stewardry Drive.

Others drove westwards along the Liskeard to Lostwithiel main road, and turning south at Middle Taphouse, entered the estate at East Lodge. From there, East Drive continued for two miles through fields and plantations (passing on the way a Civil War battery on which, in 1771, Thomas Pitt had erected an 123 foot high obelisk, flanked by a pair of classically inspired  altars, in memory of Sir Richard Lyttelton, his maternal uncle), past another lodge, and down across the open Lawn, to turn north beyond Boconnoc House to take the drive to the Stewardry. The drive continues northwards between deciduous woods, planted with camellias and rhododendrons on the slopes, to the right, and on the left, glimpses of the Lerryn meandering along its valley below the wooded hillside.

Over the following months – the team made five visits between February and September – we photographed, measured, and described the 12.3 hectares of the designated garden areas, constantly referring to the twenty-two pages of garden record guidelines. For Boconnoc, however, we found such a wealth of historical material as well as garden features that the record had almost tripled in length by the time it had been assembled, typed, reviewed, revised and deposited in the Record Office Gardens Trust archives in Truro.

Led by Captain and Mrs Fortescue, we began our tour by walking south through the deciduous woodland, rhododendrons and camellias of the Stewardry Walk, passing the disused quarry with a gentle trickle of water falling from a ledge above into a shaded pool.  Around it moisture-loving primulas had been planted, and a marble bath-shaped ‘Roman’ sarcophagus placed nearby. The Walk ends on the south terrace of Boconnoc House (not included in the record). The open Lawns area to the south and east of the house provides the grassy foreground to a southern view along the Lerryn river valley with its lake in the distance.  The Lawns area to the east of the house features a fountain in a circular pool, a sundial, and a double-sided stone seat placed overlooking a former grass tennis court in 1878, in memory of the Hon George Matthew Fortescue.

Next we approached the entrance to the walled triangular area of the Dorothy Garden, reached by crossing the Lawns to the east of the house and passing below Boconnoc Church on its bluff to the north, to the southern entry point. The plantations with a mound or amphitheatre, shown on a 1771 map, and the parterres and greenhouse of the 19th and early 20th centuries have gone, to be supplanted by specimen shrubs, small trees and rough grass. A leat, leading to the former greenhouse, and a flight of steps leading upward to a central basin and fountain remain; a semicircular earth bank in the north-west corner may also mark the site of the 18th-century feature, whatever it may have been.
Leaving the Dorothy Garden through a gate in its north-west corner and crossing the farm road to a gate opposite, we entered the Shrubbery, a larger enclosed area, formerly the glebe land which was attached to the then parsonage (now the Stewardry). A grove of P. radiata dominates the north view, and shelters three small slate headstones to pets buried there around 1900.  The lower, less steep, ground to the south is planted with a variety of shrubs: pieris, hoheria, olearia, and an escallonia hedge. A path mown through the rough grass led us past an ornamental pool bordered by Kurume azaleas and perennials, added by Captain Fortescue.

Retracing our steps to the same entry point, we were led past the farm workshops, built on the site of the 18th-century ‘Warren,’ past a restored dovecote (listed Grade II), to the gate of the fifth and smallest compartment, the wooded ‘Bath Ground,’ which lies near the north side of Boconnoc House and contains within a walled enclosure, a Cold Bath and Bath House originally built in 1806 and recently restored, also listed Grade II.

For some months before this visit, Joy Wilson and I had begun to explore the Fortescue archive in the Cornwall Record Office. We were greatly helped by Record Office staff members, Colin Edwards and David Thomas, who produced Boconnoc estate maps of the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries, in addition to the more commonly available tithe, enclosure and ordnance survey maps. Large numbers of sets of accounts and correspondence, including those relating to previous owners, also the Mohun, Pitt and Fortescue family properties elsewhere (and which we confess we have by no means comprehensively searched) suggested almost infinite scope for future discoveries.

For this preliminary springtime visit to Boconnoc we distributed copies of a plan made about 1771 and the tithe map of circa 1840.  We discovered that much of the present layout, as shown on the map of the gardens furnished by Captain Fortescue, can be identified also on the 18th-century plan.

Boconnoc Manor was recorded in the Domesday Survey of 1086. Its deer park, licensed in 1321, and the Manor subsequently passed through the ownership of the De Cant, Carminow and Courtney families before being granted by the Crown to the Earl of Bedford in 1539, about the time that the

fortified house within a paled deer park appears on Henry VIII’s coastal chart of Fowey.  Bedford’s son sold the manor to Sir William Mohun in 1572, and a map in the Fortescue archives in the Cornwall Record Office of this period (Draft of the East Commons) shows ‘Boconack House’ without any indication of gardens beyond fences and some schematic trees.

With the sale of the Boconnoc estate by the widow of Charles Mohun, the 4th Baron, who had been killed in a duel in 1712, to Thomas (‘Diamond’) Pitt, former Governor of Fort George in Madras, for £54,000 in 1717, the house was rebuilt and a new eastward projecting wing added. Perhaps the garden was also brought up to date to reflect modern taste. But on Diamond Pitt’s and his son Robert’s deaths in 1726 and 1727 respectively, the estate passed to Robert’s son Thomas (II, 1706-1761), the brother of William Pitt, the 1st Earl of Chatham.  John Bennett, his steward, reported between 1749 and 1754 an orchard and garden, warren, barn, linhay, stables, pigeon house, hop garden,
‘theatre’, nursery and dog kennel.  Some of these features can be identified in the estate map made after his son Thomas (III, 1737-1793) inherited on the death of his father in 1761.

On this map, made by ‘T Blackamore’ between 1761 and about 1771, one can identify the main elements of the present gardens, including the compartment divisions, drives and garden buildings. It is possible that Bennett’s reference to the ‘Theatre’ applied to the circular feature in the Dorothy Garden in this map, and by extension, the enclosure that contained it (‘Theatre two acres’). Between 1761 and 1769, when not involved with his duties as Member of Parliament and the political intrigues of his relations, Thomas Pitt’s time was spent designing garden structures and interiors for his friends and relations .  Given his interests, it is not surprising that when he eventually turned his attention to Boconnoc around 1770 he should initiate major improvements not only  to the house but also the gardens.

Pitt would then have had the time and opportunity to plan a series of rides through the Boconnoc estate. The Stewardry Walk is perhaps the best surviving example. The earliest documentary reference we have found for the ‘new cascade’ in this area is 1791, and for the waterfall, 1835 . The map of circa 1770-1772 shows neither; the probability is that they were constructed at the same time, between 1780 and 1787. In 1784, William Pitt the Younger, created Thomas the 1st Baron Camelford.

In October 1791 the Steward, Thomas Bennett, reported to Lord Camelford, that the garden gates, greenhouse and hot houses had all been repaired, a new enclosure for coals was being erected in the Warren and the Collier’s Hill slate quarry was being opened to extract flooring stones. In September 1792, Lord Camelford returned to the Continent, and died on 19th January 1793, in Florence .   His son, Thomas (IV, the 2nd Lord Camelford), who succeeded at the age of eighteen, was not often at Boconnoc, but in their letters to his mother Anne, Lady Camelford, Bennett, and his successor as Steward, William Beard, recorded his visits in 1797 and 1799, and reported that he had made unspecified suggestions about improvements to the estate . In March 1804 Thomas died in a duel in London, and his sister Anne, Lady Grenville inherited Boconnoc.

However Thomas, Lord Camelford, is known to have studied architectural drawing and he was responsible for the installation at Boconnoc of John Mulholland, an ex-pupil of James Wyatt the architect .  Later appointed Steward, Mulholland probably designed the Bath House at the order of Lord Camelford, made before his untimely death. Mulholland certainly oversaw its construction, which had commenced in the summer of 1804 and was completed in 1806 .

Anne, Lady Grenville whose husband was a prominent politician, was not resident at Boconnoc but made sure that the estate was well looked after.  In 1808 John Bowen, architect, engineer and cartographer, a man of multiple talents, was commissioned to oversee the Enclosures at Boconnoc.  A small account book dated 1818, the first page decorated with a skilful drawing of the ‘Wringcheese’ and a quotation from Norden, reveals that John Bowen had been appointed Steward, a position that he was to hold until 1850 . From that time onwards his annual account books provide a picture of the maintenance of the estate during the 1820s; the gardens, lawns and water features being kept in reasonable order, with emergency repairs to the mansion and Bath House needed on several occasions.

In the 1830s Lady Grenville appointed her nephew the Hon George Matthew Fortescue to be the custodian of Boconnoc. On his marriage in 1833, GMF and his new wife, Lady Louisa, moved into the mansion to live.  He was assiduous in writing to his aunt and reporting on his day-to-day running of the estate, in particular about new plantings made by him in the areas around the Mansion. His letters  provide much information about the changes made in the Flower Garden which he had soon redesigned in typical Victorian style with parterre beds defined with box hedges, plantings of dahlias and other newly fashionable plants. He installed a fountain and basin and a new flight of granite steps and a rosery, and undertook the construction of a new greenhouse/orangery and a conservatory along the lines of the one at Glynn.  Newly popular rhododendrons were introduced into the new Shrubbery, while Lady Grenville sent collections of plants and roses by wagon from the garden at Dropmore, her principal home.

George Matthew Fortescue proved himself extremely competent in managing the estate. He was an ex-army man who had been an MP, and who erected a memorial to his hero the Duke of Wellington on the Lawn and personally contributed a new tower for the little church. By 1840 in his care the income of the estate had doubled. His letters show that, at first, he and his wife were camping out in the Mansion which was barely heated, but in the course of time it was put into order and the couple raised eight children there, the house benefiting from their full-time occupancy.

John Bowen continued as Steward but in the late 1830s his energies were largely diverted to mapping activities when he was commissioned to create his fine Tithe Map of Boconnoc 1839, together with maps for several neighbouring parishes.

By the 1850s the Gardens were attracting visits from local Garden Societies and from members of the Temperance Movement.  A Boconnoc Garden Society was formed. Bowen retired on a pension and William Pease became the new Steward, an extremely competent man who had worked for JT Treffry, the mining entrepreneur .  Anne, Lady Grenville died in 1864 and bequeathed Boconnoc and the rest of her estate to her favourite nephew George Matthew Fortescue, having had no children of her own.

In 1874, a replacement conservatory was commissioned from the famous Messenger Works who designed glass and iron buildings following Joseph Paxton’s innovative principles of construction. Sited adjacent to the North End Tower of the mansion with a covered way into it, the new Conservatory housed mainly camellias with a stove house to provide the heat then thought necessary for their welfare .

GM Fortescue died in 1877 and his son Lt Col Cyril Dudley Fortescue inherited.  The 1880 1:10,000 OS map shows that the gardens were being maintained as they had been in the time of GMF with a maximum variety of cultivation. The walks in the Flower Garden are lined with trees giving shelter but also partially masking the picturesque view from the Garden of the fine 18th-century landscape surrounding it.

A Frith photograph of 1900 shows the mansion frontage includes the Conservatory still in reasonable condition, but the 1906 1: 10,000 OS map shows many changes.  It is clear that the Flower Garden layout has been considerably simplified with fewer trees in situ. The Conservatory has disappeared.  By this time John Bevill Fortescue, the youngest son of GMF, had inherited the estate and he remained mostly in residence with his wife Dorothy and family, though more intermittently during the First World War and the 1920s . In his wife’s honour the Flower Garden was renamed the ‘Dorothy Garden’, and it had some finely wrought iron gates installed at all points of entry, each with a lock, the initials DF and a date incorporated into their design. Over each gate curved a granite arch. The gardens and formal terraces, the Bath Ground and Shrubberies were all maintained but in a less elaborate way.

Just before the Second World War the son of the house, George Grenville Fortescue, had inherited the estate, and as the war progressed, Boconnoc was requisitioned by the Americans as a major site for their preparations for D-Day. Soldiers bivouacked in the grounds, and there were ammunition dumps and tanks installed all over the estate. For the later 20th century, oral memories of local residents become important. David Chapman, a gardener, and George Truscott, the retired estate carpenter recall that among the children at least, the Americans were popular, that the troops used the Bath House pool for occasional swims, that the Dorothy Garden survived but became somewhat overgrown and that two tennis courts were installed on the lawn in front of the mansion.

After the war, compensation was paid to the family and George Fortescue and his wife Joan lived in the house during the austere period from 1945 to 1964.  A photograph of 1968 shows the formal garden terracing intact near the house, with wide granite steps flanked by Italianate terracotta urns and a circular flower-bed surrounding the sundial. On the site of the Conservatory, a metal fountain and wide stone basin had been installed with a white wisteria climbing up the North End Tower .

In the 1970s some scenes in the Poldark TV series filmed here on location show the mansion and drive, and at the edge of the Lawn, a majestic group of four Ilexes, now disappeared.  At this time the 18th-century walled kitchen-garden created by the first Lord Camelford in 1771 came to the end of its days, and the greater part of the Gallery wing built at the same date became unstable and had to be demolished. The terracing on the south side was disturbed by this and the urns removed.

By this time Captain Desmond Fortescue had taken over the estate, and since then, over the years with his careful management, many of the post-war problems that he inherited have been gradually overcome. Today the historic plantings in the Bath Ground and elsewhere are all maintained while new introductions are mainly placed in the Shrubbery and Stewardry Walk areas. The Dorothy Garden layout has been kept simple to preserve the incomparable views from it of the surrounding landscape and the Lerryn river valley below.

In spring and summer, the Gardens are opened occasionally for visitors, and now in 2004 under the auspices of Mr Anthony Fortescue and the Boconnoc Trustees the mansion is at last being restored.

Pam Dodds and Joy Wilson

Pam Dodds has taught art history and design, and she is a past Secretary of the Cornwall Association of Local Historians.  She has a BA (Hons) in the history of art from Toronto University, and MPhil in architectural history from Bath.

Joy Wilson is a former Chairman of the Cornwall Association of Local Historians.  She has an MA in English and French literature from Dublin University, a Librarianship qualification and has published three books relating to Cornish local history, and is a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd.