History is about Maps – Coldrenick Revisited

by Alison A Newton

This article is dedicated to the memory of the late Henry Sneyd who had intended to be a co-author.



There is an old saying that ‘History is about chaps; Geography is about maps’ but, in studying the development of the gardens at Coldrenick over the last 300 years, we have found that in this case, ‘History is about maps’. Henry Sneyd’s article for the Journal in 2002 provided an overview of the history of his family’s estate at Coldrenick, and showed how some of this information had been derived from maps. In preparing a report on these gardens on behalf of the Cornwall Gardens Trust, we have been able to pursue this analysis further and gain greater insight into how the garden has changed over the centuries.

Many great estates of the 17th and 18th centuries commissioned engravings to show detailed perspective plans of their gardens, with an almost birds-eye view of the scene, which give an excellent idea of how gardens appeared at that time. Other households are lucky enough to possess paintings or sketches of the gardens made at an early date; Cornwall is particularly fortunate in having detailed water colour paintings of many of the large estates made by Edmund Prideaux in the 1720s. Even if such illustrations of Coldrenick had been made, none is still in existence, but there are other advantages that have made possible some detailed analysis of the development of the garden. Two early estate maps dating from 1756 and 1795 show details of buildings and field boundaries that are still recognisable today; these maps also list the land usage for the various plots. The second feature of the Coldrenick archive which has proved invaluable is a large collection of Victorian and Edwardian photographs, some very early, of the garden in those periods. This article will show how we have used this evidence to arrive at some idea of the garden’s development.

The Changing face of the Garden over 250 years
By the time that the map of the estate was made by Daniel Gumb in 1756, the ‘Georgian’ house was about 30 years old and the garden showed several important features. Just across the drive from the big house and near the entrance to the present property, was a conveniently placed Bowling Green. By 1795 it had become a shrubbery and so it was to remain until the present day, where it is the sole survivor of the vast Victorian shrubbery.

The plot behind the present house, formerly the stable block, also had quite a conservative history.  In 1756 and 1795 this was ‘the kitchen garden’ and by 1840 ‘an orchard’; thereafter, it is depicted as an open space, sometimes divided into three, with a few trees; perhaps these were paddocks for the use of racehorses housed in the stable alongside. When the garden was remade in the 1960s, the addition of a swimming pool, protected by box hedges and embellished with a focal point of three columns from a London theatre, changed this area dramatically.

Many other plots in the garden were planted with trees of various varieties; in the 18th century and early part of the 19th century there were many orchards providing apples to produce cider made in the large Cider House in the centre of the gardens (cider formed part of the wages of agricultural labourers at that time). Early Ordnance Survey maps indicate individual trees and distinguish between conifers and broadleaved trees.  The unusual OS map of 1865 showed that, at this period, most areas of the garden, with the exception of the walled garden and the plot behind the stable block, were fairly densely planted with trees, which already included many conifers. Planting of conifers started in the 1850s and by the 1atter part of that century, Coldrenick was renowned for its conifer collection, which included several recently discovered species, as well as many record trees. By the end of the century, this wooded area contained more shrubs but fewer conifers, and had been extended right round the northern and eastern edges of the gardens; it was known as the shrubbery and was crossed by meandering paths which led, at its southern extremity, to a summerhouse.

Most of the foregoing information has been obtained just by inspection of the maps, but they cannot reveal the appearance of the garden. Most frustrating is the labelling, in the map of 1756, of the area immediately to the west of the Georgian house as ‘The Best Garden’; given the fashion of the time it was probably a formal garden, subdivided by paths  laid out in geometric fashion, but that is only conjecture. In any case, by 1795 this garden had disappeared, and the parkland ran right up to the west front of the house.  It is probably no coincidence that at about this time Humphrey Repton was working at nearby Catchfrench and enthusiasm for parkland landscapes was high. Part of this grassland was domesticated in Victorian times, to be included in the formal, terraced garden, but is now just a grassland meadow with occasional stretches of wall protruding from the grass.


Figure 1.
The Georgian House in 1867 from the west; note the parkland reaching right up to the house, replacing ‘The Best Garden’

History of the Walled Garden
Buildings are, of course, much easier to recognise on maps than flower beds, especially if they are still in existence.  The walled garden at Coldrenick is a prominent feature not only of the modern garden but also on maps made since the time that it was built.  It is a 50m square structure, with walls just over 3m high, made of local slatey stone.  As it is on slightly higher ground than the rest of the garden, it dominates the area.  First shown on the tithe map of 1840, it must have been built in the first half of the 19th century.  The maps show that an outer square surrounds the walls with a space about 10m wide between the two.  The name on the map suggests that this outer space was a domestic garden, used for fruit and vegetables and possibly propagation, which would have been hidden from the landowner’s view, while the land inside the walled garden was for decorative display only. It seems probable that the outer enclosure was not a wall but a hedge, since a fine hornbeam hedge still runs outside the NE side of the walled garden along the line of the original outer square; moreover, a visitor in the 1870s comments on a fine, and unusual hornbeam hedge.



Although the map of 1840 showed that the walled garden itself had no obvious internal features, by 1865 it was divided into four sections by paths, with other paths running round the periphery. From a slightly later photograph, one can see that paths are edged with large, alternating grey and white stones.  These stones were, until recently, still present under the grass inside the walled garden.


©Crown Copyright 1865. All rights reserved.
Licence no. 100013937

By 1882 a greenhouse had been built against the inside of the N wall; although it has long since disappeared, the remains of the heating system and marks of the doors  may still be seen  The head gardener’s house also appeared at this time just outside this same wall. Interestingly, the map of 1882 shows a path running from the rear of the stable block, along the outside of the S and E walls of the walled garden, but sheltered from view by the hedge, to reach the gardener’s house.  One may speculate that this was to enable the transport of dung from the stables, out of sight of the gentry.
A photograph taken in the late 19th century, looking towards the N wall, shows the walled garden in its glory, together with the greenhouse, the crossed paths and fountain at the centre.  One may also see part of the conifer collection in the shrubbery behind.


Figure 2. Late c19th.
The walled garden, looking N towards greenhouse

There is no sign, on the map of 1905, of any paths crossing the inside of the walled garden, but the fountain was still present at its centre; the gardeners’ buildings outside the N wall had been extended, but most importantly, several cold frames are shown outside the central gate in the S wall (Figure 3).
Today, the walled garden is grassed over, but planted with interesting specimen trees that thrive in this sheltered environment; the fountain is still there, although no longer central or functioning.


Figure 3. c1910.
The head gardener, Mr W. Nanscawen, outside the S wall of the walled garden. Note the cold frames and well trained fruit trees on the wall.

The Victorian Terraced Garden
In 1865, just after the photograph shown in Figure 1 was taken, part of the old Georgian house was demolished.  Although it looks to have been a very solid building, if one examines any of the maps up to and including that of 1865, one can see that the plan of the house is always depicted with a space at the centre.  It therefore seems extremely likely that this house, built on the site of earlier Mediaeval and Elizabethan manor houses, had retained an inner courtyard structure.

In 1865 the N wing of the old house was replaced by the Victorian Mansion House, but the East and South wings were retained; the West wing, (the side shown in Figure 1) disappeared completely leaving an open space, corresponding to the original courtyard, and surrounded on three sides by parts of the house.

Photographs show that the W face of the East wing had an arcaded structure, suggesting that the original courtyard was surrounded by an arcade.  In photographs taken before 1880 the arcade is open, but the 1880 map and later photographs show that parts of the arcade had been glassed in to form a conservatory.  In Figure 4 one can make out people sitting in deck chairs on the terrace, by the door to this conservatory.

The open space between the various parts of the house was developed as a formal, sunken garden divided by paths into four unequal, grassed sections, perhaps echoing the structure of the old ‘Best Garden’ that was almost on the same site. Photographs show banks sloping down from the terrace, each having a centrally placed set of granite steps with stone balustrades and ball finials.  In later photographs the banks themselves seem to be planted with shrubs, possibly roses.

On the W side of this garden the ground slopes down again, with another central set of steps leading to open grassland, limited by a ha-ha. The maps of 1882 and 1905 show little difference in the layout of this garden, except that conifers shown in the earlier map had been removed by 1905. However, photographs show that the planting had changed considerably, and the armillary sundial, which was later moved to the front garden of the present house, is clearly visible.


Figure 4.
The terraced garden c1900, with arcade (conservatory) in the East wing. The sundial, on the right, and steps are now in front of the present house.

All the features of the gardens of Coldrenick since 1756 have been revealed by study of the available maps, and the details amplified, for the Victorian gardens, with the help of photographs. However, there are features of earlier gardens which remain as enigmas. A perfectly circular structure is shown, in many of the maps from the 18th century and early 19th century, on the southern boundary of the property.  There is no indication as to its nature, and no trace on the ground today.

Apart from ‘The Best Garden’, the map of 1756 shows a large and probably classical building named ‘The Pond House’, that appears to have been a cold bath.  No physical evidence is available to suggest that such a structure ever existed; possibly it was only a plan for a building or perhaps it was built elsewhere on the estate and its foundations are still to be discovered.