The Lost Gardens of Porthledden

by Lucie Nottingham

Porthledden stands alone and stark overlooking Cape Cornwall, that northerly and windswept spit of land jutting out into the Atlantic a mile east of St Just in Penwith.  The large house looks gaunt, clothed only by small sad reminders of its once large gardens, in a landscape dominated by rocky outcrops and dotted with the ruined remains of tin mines and quarrying: an industrial landscape.  The thin soil has allowed only limited farming activity.  Winds from the west, south and north are salt-laden, and from the landward the easterly blows in unimpeded by the shelter of hills or vegetation.

This does not at first sight present an hospitable site for a country house, farm and allied garden.  But a century ago, this was the location chosen by Francis Oats for his new family seat.  In 1874 Francis Oats, the archetypal Cousin Jack, a miner from St Just, had gone to South Africa to seek his fortune.  Here he flourished and ended a distinguished career as chairman of De Beers.  His interest in scientific and horticultural matters, especially fruit farming, he exhibited in his Porthledden enterprise.  From 1900 onwards he started to buy up land at Cape Cornwall, including the Cape itself and Nanpean Farm.  Francis Oats built his family house, Porthledden, here between 1907-10.  It was – and still is just – a fine, large, Arts and Crafts-type house, built with the best materials from around the country, and using skilled local labour.  Its quality and unique location have been recognised by a Grade II listing on 6th August 2003.  The house with its allied gardens was the natural centre of his newly created estate.  The farm and barns were totally rebuilt on modern scientific principles, a large heated conservatory was added to the house, greenhouses and gardens were constructed above the rocks right down on the Cape, a series of mine adits gave shelter to fruit gardens below the farm, a large walled garden was constructed, and shelter belts made possible the planting of ornamental gardens all round the house.

A visitor to Porthledden today is aware only of a rather sad and lonely house.  But if the observant visitor looks closely clues start to emerge that point to the flourishing garden made there less than a century ago, but now sadly no more.  Gardens are made for a variety of reasons and lost for others: they come and some go, but few so dramatically as the garden at Porthledden.

They are organic and cannot be left to stand still, or Nature will quickly move in and inexorably take over again.  A number of factors can cause the loss of these same gardens – death of the original creator, change in ownership, financial constraints, and effects of exterior events like war, extreme weather conditions and many more.  These all played a part in the loss of the gardens at Porthledden.

In 2001 I was asked if I would do a report on this lost garden for the CGT, probably because I had previously been part of a team reporting on the garden at Eagles Nest, another dramatic north coast garden lying between St Ives and Zennor, in a similar location, and also created early last century by one determined individual.

My point of contact was a member of the family who had lived at Porthledden, Claire Leith, a grand-daughter of Francis Oats, now in her 80s and living in Truro, but still retaining a great interest in the house and gardens.  She lived in the house as a child in the 1920s, when it and the gardens were in their heyday, and returned there for short periods during the ensuing 30 years, until the family sold the property in the early 1950s.  The gardens were already in decline by then, and 50 years on nature has taken over completely.

It is only her memories, photographs, descriptions of the gardens as they were, and writings about her grandfather and family, together with a very few vestigial remains of the gardens, that have made any record of this once flourishing garden possible.

My first visit to Porthledden was in 2002, accompanied by Claire Leith, and a neighbour who lives locally and has known the place intimately for the past forty or fifty years.  It was a magical, sunny, blue-skied day, and we rambled around the outskirts of the policies, but were unable to enter the garden area proper or the house, as permission had not been given by the then owner.
The scale of the original main garden immediately round the house is shown in the map, which Mrs Leith has marked up.  We were not able to enter this area.  The only remaining features, which give a clue to what had originally existed, are the long garden walls, with allied gardener’s house and potting sheds, together with the remains of some fine Arts and Crafts oak gates at the drive entrance.  The plantings in these gardens – trees, hedges, fruit, shrubs – have all totally disappeared, with the exception of a few tough escallonias and rugosa roses lining the drive.

The conservatory, attached to the house still stands.  This was steam heated and used to house exotics brought home from South Africa by Francis Oats.
This map does not show two other gardens, lying outside the main area: the quilletts (‘enclosed area’) in an old mine adit, which is now part of Cape Cornwall Golf Course, and lower gardens right out on the Cape.  These we were able to visit, and here further clues became apparent as to the scale of the original gardens.

The quilletts are three small enclosed areas, one below another on a slope, and reached by stone steps in the excellent walling, with the old mine adit providing much needed shelter for the fruit trees and bushes growing there.  They lie below a flat area, which was originally used by the family as a tennis lawn.  Remains of water pipes and iron bars to hold windbreaks, can just be seen, and a few old fruit trees struggle on – apple, plum and fig.

Further out on the Cape, just below the old count house for the mine, were built an impressive row of greenhouses and terracing for growing fruit and ornamentals, in the teeth of the gales, with only the protection of the rocks behind them.  Three double layers of terracing can still be seen but no trace of

the glass houses, or indeed the plants, now remains, except a few mesembryanthemums on the rocks of the Cape itself, probable survivors introduced originally from that other Cape.

I record my sincere thanks to Mrs Leith for her help and enthusiasm in compiling this record of Porthledden which is now in the Cornwall Record Office, and for kindly allowing the reproduction of the map of the gardens and the photograph which accompany this article.  The recent listing of Porthledden house will hopefully ensure it a future which it badly needs and deserves, but sadly the gardens are unlikely ever to return to their former state.

The house was sold in autumn 2003 to new owners, which gives hope for the future of the house.

Lucie Nottingham has been a ‘backwoods’ member of the CGT recording group for the past 6 years, combining neatly her two consuming interests, gardening and things historical.

Childhood Memories
Claire Leith

I was born at Porthledden in February 1922 and my sister, Ruth, in July 1923.  We lived here until I was eight and she was seven. These first years are our most formative ones so I understand, and so it comes about I can remember in clear detail so much of the garden in its heyday, at its most mature and before its slow and then rapid destruction.

I write this partly because it gives me delight that a few others today may realise that once there was a lovely, if airy, garden there above the cliffs and the Cape, and also as a small offering and thank you to Mrs Lucie Nottingham for her hard work and understanding approach in recording the garden for the Cornish Records and through her, my appreciation of the Cornwall Gardens Trust for its promotion of such records.

My sister and I enjoyed what might be called ‘a privileged childhood’ with first a nanny and then a governess.  The days were ordered but not oppressive and we were never, as it seemed in larger and very grand homes, ever divorced from our parents.  We had a garden and beaches all close at hand and a hilltop home always bright with its large windows, and plenty of fresh air!

But most of all I remember the garden, clearly in detail, and special places within its walls.  With Nanny we had frequent picnics and the favoured spot was a certain patch of camomile beneath the tall escallonia hedge with its dear pink flowers and sticky leaves.  The scent immediately takes me home.  Here the sun shone but we remained cool in simple cotton dresses and sand-shoes.  The sandwiches seemed always to be strawberry jam which made us sticky.

Another more secret place, or so it felt, was the sheltered corner where the ends of the north and east walls met.  In this dip the gardeners had a water tap and it was a splendid place for mud pie making.  Flowers always seemed associated with our doings.  In the spring a large patch of Parma violets grew and I can picture the pear and apple blossom with early bees buzzing around.  In the autumn came the windfalls, which sometimes caused our downfall.  If Nanny found us munching it was indoors and a dose of syrup of figs – ugh!

Then we had our own garden laid out with little precise paths bordered with pebbles and covered with the gritty grey sand from Priest’s Cove.  We entered by grass steps from the tennis lawn beside a Mountain Ash whose fishy smell I enjoy.  But I do not remember us playing or gardening here much (maybe too contrived?).  We loved better our mother’s garden which we could reach through an archway in the hedge.  It held much sun and was laid out in a simple style with a sundial in the centre of an old millstone.  In late summer it blazed with hosts of brilliant monbretia and white-faced margarites, and always those scratchy, heavenly-scented roses (rugosas), white or purple, found I think by every farmhouse door in Cornwall.

I remember the primrose path, winding through a small copse of sycamores, buckthorn and a few euonymous bushes, spreading like a dish of cream from golden Guernsey milk. Outside on the west side of the copse the drive ran down to the back gate and it was flanked to either side by a privet hedge 12ft tall and 6-8ft wide.  It makes me shudder when I see gardens with boring low privet borders or a couple of stringy overgrown specimens, for I jump back across the years to this great sight in July with the two hedges smothered in frothy flowers and insects and butterflies in a near frenzy.  I believe these hedges were clipped after flowering as I do not recollect any berries.

The lawns were mown by ‘live’ horse power and somewhere about is a photograph of a rather fat me, dressed in sun bonnet and knitted suit, and held up on Polly by Mr Waters, one of the gardeners.  We used to make daisy-chains and pick dandelions and buttercups for our mother or a visiting aunt.  When we transferred from nanny to governess we did not feel shackled.  We were always free after 12 noon and even lessons were broken allowing us to run in the fresh air sometimes being asked to bring back a leaf or two or perhaps a flower to draw.

When we went down to the beach we enjoyed another delight – the lower garden slope was the Blue Gem veronica jungle.  It seemed always in flower with its mauvey-blue frills and there were winding green pathways with everywhere the presence of rabbits.  Our brothers were good shots and in those days rabbits had thus to be controlled.  Still, there were plenty left and here they hopped unconcernedly about, digging their colossal runs under the bushes.  The paths too were well pitted with their scratchings in the sandy soil.

This dear garden has vanished.  February, the month when I was born, is often lashed with storms, but then suddenly spring arrives and out peep the first precious primroses just as I remember them in the sheltered copse, and always with my little sister by my side.