The Story of Northwood Gardens

[found in Journal]

by Mackenzie Bell

Some years ago, in an endeavour to find a challenge that would allow full expression to our passion for landscape design and horticulture, my partner Justin Stubbings and I began an exhaustive four-year search across the West Country for the perfect home and garden. We discovered Northwood Farm in 2004 and it was love at first sight. These unique and magnificent water gardens had been well planted and landscaped over 30 years and offered us a mature framework in which to work. However, they were overgrown and in need of management. They reminded me a little of The Lost Gardens of Heligan and were very beautiful with a rambling and romantic ambience. Our reluctance to ‘tame’ them was eclipsed by an overriding desire to make them our own.

A Brief History
Northwood Farm can be found nestling within farmland about two miles north-east of the village of St Neot in south-east Cornwall. It overlooks a sheltered river valley, a tributary of the Fowey, on the southern slopes of Bodmin Moor. The original granite building was constructed in 1730 as a china clay processing house. Pure white clay slurry from the moor was pumped to the existing granite settlement beds which are now walled gardens. Sluice gates would release the excess water leaving the pure clay which then entered the rear of the house where it was heated. The chimney stack for the wood-fired furnace can be seen in the upper garden. Finally the clay was cut into blocks and taken by horse and cart to Looe where it was shipped by barge up the Severn to The Potteries where there was an ample supply of coal and coke to fire the kilns. The pure white clay was used to manufacture fine quality porcelain. Eventually the works became unviable and the building became dilapidated and served as cow shed, piggery, hen house and kennels for hounds.


Northwood Farm was constructed as a china clay processing house

In 1970 the ruin was resurrected and repaired to form a house. In the early 1970s landscaping began on what was a peat bog. Swing shovels had to be erected on barge-like rafts to prevent them sinking.

Re-landscaping the Gardens
When we arrived, the gardens consisted of five ponds, a bird and waterfowl sanctuary for some 60 species. Despite the electric fences, predators were still taking many of the ducks, so after battling with them for a year we decided to remove the fences and let nature take its course. As a result of this, the wildlife which remains moorhens and mallards lives in a more natural way. We began by using a massive crowbar to prize out the tenacious roots of giant gunnera, native willow and hydrangeas of every shade of blue imaginable, all of which dominated the area. These were replanted in the lower gardens. In 2005 we decided to extend into a three-acre marsh field smothered in sedge grass and native yellow flag iris. The area proved especially challenging as it is essentially a peat bog. Within a small area, a diverse range of soil conditions prevails, from heavy clay to wet or dry compacted peat. These conditions fluctuate with the water table which also means some plants spend the winter sitting in cold water. Through trial and error, mulching and improved drainage, these problems are being tackled allowing for a wider range of plants. A small lake with a natural clay lining was excavated. The island in it has been profusely planted with conifers, acer, cotinus, phormiums, cordyline, aucuba, bamboo, mallow and numerous other shrubs. This crescendo is tempered by a stately Gothic arch which hopefully evokes the romance of a bygone era. A profusion of waterlilies recalls Monet’s Giverny. Three streams were diverted and a further two wildlife ponds were created. Bridges were added and waterfalls constructed using local granite. Some 2,000 new varieties of shrubs and trees have been introduced with many hardy exotics adding year-round colour and texture. Through selective management, new ‘windows’ with vistas have been opened which draw the eye through the landscape, sometimes punctuated by a focal point in the form of an ornamental urn or granite standing stone. Other areas, such as the meditation garden, have been designated as more intimate areas for quiet contemplation. Twelve garden benches are strategically placed to encourage one to linger. We have left wild areas of sedge and yellow flag iris as we believe in maintaining harmony between a cultivated garden and honouring the wildlife and its habitat.


The small lake with its Gothic arch (as seen under snow on the cover)

The Gardens Today
Behind the house are more formal herbaceous-style borders for annuals, perennials, box topiary, climbing roses, clematis, pieris, camellias. The original granite settlement beds create their own special atmosphere. Here, echiums, canna lilies and others sometimes survive the cold wet winters we experience up here at 700 feet. We envisage that the restoration and regeneration will continue for many years to come. Future projects include extending the newly planted orchard/arboretum and creating a sculpture garden. During May and June the bog garden rises to the occasion with the most magnificent display of candelabra primulas in yellow and cerise pink. Here also gracious tree ferns and dozens of variegated hostas fringe the pond. At the rear of the house on the upper level is our vegetable garden. We are moving towards self-sufficiency, growing all our own vegetables, soft fruit and cut flowers. We garden organically and use no pesticides or synthetics and, as the farm land surrounding us is organic, there is no chemical run-off when it rains. We compost all organic material. The greenhouses are used mainly to protect the more vulnerable species through the winter and for propagation. Regular visitors to the garden include herons, otters, mink, roe deer, foxes and badgers. All use the ponds to fish, play and drink. In the spring huge swathes of frog spawn can be seen and the edges of the ponds are black with tadpoles. Once a year the ponds are re-stocked with carp which mostly end up in the tummy of the otter, but we think this is the least we can do to help it back from the brink of extinction. In permanent residence are water voles and moorhens. The mallards return annually to raise their young.

Our Gardening Philosophy
We believe that above all else gardening is about having fun through a process of discovery, from practical application and propagation to whole landscape management. We are not bound by the rule books. Through trial and error and allowing plants the space to demonstrate their unique evolutionary process and adaptability, we may create visually stimulating and exciting environments for the enjoyment of all. Recently we have also done voluntary work for National Trust gardens and created several small private gardens, many of which have been widely published in several books and magazines.

An Artist’s Perspective
Overlooking the upper ponds is an Art Studio and Gallery where I exhibit my work. As a painter I take my inspiration from several gardens worldwide, in particular Otto Overbeck’s garden in Salcombe, Devon, a garden which I worked in and painted many times. I am also indebted to Monet’s enchanting masterpiece in the form of his water gardens at Giverny, France. Northwood is essentially a plantsman’s garden that hopefully breaks established rules and reveals the rebel in me! I love the incongruity of growing cordylines, cannas, echiums and even bananas on the southern fringes of Bodmin Moor and why not? Real creativity is about taking risks with one’s medium. For me, the garden is about sculpting with shrubs, trees and architectural features. By juxtaposing unusual plant combinations, a bizarre palette may be created which stimulates the senses. It is a three-dimensional painting that is constantly changing and never reaches a final conclusion. People sometimes say, ‘Oh, but you could paint this garden.’ My response would be, ‘But this is my painting!’ The garden is also about creating a sense of theatre and drama using contrasting colour, form and texture. Elements of surprise, wonder and humour are other important factors in terms ofchallenging and provoking reaction as the spectator moves through the garden’s stages. I see direct parallels between painting and creating garden landscapes

Northwood Water Gardens are open June-September. Sundays and Mondays 11am-5pm. Entrance £3 per person. Refreshments available. Groups by appointment. For details, see


Tree ferns add a touch of the exotic at Northwood Gardens













Tree ferns add a touch of the exotic at Northwood Gardens