Unearthing the French Garden at Rosteague

by Jay Milton

‘Look at this,’ my husband said as he tossed a copy of Country Life at me.

The magazine was open at a double-page spread showing an aerial photograph of an impressive and clearly ancient coastal property for sale in Cornwall.

This would not have been remarkable were it not for the fact that we were, at that moment, enjoying a leisurely read of the Sunday papers and weekly periodicals at our beloved holiday flat in Portscatho which was the same village as the aforementioned property.

‘Where is this amazing house?’ we speculated. The day was still young and the weather clement, so we decided to sleuth around the village and locate our dream house.

After perusing the map (we knew, at least, that it was on the coast . but which direction?), we decided to set off towards Nare Head only to retire defeated, hours later, without having had so much as a sniff. The following day we called into St Mawes for provisions and happened to mention the name of the house to a sales girl. ‘Rosteague! Oh yes, I do know it,’ she said. ‘It’s the most beautiful house on the Roseland!’ Excitedly, we took directions (the exact opposite to the previous day’s excursion) and, after lunch, set off along the lane lying parallel to the coastal path, all the time wondering what this would lead to.

Rosteague seen from the air in 2003, with the French Garden in the centre

Rosteague seen from the air in 2003, with the French Garden in the centre

Our approach to the house could only be described in the typical Daphne du Maurier style prose, as in the opening pages of Rebecca: ‘the winding drive, narrow and unkempt . the squat oaks and tortured elms,’ ‘then coming upon the house itself, symmetrical, grey stone walls with windows reflecting the green lawns and the terrace’. and ‘the murmur of the sea coming up to us from the lawns below’. By now, we were actually trespassing, as our first view from the lane had been of the back of the house, so we had traversed the neighbouring pasture to creep up to the front and then . well, the rest was history. We made a proper appointment to view and, as we entered the house by the ancient front door into the old hall where a fire was smoking badly (it still does), any resolve we had was lost and the house became ours.

I wonder if my husband ever reflects upon those first three fatal words as, seven years later we are still renovating, repairing and inventing the next restoration project?

Rosteague is principally Elizabethan with a few remaining earlier parts and the usual architectural history of later additions. The chapel (now a loo) is attributed to the 13th century, as is the stone archway in the centre of the house. There are also hints of a much earlier dwelling situated in a nearby paddock titled Castle Field, alluding to a much grander domain. During our labours, we have discovered that the reward of restoration is found in the peeling back of the layers. For example, replacement of window lintels revealed much earlier cornice mouldings behind the current ones; repairs to 18th-century panelling showed much earlier panelling beneath and odd discrepancies are noticed in levels demonstrated by strangely high fireplaces. The same is happening in the garden as in the discovery of three deep wells, where the bottom of one appears to house several perfectly preserved goose eggs! As nurturing of the garden continues, old paths and borders are discovered, bottle and china dumps are dug up, exotic plants and bulbs spring forth as the soil is cleared. Gradually a picture book of life at the manor and its daily rituals is opened.

The house is set between two soft folds of undulating pasture leading down to the sea, the hollow of which gives a clue to the smuggler’s tunnel that begins out to sea with the channelling of rocks into a cove, on and up under the front field, lawn and house and away to the woods at the back towards Froe Creek where the estate owns moorings.

The wooded area behind the house is home to a crumbling medieval culvert, once an integral food supply for the household. Further down, St Nun’s well nestles in a shady dell populated by skunk cabbage and gunnera (its medieval well head was, supposedly, the old lintel to the early manor front door). This well feeds into a stream supplying a small lake, held hostage by elaborate sluice gates and channels the Victorian waterworks for the house. A recent clear-up exposed a vast and immaculately preserved granite cider press suggesting further industry benefiting the estate.

Owners and residents of Rosteague have varied from High Sheriff to farm worker and, accordingly, the welfare of the house and estate has swung between rich adornment and total disrepair. Owners have ranged from the de Restacks and Petyts of medieval times, Jenyns, Coffins and Mohuns under the Tudors, and then the Kempes, Harrises and Hartleys. The Van Grutens followed in Edwardian times and, more recently, McKennas (1946-2004). Since living at Rosteague, we have met descendants of the Kempes, Mohuns, Van Grutens and many great-grandchildren of gardeners, cooks and servants of the above. The McKenna family are also frequent visitors.

Each occupant has, in turn, been notable for an addition or enhancement to the estate, as I trust shall we. The Petyts built the Chapel in 1501 while the little Deer Park at the back of the Lodge (for 28 deer) is attributed to the Harris family in 1780. The Harrises were also largely responsible for the farm buildings behind the house that accommodated ‘stocks of hay, barley, potatoes and reeds for thatching’. The livestock sheds ‘housed 8 working oxen, 2 fat oxen, 4 milch cows, 3 working horses and 10 pigs’ according to the inventory of probate on the death of Henry Harris in 1830. There is also a cider house, converted into a music theatre in the 1970s by David McKenna, still used for performances today.

A plan of the parterres in the French Garden

A plan of the parterres in the French Garden

The most impressive addition to the manor and its surrounding gardens, however, must surely be the exquisite French Garden, constructed by John Kempe in 1670, undoubtedly influenced by the fashionable French gardens of that time.

Sheltered within a high cob and granite wall, this unique garden is divided into four box parterres, each displaying a series of elaborate geometric or paisley-like shapes. A beehive thatched summer-house stands peacefully in one corner and an ornamental pond dominates one parterre presided over by a cherub and dolphin water spout. At the time of construction, each bed (and there are 72) would have hosted evergreen shrubs or decorative coloured gravel and apparently, dominating the opposite corner to the summer-house, stood an aviary for exotic birds. There would have been a regimented appearance of tightly clipped order and genteel constraint but on our arrival, in 2004, we were faced with our own ‘secret garden’. Overgrown and dead areas of box hedge were densely overshadowed by mature self-seeded trees and acres of buttercup, grasses and ground elder were set hard in depleted, dry soil, not to mention the strange plague of mare’s tail in one quarter and the vast army of mice and rabbits that had taken up residence within. What was once an elegant central arch of clipped bay was a collection of 20-foot fronds waving frantically in the sea breeze. There were very few brave survivors of deliberate planting . a number of determined but struggling roses and a splendid collection of robust camellias dominating the outer beds a revelation to me, hailing as I do, from the frost-bitten and lime-laden soil of Gloucestershire. It was both magical and daunting at the same time. As with the house, the attraction was the impossibly flamboyant eccentricity of its neglect. There was a wonderful flavour of what is now fashionably termed ‘shabby chic’; a sense of studied carelessness evocative of the personality of its various occupants. How were we to ‘restore’ all of this before it became hopelessly irreparable without losing the unique and hopelessly romantic quality of its persona?

The extent of the project covered every single structural aspect of house and garden. Outside, every gate was missing or beyond repair, most trees were in need of serious attention, walkways through woodland were impenetrable, the old vegetable and fruit garden had succumbed to nature. All flower beds were engaged in warfare with invasive weeds and sycamore saplings and that was in addition to the repairs needed to every aspect of the farm buildings and land. Inside the manor, we were looking at a scenario where time had stood still at around 1940.

The answer presented itself organically. Where drastic action was necessary to preserve structure we had to forgo taste and delicacy and wade in with sleeves rolled up. Pestilent weeds had to be eradicated, trees had to be felled to save the sides of the house and to prevent shade from stunting the box hedging and most structures had to be either repaired or rebuilt.

Our programme of restoration commenced heroically, with the rebuilding of the thatched summer-house, restored by the Van Grutens in the early 1900s. (This happened well before installing central heating or a proper kitchen.) This sad structure, once solidly constructed of cob wall decorated with shells and topped with a charming double thatched roof supported by rustic oak tree trunks, had long given up the fight. It had bowed down in a dignified farewell, dropped its dormer eyebrows, sank to its knees on the cobbled floor and died.

Meanwhile, we commissioned a mini-digger to tear out the rubbish from inside every parterre bed where many tons of spent mushroom compost, wood chippings, horse manure and anything we could find that resembled soil were deposited. The box hedge was drastically reduced by half its height. Nervously, I felt compelled to attend a course on box topiary and maintenance beforehand. Then in subsequent years, each side was trimmed hard to avoid too dramatic a shock. Our reverence towards these aged characters is recognised by Dr Timothy Mowl in his book The Historic Gardens of Cornwall, ‘that holiest of horticultural relics, possibly unique in England, its original box parterre arthritic with age, even senile, but still solid enough to be sat upon.’

A postcard of the thatched summer-house in the French Garden, c.1912

A postcard of the thatched summer-house in the French Garden, c.1912

By the following year, the beds were finally clear of invasive weeds (see note on weeding technique on p.29). Only what probably constituted the original inmates remained: bluebells, heartsease, primroses, foxgloves, lords and ladies, violets, lily of the valley and the ubiquitous herb robert (aka ‘stinking bob’). In an attempt to regulate the choice of colour, we decided to impose a four-season theme across the four parts of the garden, making some sense of the choice of peonies, roses, camellias and other flowering shrubs. Over 2,000 tulip bulbs were planted, to be lifted and replanted each year. The naturalised plants were allowed to flourish and, as a nod to the apothecary origins of such gardens, others such as cowslip, lady’s mantle, lungwort, mullein, lady’s bedstraw, periwinkle, poppy, spurge, rosemary and solomon’s seal were introduced. Echiums fare heartily here, as do abutilon, agapanthus, amaryllis, clematis, honeysuckle, sweet pea, passionflower, verbena, wisteria and my collection of Japanese maples in pots. Partly inspired by the topiary course, I have added several corkscrew box plants and over time, persuaded two previously overbearing Irish yews into becoming delightfully subdued urns.

Other, hugely satisfying, projects include the re-introduction of the Woodland Walk, involving reconstruction of rustic steps down to the old culvert and St Nun’s well, and clearing the lake and surrounding trees and scrub. We have replanted a Cornish specimen orchard, planted some 300 trees, both native and ornamental, created five new hedges of yew, hornbeam and native tapestry and established an arbour of exotic (but coastal hardy) ornamental trees. Cow parsley is left to grow freely in Seawood, a lightly wooded area close to the house, to form a fragrant froth of white in the spring.

The formal clipped geometric box hedges of the French Garden parterres

The formal clipped geometric box hedges of the French Garden parterres

One of the immediate paybacks for our endeavours has been the sudden emergence of hundreds of native bluebells, ramsoms and primroses in the woods heralding the arrival of Mr and Mrs Mallard on the lake.

This is not a plantswoman’s garden, nor an exact replica of one piece of gardening history. It is a number of historical calling cards: a diary, a distant memory. The most gratifying comment we have received is from the daughter of the previous owners, who declared that her mother, who loved the garden but did not wish it to be turned into a ‘National Trust’ show piece, would have been delightedâ–

*A small note on the weeding of 72 flower beds enclosed in box hedging

 One must be fairly fit, able to contort one’s limbs in odd configurations, with a good ability to balance. For example, Position 1 – The Crafty Grazer: with both feet apart and tucked under the foot of the hedge, lean over into the bed using one hand to support your weight (usually with fingers splayed into the soil) and use the other hand to quickly swipe and pull. Weeds have to be deposited in little piles then gathered later. Then there is Position 2 – The Texan Straddler: with one foot by the outside of the hedge and the other inside, straddle the hedge like a bandy old cowboy (so as not to crush the hedge) and lean over aerobically to one side to pull out the weeds then back over to the outside to deposit them into your basket. (For the sake of modesty, these activities are best performed unobserved.)

Rosteague's formal box parterres are protected from the sea winds by a wall of cob

Rosteague’s formal box parterres are protected from the sea winds by a wall of cob