29th March 2016
Our visit to Penjerrick fell on one of those Cornish afternoons when sunny spells are punctuated with heavy showers. In fact, it felt somewhat like a sub-tropical rain and gave us a very authentic experience. Later the sun came out and treated us to a superb Spring afternoon. The garden was, as ever, a delight and to be shown around by Rachel Morin, the latest of the Fox family to own the garden, was a wonderful treat.
In the eighteenth century Penjerrick was part of the Penwarne estate and Tim Mowl (Historic Gardens of Cornwall, 2005, 105) says it “was being planted initially in about 1790”. The Tithe Map of 1840 shows that if this was so it was as part of what was then Tregedna rather than Penjerrick itself.
In 1837 Robert Were Fox gave the management of the place to his son Barclay who began what is the earliest and perhaps the most original of the Cornish valley gardens.
In 1839 Barclay began in earnest – “slashing the big trees left & right [with] seven men with hatchets, ropes and saws and by evening the lawn looked like a battlefield – heaped with prostrate corpses of trees”. Later that year Barclay noted the “fresh changes and improvements have opened a beautiful vista of the meadows below. With their fringe of fine trees they are a vast additional beauty.” The continued growth of these trees and the exotics planted over the next century have led to the loss of the vista and the view of the coast.
In 1840 Barclay Fox laid out the carriage drive and started work on the ponds. The oldest, Tregedna pond, is shown on the Tithe Map but the others (Top, Middle and Bottom Ponds) had not been dug at the time and do not show until the 1880 OS map.
He also enlarged the house, which was replaced by the present house in 1935 by Waldo Trench Fox, Rachel Morin’s father. Barclay died in 1855 and his father took over, moving there on his retirement in 1872, spending the last five years of his life improving the gardens. Robert Were Fox had an interest in acclimatization of plants and naturalized over 300 species at Rosehill. Here at Penjerrick he had 180 kinds of conifer. There are some magnificent specimens surviving – sequoia, thuya, podocarpus among them. I wonder how many of the 180 still survive? He also laid out a fernery and put in a grotto by the top pond, though this has now been lost. There is also reference made to a cottage ornée or Swiss Cottage, that was apparently near the middle pool, but this is also lost.
Robert Were Fox also had rhododendron seedlings from Joseph Hooker at Kew which led to the hybridizing of rhododendrons, carried on in the time of his daughter Anna Maria by the head gardener Samuel Smith. The “Barclayi”, “Penjerrick” (R. campylocarpum x R. griffithianum) and ‘Cornish Cross’ (R. griffithianum x R. thomsonii) varieties were hybridized here – the plants being well sheltered from the outset, forming an understorey to Barclay’s trees.
One of the delights of Penjerrick is the bipartite nature of the garden, bisected as it is by a road, crossed by a wooden bridge. The upper part, near the house, feels very enclosed, with a dense canopy. Just before the bridge, unassuming and half-covered in moss is a hemispherical brain coral, believed to have been given to the Fox family by Robert FitzRoy, Captain of The Beagle, from which Darwin made so many discoveries.
Our own voyage of discovery awaits below the road where the planting it is so exuberant and luxuriant that it is often compared to a jungle. The profusion of ponds and streams fringed with gunnera, with paths lined with tree ferns, bamboos and rhododendrons, give the whole area an air of being nature explored. The success of the design should not be under-estimated – the appearance of wildness is the result of careful consideration and sensitive ongoing curation of the landscape.
In 1874 The Gardener’s Chronicle enthused “it is this view of a species of fairy land which has made the reputation of Penjerrick; it will certainly repay a journey of many hundred miles for a glimpse of this view alone”. In stark contrast to the two other well-known Fox gardens – Trebah and Glendurgan – Penjerrick is not a major tourist attraction. Its budget is small, its facilities limited (no toilets or café) but its garden remains superb and well worth your own journey. In 1837, when Barclay acquired Penjerrick from his father, he wrote: “the loveliness and interest attached to the spot for old associations invest it with a charm to my mind far beyond any pecuniary advantages I can hope to reap from it”. In her will, Rachel Morin’s mother bequeathed the garden, with a substantial endowment, to the National Trust, but the offer was declined. Under Rachel Morin’s careful ownership the charm persists. Long may it continue.