Probus Gardens closed after thirty-four years

A personal account by Jean A Paton

Work began on a County Demonstration Garden in August 1970 on a 6.5 acre (2.6 ha) meadow site near the village of Probus.  The owner of Trewithen, Mrs Alison Johnstone, had offered the site.  With the help of her daughter, Miss Elizabeth Johnstone, a 28-year lease was drawn up between Trewithen Estate and Cornwall County Council.

Peter Blake, County Adviser for Horticultural Education, designed the garden.  The Rt Hon Lord Aberconway, President of the Royal Horticultural Society and Head of ECLP of St Austell, opened it officially on 18th May 1972.  During the next 18 years Peter and his team including the Garden Superintendent, Eric Trevan (until he retired in 1984), created the County Demonstration Garden:  an educational resource which acquired national and international acclaim, attracting about 28,000 visitors and hosting 34 school visits at its peak in 1989 before Peter retired in 1990.

A County Council £5 million budget crisis in 1993 resulted in a cut in non-statutory functions in favour of statutory commitments.  Several horticultural officers and staff, including Richard Pearce, were made redundant in August 1993, and the rest when the lease terminated at the end of September 1998.  As funds and staff decreased, the gardens deteriorated until they became almost derelict when the Council withdrew its support.  However, the Eden Project was allocated about £200,000 of taxpayers’ money, which was perceived by many as a non-statutory commitment.

Meanwhile, in November 1997, Pat Ward and Alistair Rivers (Curator) set to work to constitute and publicise a group to support the gardens.  The formation of the Friends of Probus (later known as the Friends of Probus Gardens) took place at an inaugural meeting at Probus on 5th December in readiness to take over the management of the gardens if necessary.

Council employees removed nearly all the furniture, fittings, equipment, machinery, and tools during September 1998, leaving the Friends with the enormous burden and expense, not only of rescuing the gardens, but also of re-equipping the complex.

Trewithen Estate, now owned by Michael Galsworthy, allowed the Friends to occupy the gardens during October 1998 rent-free provided they maintained them while a lease was being drawn up.  A group of volunteers set to work guided by Beryl Davies and by the end of the year a lot of work had been done despite the lack of a formal lease.  The trading arm, Probus Gardens Ltd, was registered as a company in December.  This cemented a partnership with South West Water Ltd who gave much valuable financial support during the following three years.  They paid Terry Underhill to act as consultant and adviser, and installed a Rainwater Harvesting Scheme to promote their Water Wise Gardening policy.

At the end of March 1999, Gary Lavis took up the post of Working Head Gardener.  Together with a small band of dedicated volunteers he continued to rescue and transform the gardens.  By the end of 2002, several important new features were well established and the gardens were very attractive and informative.  Horticultural courses continued and many different organisations hired the meeting halls, but a tight grip had to be made on funds as it was almost impossible to obtain grants.  This was because, when an annual lease was eventually signed on 9th March 2000, Trewithen Estates deprived the Friends of security of tenure under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 by a court order.  In September, the lease was reduced to a periodic six-month lease or tenancy.  On 6th March 2003, the landlords served a notice purporting to terminate the tenancy at the end of September.  Owing to administration errors, Trewithen had to extend the tenancy to the 2nd November 2003.

Intent on capitalising on the site, Trewithen Estate had already advertised Probus Gardens and the adjacent land for development as a garden centre.  David Danning of Trelawney Garden Centre, Wadebridge, became interested and sent in surveyors on 13th March.

The Friends considered they had a proactive tenancy.  They were determined not to give up the gardens and a counter notice was sent to Trewithen.  The Friends were advised by solicitors and counsel that they might have a business tenancy under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954, and an application to the court to this effect was filed by 14th August 2003.   However, it became clear that  legal costs had escalated and members of the Management Committee had to withdraw their application to the court.

In return, the Friends were allowed to stay in occupation of Probus Gardens until 2nd May 2004 or until planning consent had been granted to Trelawney.  It was also agreed, and subsequently backed up by a court order, that the small greenhouses, sheds, plants, and fittings belong to the Friends who, as a body were not allowed to object to any planning application or send out any press releases that were not purely factual.

Meanwhile other unsuccessful efforts to save Probus Gardens included a request to have the gardens registered with English Heritage, as well as a scrutiny of Alison Johnstone’s will.  A request to Carrick Planning Department in June to survey the gardens for Tree Preservation Orders resulted in the tagging of about 100 trees and shrubs.  It was also established that there were 13 garden centres and 16 other horticultural outlets within a 10-mile radius of Probus: many of them would suffer if Trelawney’s application was passed.

At the Joint Management Committee meeting on 5th November it was agreed to recommend closure of the gardens at the end of April 2004.  However, in January Beryl Davies was told that the gardens could be occupied after that date until planning permission had been granted.  The rent was to be paid quarterly and an agreement was to be drawn up between Trewithen Estate and suitable ‘lessees’ which must not include any of the Management Committee!

Nearly seventy people attended an EGM on 21s February 2004 and 95% voted to negotiate a new contract and continue on the present site rather than move the gardens.  A request for a resolution to allow Ian Walker and Barry Champion to act as ‘leaseholders’ was accepted and passed.  Somehow, this arrangement became a ‘new’ garden Steering Group that included people who had not been elected nor were Friends of Probus Gardens.  To add insult to injury, from May onwards the Friends had to continue on a weekly lease paid to one of these persons.

From then on relations between the different factions became even more strained and volunteers became disillusioned.  Various meetings were held relating to David Danning’s promise that a ‘new’ demonstration garden would be developed on the lower (but much less suitable) part of the site.  It had already been made clear that the Friends of Probus Gardens Charity could not co-exist with a commercial garden centre.  Subsequently it was confirmed that the volunteers would not become involved with making the garden on any other site.

On 29th July, Trewithen served a final notice to quit at the end of September 2004 to make way for the massive new development that would destroy the gardens, even though Trelawney’s application was not registered until a few days later.  At an EGM of Probus Parish Council on 16th August, councillors voted unanimously in favour of backing Trelawney’s planning application despite very strong opposition from village residents concerned about access, noise and measures to deal with sewage.

The EGM held on 21st August was attended by 55 Friends including Beryl Davies, who had been chairman since July 1999, and Martin Barnes, Hon Secretary.  It was agreed almost unanimously that the Friends of Probus Gardens Charity (registered in March 2000) be dissolved, and by a big majority that the residual money be transferred to Probus Gardens Charity (registered in February 2002) until such times as the company was ready to be dissolved, its financial commitments having been discharged.  It was explained that the money could not be handed over to the ‘new’ Probus Garden because it could only be distributed on the recommendations of the Trustees to the Charity Commission.  Similarly, the plants should not be given to the ‘new’ garden but be sold, as they were all purchased by or given to the gardens and belong to the Charity.

By 14th September the office had been cleared and Martin Barnes had taken masses of files to sort out.  The potted plants and garden beds had been divided up and the hard stock assembled in numbered lots.  About 800 people attended the auction on behalf of Probus Gardens by Jim Large of Lodge & Thomas, which realised over £17,000.  On 25th September a forlorn Beryl Davies handed James Humphreys the keys.  The buildings were auctioned on 2nd October, making £12,500 for Trewithen.  By the time huge diggers had torn up shrubs, cordylines, fences and hard landscape materials, and the plants and buildings had been taken away, the gardens looked like a bombed site.

The closure of the gardens at Probus is a great tragedy, not only because so much money had been spent on them, mostly in the early years at the expense of taxpayers, and latterly by the Friends, but because of its value as an amenity and tourist attraction.

This article is Jean Paton’s  personal account of events leading to the closure of Probus Garden. For additional information, see The History of the Former County Demonstration Garden and Probus Gardens, Cornwall by Jean Paton, 2003. (Available from the author, Tel: 01726 882164.)