Profile of a Dreamer

by The Editor

Neil Armstrong and the Editor in Tremenheere Garden

Neil Armstrong and the Editor in Tremenheere Garden

On a gloriously sunny, still morning in December, notebook and sharp pencil in hand, I dispatched myself to interview Neil Armstrong in his garden, Tremenheere, two miles NE of Penzance.  Neil acquired Tremenheere in 1997 and its core is an 11-acre valley (no ‘big house’ to drain the coffers), sloping with attractive contours south-west towards a stream.  It enjoys its own microclimate of mild winters and hot summers with shelter from the prevailing wind.  The site is early and favoured agricultural land mid acid loam to a depth of three feet at the bottom of the slope and four inches at the top.  The boundary is made up of mature trees and, to the north and west, newly planted shelterbelts (1997).  It encloses woodlands, open field sites, an old granite wall and an old cart track.  Add these to some outstanding views of Mounts Bay towards St Michael’s Mount and you have the stuff of dreams.

Luckily, Neil is a man with a dream.  He had written an article in the 2000 edition of this Journal describing his vision for the creation of a garden in the style of William Robinson: Sympathetic to the natural setting:  a planting scheme where form and foliage were king; drama and poise arising from line and texture alone.  ‘A garden for the Millennium – something the next generation could aspire to’.  Here too would be a sculpture garden where man- made pieces could blend harmoniously with the landscape and planting. That was five years ago; what has happened since?  This newly emerging great gardener of Cornwall must be a colourful character, he would whisk me round the garden and chatter non-stop enthusiastically impressing his achievements upon me.  I couldn’t wait to meet him.

The panic set in quite soon.  Here was a friendly but quiet man, with a laid-back air, softly spoken with the hint of an Irish accent, reticent about himself, and content for his achievements to speak for himself.  I felt that to push personal questions would be an intrusion – this was going to be a challenge.

Neil and I set off on the grand tour.  The entrance to the garden is via a path leading over a stone bridge dated 1849 and bearing the initials of Seymour Tremenheere.  He had a summerhouse further up the hill and the route of the carriage drive forms part of the walkway around the garden.  Records show the family of Tremenheere owning the land for 500 years the earliest record being 1287.  The villagers of nearby Long Rock once sourced their water supply from the point where the bridge crosses the stream.

We turned left and began a gentle climb along the SW boundary of the garden following the stream.  This lower valley forms a watery, calm area of exotic planting containing plants that should not be thriving outside in the UK.  Variegated and coloured foliage has been avoided purposefully.  We pass Maddenii  rhododendrons, an abundance of young palms and ferns including Todea Barbara, and become grateful for the discreet and practical boardwalk to protect our feet from the boggy earth.  Halfway along a massive beech lies where it fell some 25-30 years ago.  A new leader has developed and the massive bole provides shelter for yet more small ferns – Lophosoria quadripinnata and young Cyatheas.  Several small ponds have formed and varieties of tree fern and bog plants are thriving.  As we proceed, the bank on our right begins to rise steeply and a giant Tetrapanax, placed to provide shade and screening towers over us.  A very rare evergreen acer from Vietnam A .jingdongense is growing; Meryta sinclairii, various Schefflera such as S. delavayii, impressa and taiwanensis; Nikau palms and shade-loving Chamaedorea are establishing well.  Nearby next to a boarded platform a blue salvia, Guaranitica, is in flower.  At the end of the watery area lie a series of terraced ponds small and linked.  The mechanical digger has been busy here and still has work to do.  In this calm environment, otters, jays and woodpeckers are frequent visitors.  Boulders have been brought in and placed around the ponds enhancing the calm, contemplative atmosphere.

I have been drifting along, mesmerised by the quiet beauty around me.  But what of the man who has created all this?  My purpose is to prise out ‘juicy’ facts for the readers.  I glance at this casual, hands-in-pocket figure ambling along beside me, and fail to ask how, as a full-time GP and father of 4 children, does he find time to commit to the garden, and what’s more, does he ever spend any time at home?  Instead, I politely venture a question on landscape planning.  I learn that an overall scheme for the land does exist.  A contour map was prepared in the late nineties and groups of plants marked on it this will be the basis of a guide for future visitors.  However, Neil admits that the garden has evolved slowly and bit by bit; he is not afraid to push out the planting frontiers, trying species that are more flamboyant and losing some specimens on the way.  He sees the spot and places each plant; building the layers and gradually ascending the slope; the plan unfolding in his head.  Of all plants, he is mainly interested in palms, ferns, and bamboos; many varieties of which are seen here.  Friends and acquaintances bring him plants from all over the world.  One such gift from Brazil sits near a shallow pond in the water garden and is not yet named (an incentive for CGT members to visit?).  Neil remembers buying a job lot of palms from a chap in Seaton who was emigrating.  The amusing story of their arrival in a low loader has become part of local folklore.  One of these palms slipped off the transporter en route to the exotic planting area; it rolled down a bank, knocking a planted palm to the ground and came to rest beside the boardwalk.  It was too heavy to heave elsewhere so that is where Neil planted it.  As it happens, it chose very well since it stands strikingly in view as you proceed along the boardwalk and fully catches the morning sun.  It certainly knew where its destination lay!

Leaving behind the watery valley, we follow winding steps that cling to the natural curves of the landscape past a row of Butia capitata palms up towards the soon-to-be-thatched pole house and Mediterranean and desert planting areas.  On the way, we come across an impressive tree sculpture 11 stumps set in concrete in a line representing the journey through life.  The artist, Kishio Suga founder member of the Japanese Mona Ha movement (1960-70), has carved lines on the horizontal cut surfaces.  (These begin by being spaced out but become frenzied on the middle stump perhaps depicting a mid life crisis.)  Higher up from the pole house there is a stunning view of the garden and glimpses of the distant sea.  Rising behind the pole house there is a bank of restios, unique to Tremenheere.  They thrive in their windy position, and today wave gently in front of a group of New Zealand Metrosideros.

Trithrinax campestris in the foreground with Butia capitata behind

Trithrinax campestris in the foreground with Butia capitata behind

More palms, this time Trithrinax campesrisi from South America, and Leucadendrons line the path that leads us to a natural wood of Quercus cerris (Turkey Oak) planted around 150 years ago.  Over the past 7-8 years, the wood has been cleared of brambles and Rhododendron ponticum, and a start has been made to clear the ivy to make way for bulb planting.  The woodland is a dry area, and this facilitates the formation of natural pathways.  I am told that bluebells make a magnificent show under the trees in spring.  We meander through the shady, sun-shafted woodland and rejoin the cart track path where a large sloping terrace opens out and a dry stone wall is being painstakingly restored by a local craftsman.  A trial bank of proteas is sited here.  An open field site stretches out before us sloping down to the lower valley.  Clumps of Schizostylis (Kaffir lilies) are in full bloom left as a reminder that these were one of the crops grown by members of the Pearce family, who owned the land for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and ran a market garden here.  The family also grew anemones; and there is a record of strawberries being shipped to Newfoundland as early as 1820.  Seen from this high point and running along the edge of the lower planting some Rhus succedanea and Oxydendrum arboreum have been placed to introduce a splash of autumn colour.  Benches and seats positioned throughout the garden take advantage of the vistas and encourage reflection.

Banksia praemorsa

Banksia praemorsa

After a quick inspection of the proposed childrens’ play area a large sunken triangular piece of land screened by some young Pittisporum tobira, we walk back towards the bridge.  It has been a most enjoyable morning: my vocabulary of superlatives exhausted.  The landscape, the planting, the views, the achievement, and continuing vision of one man are all outstanding.

Neil in the partially constructed pole house

Neil in the partially constructed pole house

Tremenheere Garden has now expanded to 16 acres to include a proposed site for a visitor car park, visitor centre, gallery, and teashop.  Neil tells me it may all be open in 2006 but there is no urgency in his voice.  Before these amenities are built, it will be necessary to widen the access road.  Hopes are that the visitor centre will help fund future maintenance of the garden.

Like Topsy, this garden is growing and growing.  I wonder if Neil realises the scale of his horticultural legacy to future generations.  He seems a man more focused on the present task in hand than the long-term view.  As I departed, he was greeting David Nash who was visiting to discuss a natural sculpture he is to create in the woodland.

Was it luck or years of careful negotiation that led Neil to Tremenheere; where did the funding come from; how much gardening experience did he have when he began the project; who helps with the manual work?  Who will take over the responsibility of it in the future; how will sculpture be developed in this landscape; will security be compromised by opening to the public; where does the energy come from?

Driving away, I realised I had no answers to most of my prepared questions.  So, Neil Armstrong, the inner man, I’m afraid I can report little there but Neil Armstrong, the committed and visionary gardener, may he never wake from his dream!

Jean Marcus

The editor, has commissioned an article about Art in Cornish gardens for the 2006 Journal.  The plan is to present a more detailed description of the artworks in Tremenheere.

Neil conceived the idea of a book describing gardening and planting opportunities in a county on the edge of England.  Edited by Philip McMillan Browse and with contributions from many specialist gardeners and botanists in Cornwall, the book, Gardening on the Edge was published last year by Alison Hodge (see review, CGT Journal 2004).

www.tremenheere.co.uk