10th March 2016
For our first visit of the year we went to Trewithen, one of the Great Gardens of Cornwall group who are part of the Spring Story – Spring being declared when there are 50 blooms on six specified magnolias in 6 gardens. Normally early March is the very start of the magnolia season with Spring being declared towards the end of the month. This year, however, has been extraordinary and Spring was declared on 10 February. The first magnolia bloom at Trewithen was in fact on 10th December.
This winter has been incredibly wet and there have been some unusually high winds. In fact, Trewithen was closed the day before our visit for the first time since at least 2002.
We were privileged to be shown around by the Head Gardener, Gary Long. Compared with his predecessors, Jack Skilton and Michael Taylor, who clocked up 60 and 40 years respectively, young Gary is a newcomer, having only been in charge at Trewithen for a mere 11 years (and counting). Gary’s knowledge of the plants and the history of the garden is nevertheless vast and he is a very informative and entertaining guide.
In the early eighteenth century the house was rebuilt by Philip Hawkins. His nephew Thomas (1724-1766) was responsible for landscaping the main parks and thankfully we have a surviving plan from 1738, showing the layout.
Many of the oaks and sycamores on this plan still grace the landscape, the distinctive low horizontal branching is the result of concerted tree shaping in the later eighteenth century.
The garden was maintained until around 1840, but for virtually the whole of the Victorian period Christopher Hawkins left administration of his Cornish estates to his staff and the gardens were somewhat neglected. The Tithe map of 1840 shows the “Mansion House, Court and Pleasure Grounds” enclosed by a ditch (known as the ha-ha).
Almost all other areas of the garden landscape, including the South Lawn, camelliarium, cockpit, water gardens and Little Downs were simply called “Plantation”. Many of the paths shown on this map survive, but the area now known as the Triangle was at the time a formal circular route. Unlike the Ordnance Survey 1st and 2nd editions, from 1880 and 1907 the Tithe Map does not show trees, though the names indicate extensive tree cover. By 1840, then, the formal radiating avenues and vistas envisaged a century before, appear to have been largely lost, if they were completed in the first place. It is thought that the North, East and South “Avenues” were laid out but the walled garden is on west axis.
There are few changes between the two OS maps, the more detailed tree depiction of the 1880 edition showing avenues of trees at the east and at Little Downs which are not apparent on the 1907 map though they still exist to some extent.
The renaissance of Trewithen’s gardens came in the early twentieth century, when George Johnstone inherited. Gary notes that at the time the gardens were densely covered by trees and laurel, which allowed an understorey conducive to rearing pheasants. “It was necessary to take an axe and claim air and light from amongst the trees” Johnstone noted, and this he did with some elan, providing space for the many Asiatic introductions many of which were brought back by the great plant hunter George Forrest, whose expeditions were partly funded by Johnstone. A hundred hybrids of rhododendron arboreum came in 1905 and the next year six tree ferns (at a cost of 6d each).
Magnolias and camellias were of course also planted and Trewithen is the adopted home of camellia x williamsii “Donation”, among the most popular of all camellias. All “Donations” are descendants of the Grandmother plant at Trewithen. The work done by George Johnstone has been built on by his daughter Elizabeth and by her nephew Michael Galsworthy, who moved into the house in 1977 after inheriting the estate in the late 1960s. His son Sam is due to take over later this year. Under Michael’s expert guidance Trewithen has become an International Camellia Garden of Excellence (2012), one of only 5 in Britain and only 50 worldwide. At Trewithen many hybrids developed on site are to be found – Trewithen Blue, Trewithen Red, Trewithen Pink, Trewithen White… Doubtless more are to come. Can I put in an advance order for Trewithen Green? However, Gary says that in a break with tradition they are naming a new camellia without a colour reference! This is Camellia saluenensis ‘Isadora’ after Sam and Kitty Galsworthy’s daughter Isadora.
The gardeners have continued Johnstone’s work of reducing the laurel and replacing with wild collected specimens, and Gary informed us that once of these, Rhododendron Macabeanum KW7724, collected in Assam, Manipur in northern India in 1928, is “the best rhododendron in the world”. He will accept no dissent, and as this was not in flower (trusses of yellow flowers with purple blotches) during our visit we will just have to take his word for it.
Focal points in the landscape have been created at the Triangle by a viewing platform and at the south of Beech Wood by the Magnolia Fountain sculpture created in 1994 by Tom Leader.
Some changes are pre-conceived, but others are a response to circumstance. In WWI the Canadian army needed the timber from 200 trees so an area was felled south of the South Lawn, thus extending and re-creating its earlier extent. In the last decade an area of rhododendron ponticum has been removed to minimise the rampant disease phytophthora ramorum which has so badly affected many Cornish garden landscapes. This has provided an opportunity for replanting using wild collected plants including Hydrangea species, Philadelphus delavayi, Schefflera, Deutzia and Syrina species). Bringing it right up to date, the high winds of the day before our visit felled a large beech on the ha-ha just east of the South Lawn, taking with it part of one of Trewithen’s Champion trees – the tallest Stewartia sinensis in the country. What opportunity does this present to Mr Galsworthy and Mr Long?
Sam Galsworthy has confided to Gary that he aims to renovate the water gardens. These are currently largely woodland with three overgrown ponds (visible on the historic maps). A student, Inez Williams, has written a dissertation on this area already providing a secure footing for the development so we can look forward to continuing evolution of this wonderful garden.