11th May 2016

CGT visit to Godolphin

The garden at Godolphin Is one of Cornwall’s most important medieval gardens and is on the national Register of Parks and Gardens as II*.  The Register summary states that it has “formal gardens and ornamental orchards dating from the C15 with earlier elements, together with a late medieval deer park and a C16 deer course surrounding a late C15 mansion”.   The site is also part of the World Heritage Site, and the wealth of the Godolphin family from at least the 16th to the 19th centuries was due in no small part to the tin mining heritage of the area.  In 1837 there were 140 recorded shafts across the Godolphin estate.  The house, gardens and estate passed to the Schofield family in 1937 and they continued to keep up the site with huge effort and fortitude, conserving the fabric and keeping up with as much gardening as they could, until 2007 when the National Trust took it over.

Our guide, Juliet Turner, Gardener in charge for the NT, has a hard brief – to garden within the requirements of the Spirit of Place that the NT has laid down, but within a budget that is severely limited.  As we noticed on our visit there are severely dilapidated buildings and a boundary wall had recently collapsed.  The NT has prioritised the buildings over the gardens.  For some years, therefore, Juliet’s “gentle gardening” as she terms it, will continue to be the order of the day.  Thankfully, she has some 30 volunteers who help her in this task.

The ethos of planting and maintenance is not to return to a historically accurate garden of any earlier period, but to present a garden that respects the existing formal structural elements yet uses contemporary form, whilst still retaining an emphasis on native plants.  For instance, one of the plants in the new “orchestrated” flower border in the sunken lawn is a modern achillea millefolium cerise queen, referencing the yarrow which may well have been grown here in the past.  The various compartments are accentuated by shading of light and dark planting, such as turf hedging and box. This delicate balancing of old and new is being carried out throughout the gardens.

In the early 14th century Sir Alexander de Godolghan (i.e. Godolphin) built a defended house a little south of the current house.  The deer park on the Godolphin Hill to the south of the settlement was probably laid out by Sir Alexander.  Parts of the stone park pales survive, along with The Slips, an avenue presumably used to direct the deer for coursing.  Also near the summit of the hill are pillow mounds built for rabbit farming in the 16th or early 17th century.

Early maps suggest that the original form was of nine rectangular compartments, laid out three by three, with the original house in the central compartment. This has been corroborated by archaeological survey work in the 1990s.  This layout incorporated stonework from stands bordering The Slips, intended as viewing platforms for deer coursing, but also included in the garden design.  The middle section of the gardens, is currently laid to lawn and has long been undisturbed, as evidenced by the presence of wild orchids.  This is an area that Juliet has her eye on for the future.  It lay to the east of the 14th century house and it is thought that it may well have been the site of the medieval garden.  In due course, when work on the buildings is complete, it is hoped that the budget may stretch to an archaeological investigation of this crucial part of the site.

Around 1475 John Godolghan built a new house oriented to face directly north, whereas the earlier layout is preserved in the field boundaries and is offset by some 30°, as shown clearly on the OS map of 1877.

O.S. 1st edition 1877/79

O.S. 1st edition 1877/79

As part of this, he created a new garden layout, which had nine different compartments enclosed by raised wall walks. The western three are the current Side Garden, of 14th century origin, with the remaining six the north, the middle section and the ponds at the south. An estate map of 1786 shows nine hedged quadrilateral plots and two rectangular ponds, presumably for fish.

1786 Estate plan

1786 Estate plan

This layout broadly coincides with the description in 1690 by Francis Godolphin that the house had “an abundance of trees about it and a great deal of the garden not walled but fenced with hedges”.  It is notable that the wall walks have many mature sycamores on coppice stools.  It is quite possible that these date from the late seventeenth century or even earlier.

The style of the Side Garden could be Tudor or Stuart and has been variously dated by different authorities.  Pett suggested it was c1500, with a third of it dating back to 1300.  For him one of the ponds is Elizabethan (with the reworking of the House) and the other c1700, the work of the fourth Sir William Godolphin. Sue Pring thought it likely to be early 17th century, and associated with the remodelling of the house by Sir Francis Godolphin.  The National Trust adduces the influence of Lord Burghley’s garden at Theobalds in Hertfordshire (after 1575).  Whatever the exact

dating, we may suggest geometric beds in the north and middle, but the ponds are likely to be either of the c1475 design or to survive from the earlier layout.

Behind the stables is the King’s Garden (above), so called from a visit of the future Charles II in 1646, though Pett says the garden is of 1500.  Certainly its location, adjacent to the new (c1475) house could support this dating.  However, it is equally likely that the garden was reworked in the mid-17th century.  More recently it was a vegetable garden and has now been laid to lawn with borders and box hedging.  Sadly, box blight has just been identified in this garden, though thankfully there is none in the side garden where the box near the potting shed is thought to be 200 years old.  Fruit and nut trees are trained along the north wall of the King’s Garden and a row of bee boles, complete with skeps, is built into this wall.

For the garden historian the garden in front of main façade of the house is, in comparison with the interest of the Side and King’s Gardens, of less importance.  Nevertheless, the 19th century carriage circle is pretty enough, fringed with a wooded approach.  Hidden in this woodland are the ruins of the two pavilions that formed the corners of a court in front of the house, with an open lawn with flanking avenues of trees.  This layout is shown on Borlase’s engraving of 1758 which indicates a formal and polite landscape.

Borlase’s engraving of Godolphin

Over time the Godolphin family moved more to London and by the early 19th century we find Godolphin’s “ancient splendour totally disappeared” (Hitchens, 1820).  At the end of the 19th century there were still statues in the groves and avenues around the house, but these have since gone and an apparent project to remodel the house was not implemented.

Godolphin is not a medieval phoenix, rising from the ashes, but much of the early garden layout survives and the National Trust’s thoughtful approach ensures that the archaeological remains are not at risk.  It is hoped that in due course of time, when conservation of the building stock is further advanced, that the NT will turn to the gardens as a source of critical understanding of the functioning of the site particularly between the 14th and 18th centuries.  In the meantime, we can rest assured that Juliet Turner is a powerful advocate for the garden past and present.