Commerciality, Bureaucracy and Corporate Management and the Effect on ‘Open’ Gardens in Cornwall

by Professor Timothy Mowl, University of Bristol

savour.jpgI first came across the ‘Savour the taste, remember the place’ strapline on a National Trust serviette when I was enjoying a curried parsnip soup sourced from local produce at the recently opened Crofter’s Café at Trelissick. This was before I had a mooch around the gallery of artworks, the plant sales area and the shop, and long before I ventured into the gardens, the real purpose of my visit. This approach was repeated many times as I visited gardens open to the public while researching the lecture I was to deliver to the gathering of gardens trusts at the AGT conference in Falmouth (September 2007). At almost every site the visitor experience had been consciously planned like a trip to the supermarket: entice the visitor with commercial treats before the real experience – that of seeing plants in a natural environment and of learning about the history of the landscapes. Garden history, it seemed, was way down on the visitor’s schedule. So I embarked upon an investigative journey to identify the challenges for gardens and their owners and the effects each of these has upon the visitor experience.

I identified several types of visitor – the day tripper, the enthusiastic amateur, the knowledgeable professional – all of whom had to be catered for, and then set about an analysis of open gardens to see what was on offer. This was most easily achieved by a look at the websites followed up by a site visit. The results were predictably depressing. The ‘Gardens of Cornwall’ website was garish in its colouring and promoted anything but garden history: ‘If gardens make you hungry’, ‘send a postcard to a friend’, ‘plant your own Cornish garden’, ‘dog friendly gardens’, ‘outdoor kids’ were all highlighted, but significantly, the site did not appear to be aware of the many historic gardens that were accessible. But then neither was my audience when I showed illustrations of some key sites, especially the Camelside garden of King Arthur’s Stone at Slaughterbridge. Could this have been a snooty, internecine north-south divide? Very few seemed to know Long Cross Gardens near Port Isaac, one of the county’s most atmospheric yet little researched gardens, to which I shall return later.

Perhaps the most blighted garden destination in Cornwall is the Lost Gardens of Heligan, now sadly overwhelmed by hoards of tourists. Its sepia-struck website looks like a dated advert for the gold rush in frontier America, the car-parks literally spill out onto the fields even on a quiet day, and from car to garden takes at least twenty minutes and could cost hundreds of pounds as you are encouraged to browse and buy. The total experience is carefully controlled, all is ethically sourced and right on, but there is little freedom to go off piste and explore.

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The Lost Gardens

And then when the visitor reaches the garden the first points of contact are modern sculptures that have little to do with the place; they are contemporary additions rather than revived historical features.  This attempt to bring the gardens up to date is even more evident in the Jungle, which has now been threaded by a wooden boardwalk to enhance the visitor experience. Purists might say that it changes the original design intentions and elevates the viewer above historic sightlines; others would argue that it makes the valley more accessible to many more visitors.  I hated it at the height of summer, shuffling along in a crocodile of massed tourists; later, in autumn it was empty and a joy. Tourists really do shatter the experience of open gardens, no more so than at Heligan, which has become a victim of its own success.

But then Heligan was built upon a brilliant restoration, which needed funding through commerce and enhanced visitor numbers. A garden like Bonython, out on the Lizard, is a perfect contrast. It has a simple entry display board covered by a ‘closed’ sign when not open, a homely but informative website and just a hint of commerciality with holiday accommodation to let.  Bonython is not into the retail experience: refreshments are laid out WI-style with honesty boxes, and groundsheets encircle apple trees so that windfalls can be picked up and eaten. And in the garden the owner, Sue Nathan, was dredging her own lake from a dinghy when I arrived. Although there is an ongoing restoration it is hardly flagged up, and there is no fuss about new initiatives like the embryonic modern water garden around the skirts of the house.

While Bonython is consciously aimed at the knowledgeable amateur and the professionals, Long Cross is a hotel with a garden attached, and markets itself as such on its website. The only hint of garden history is that the labyrinth of gardens is described as Victorian; there is nothing else. A recent wooden terraced area has been built to overlook the alleys and the enclosures with spectacular views out to sea. If any garden needed a gin and tonic aperitif it is Long Cross; but it also needs research.

In another register entirely, the gardens at Penjerrick offer a unique voyage of discovery. There is no car-park, no shop, no merchandising at all, merely an honesty box, a laminated map to guide you round and a jungle-style, plant spotter’s paradise to be sought out.

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Entrance to the garden at Penjerrick

It is one of the most evocative gardens in the county and closest to the original conception than any other. But here a visitor is presented with Cornwall’s perennial garden paradox: Penjerrick is planted with rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and the ubiquitous tree ferns. It has no architectural features, apart from a bridge over the road that connects the two areas of the gardens, and in its plant specimens it is, therefore, a mirror image of many of the valley gardens on the south coast. Once you are deep in the watery, scented forest you could be anywhere: Trengwainton, Heligan or Trebah.  But at least Trebah, the self-styled ‘Garden of Dreams’, so its website proclaims, has ‘something for everyone with childrens’ activities, special events, The Gallery Shop, Planters Café and Garden Shops’; that is, the usual commercial enticements and planned surprises. Yet these gardens were laid out to instruct and to excite by their planning and their planting. Trebah is, of course, truly magical when you manage to get past the tat in the visitor area and café and break through into the ravine garden; but the short flowering season for the tender plants leaves it looking like a granny’s front garden in Harrow-on-the-Hill for most of the summer with a drift of chemically-coloured hydrangeas, that most artificial and suburban of plants.

I started my lecture with Trelissick, and last summer took my family there to savour the place. They loved the café and the shop and the gallery and found the grounds dull except for the views across to Tregothnan. It was a place for National Trust members to pass a couple of hours while on holiday, with lunch at the café. The garden history of the place was presented in a well-designed series of information boards just as one would expect from the Trust, but there was no excitement, no sense of discovery, no feeling of any kind of design underpinning the gardens. And when there was, or still is, design evident at an historic site it is often completely ignored, as at Tregothnan. Together with Trelowarren, Tregothnan has the classiest of websites, yet its emphasis is on the tea that they have just started producing. This is a clever and valuable initiative, yet it is another commercial venture.

Tregothnan has ‘Boutique Cottages’ – no harm in making money out of holiday lets – a Tea Garden where the new tea is served; there is a ‘Shop Online’ service and a ‘Botanic Garden’, which is given the best historical description on any website in the county, but, significantly, has all its plants listed with prices should visitors want to buy them. Private garden visits to the Tea and Botanic gardens are £35 a head – a tour which lasts two hours and includes a cream tea in the summer house. But where in all this marketing is Humphry Repton? He produced a Red Book for the estate and many of his proposals were, surprisingly, carried out, including a riverine carriage drive. Yet he is never mentioned on the website, even though the family still own his Red Book. By the kindness of Evelyn Boscawen, I was given the privilege of reading Repton’s ideas for the estate, seeing his ‘before’ and ‘after’ watercolours, and writing it all up in my book on the historic gardens of Cornwall. But who else knows about it?

So what of the future for Cornish gardens open to the public? Will Enys, that sleeping beauty of a garden near Falmouth in its current state of magical decay, be wrecked by restoration and tourists just as Heligan has been? Is a pleasing state of decay better than a spick-and-span restoration? Are shops and all the tourist paraphernalia really necessary? Has Trevarno, uniquely among gardens in Cornwall, got it exactly right? I think so, because it advertises a ‘Museum of Gardening’, a ‘Gardener’s Walk with Nikki’, and only then encourages visitors to visit the Museum of Soap and to eat the organic produce in the restaurant where home made cakes are laid out simply on plates without freeze-wrapped cling film. Needless to say the gardens are well presented with a judicious balance of exotics and architectural features. It is easily the best presented and maintained garden in the county; it even has a ruined range of greenhouses under gentle repair.

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The Fountain Garden Conservatory Tea Room at Trevarno

But the most intelligently stewarded, handled, maintained and marketed must be Trelowarren where Sir Ferrers Vyvyan has cleverly involved the Cornwall Crafts Association and offers a suave restaurant in the restored stable area for visitors and for tenants of his eco timeshare houses and self-catering cottages.

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The New Yard Restaurant, Trelowarren

All these initiatives are aimed to produce the revenue necessary for a restoration of the grounds and the walled garden that once had a nationally important botanical collection. And on the Trelowarren website we have recognition of the garden and landscape history of the estate and the need to preserve and restore it. Sir Ferrers encourages visitors to ‘explore a while; unwind your senses; [take] time to consider; time to contemplate; relish a flavour; discover an alternative environment’, just those experiences that a garden should offer. It is sincerely to be hoped that his brand of ‘sustainable tourism’ will succeed and produce the money required to restore the grounds and maybe even build the library that was once proposed for the walled botanic garden; I’m sure Ferrers could tempt a classical design out of Robert Adam.

So savour the place; but owners of open gardens should urge visitors to approach gardens in a mentally active way rather than encouraging them to amble around passively, walking off the heavy lunch they have already eaten at the café. And as for the shops, I would be more inclined to support them if they stocked my recent book on the historic gardens of Cornwall. When I was researching this lecture, I couldn’t buy it anywhere in the county. But then I’m Tim Mowl, not Tim Smit nor, mercifully, Alan Titchmarsh – don’t you just hate him!

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