The Growth of Garden Tourism in Cornwall: Rejuvenation or Ruination?

by Rachel Townend

Having spent holidays near the Helford River every year since I was a child, Cornish gardens provided the perfect playground for my inquisitive nature. I have many happy memories of racing around mysterious jungles, scampering under towering Gunnera and eagerly investigating every nook and cranny of each exciting new discovery.  So when I was asked to write a 10,000 word dissertation for my university geography course, Cornish gardens immediately sprang to mind (much to the delight of my grandmother who lives in Cornwall and was only too eager to jump in the car and visit many of the gardens with me!). Of particular interest was the increasing popularity of garden visiting in Cornwall, and how this in turn was affecting the individual gardens.  Garden visits now amount to over 16 million each year in the UK and this inevitably sparks debate regarding management and conservation, two integral components of this study.


Sculpture by Reece Ingram at Trelissick Garden

I wanted to investigate the balance between access, recreation and income and see whether individual gardens were adopting innovative solutions and sensitive management to deal with problems arising from opening gardens to the public.

The specific aim of my project was ‘to examine the growth of Garden Tourism in Cornwall and discuss methods of garden management and conservation in Cornish gardens open to the public on a regular basis’.

At the time of my study, 39 gardens were open to the public on a regular basis according to the Cornwall Gardens Guide. After contacting them all I was able to acquire data from 30.  I decided not to include Eden and Heligan in my primary research because they had already attracted a lot of research attention over the years.  I was more interested in understanding their impact on garden tourism in the region from the perspective of other garden managers. Interviews were essential and I conducted ten with individual garden owners/managers and another four with important figures in the Cornish garden industry, more specifically Bryan Coode, the Chairman of the Cornwall Garden Society and Deputy Chairman of the Cornwall Gardens Project, Giles Clotworthy, an Independent Marketing advisor who previously worked for the National Trust for 24 years as the Marketing Communications Manager for Devon and Cornwall, Sir Ferrers Vyvyan, the Chairman of the Cornwall Gardens Trust and the late Bill Malecki, who was the National Trust Gardens Advisor for the West of England and Wales at the time of this study. In addition, a questionnaire was sent out to the remaining garden managers whom I was unable to interview in person due to time and travel constraints.

Calculating the growth in number of garden visitors to Cornwall was not as easy as I had originally forecast.  Instead of visitor figures being held in one central location I found that I had to contact each garden separately.  I found the accuracy and detail of visitor figures varied massively and I think it would be advantageous to create a central database in which the pattern of all Cornish garden visitors could be tracked and monitored.

Despite this drawback, it became clear that there has been a sustained growth of gardens open to the public over the past 30 years and the importance of Heligan and Eden in increasing the profile of garden tourism in Cornwall was highlighted.  Every garden within the study offered something unique to the visitor in its planting, design or atmosphere and as a consequence Cornish gardens attract a wide market.  Individual garden managers have a clear vision of which segment they want to attract to their garden and they cater for this market in varying ways.  Most encouraging was the interaction that each garden manager had with the wider community.  Twenty-two out of 30 gardens offered education projects ranging from church talks to RHS courses and 90% of gardens (large and small) stressed the importance of interaction with their visitors.

Overall my study highlighted two main trends in garden conservation as detailed below.

Trend One (Owner-driven) e.g. Carwinion, Trewidden, Trist House, Trereife, Bosvigo, The Japanese Garden and the Hidden Valley.

These gardens have been lovingly created in line with the owner’s individual tastes.  In addition most gardens are attached to the house, where the owner lives, creating an immense protection for the garden (e.g. Trist House,  Roseland House and Trereife).  Design has followed specific historical layers especially Grade I and Grade II* listed gardens, however, integration of new design is also common as long as it is in keeping with the garden.

These garden managers mention the pressure they are under to conform to market demand yet so far have been able to resist (e.g. Trewidden, Trewithen and Ken-Caro).  The income created from visitors helps to sustain the garden but the creation and maintenance of the garden is often not solely for these visitors.  Penjerrick and Carwinion possess a unique appeal due to their un-commercialised and ‘rough’ feel yet, unfortunately, the possible lack of viability of such gardens in the long term was evident and this type of management is rapidly declining.

Despite creative ideas, declining resources result in an absence of time and money to introduce new elements to many gardens and the focus is often on basic maintenance and upkeep.  The owner is often the head gardener or works part-time in the garden and this intimate relationship and love for the garden helps account for the sympathetic approach to conservation adopted by this group.


Penjerrick Garden -‘untouched by modern facilities’

Trend Two (Policy driven) e.g. Lanhydrock, Trelissick, Trevarno, Cotehele, Trebah, Trelowarren and Trengwainton.

The second trend is associated with the larger gardens. These gardens have more formal codes of conduct in regards to conservation.  Every National Trust garden will be unique in its attributes and each individual property manager and head gardener work together with centrally based experts in the form of the Gardens and Parks Advisor for the region. The other large non-National Trust gardens (Trevarno, Caerhays, Mount Edgcumbe, Trebah etc.) work towards conservation restoration plans often agreed with English Heritage. The aim is to integrate botanical and historical interest with conservation of existing design alongside complementary, not conflicting, new additions.  The majority of gardens in this trend has larger numbers of visitors and accommodates their demands with the provision of cafes, shops, toilets and children’s areas. These tend to be housed in converted buildings from the past (Trelissick or Godolphin), are sympathetic in design (Trelowarren) or are hidden from the garden (Trengwainton).  The gardens sometimes receive criticism for their attempts to attract visitors via these modern facilities (e.g. Trevarno or Trebah); however, they would argue that if these facilities can increase visitor spend per head then they can become less dependent on footfall, which will benefit the garden physically and aesthetically.  Adaptations to the garden to accommodate visitors are often cleverly hidden and blend in with the natural landscape.  These gardens are steeped in history many being owned by the same family for generations and this respect for the past helps dictate their future management.  They are more open and manicured than many of the smaller gardens; an inevitable occurrence when absorbing large numbers of tourists, but not necessarily something to be frowned upon.  Different gardens cater for different visitor needs helping to maintain diversity and interest.

The overwhelming number of Cornish gardens appears to adopt an approach of integrating the best of the old with the best of the new.  It soon became clear that ingenuity is not a recent development in Cornish garden history and according to Mowl (2005) the county has been an ‘unpredictable purveyor of dazzling firsts and unexpected episodes’. In the nineteenth century Cornwall was the first port of call for many unconventional new species collected from afar by great Victorian plant hunters.  Sir Charles Lemon, the master of Carclew (1748-1824), reportedly had the idea of offering a medal to the ship’s captain who brought in the most exciting new plants.  In addition, in 1924 Trebah stocked its Mallard Pond with 10 flamingos to add colour to the garden (Hibbert, 2005).  The Victorians loved to turn corners and find something new and exciting; a sentiment that still rings true for visitors today and the creative management used in Cornish gardens successfully fulfils the demands of the public whilst protecting the ethos of the garden.  At Glendurgan visitors have increasingly been requesting more information whilst in the garden; this has been accomplished without using unsightly signs (thus jeopardising the character of the garden) but by placing information boards under wooden benches in the garden.  The maze and ‘the giant’s stride’ (a pole with ropes attached), which attract lots of visitors especially children, are features dating back to the 1800’s. Carwinion is working on a system of coloured stones as path markers instead of erecting signs and Trerice welcomes visitors to play Kayles (Cornish skittles) on the parade ground or do brass rubbing, both of which are historically significant within the garden.  Accommodating visitor demand for modern facilities can be problematic for many garden owners who feel it is unsightly and not in keeping with the garden (Trewidden, Trewithen and Ken-Caro). New attractions within the gardens are generally low key and well integrated, examples include peacock trails at Trevarno, a Golden Jubilee Lake with one ton of daffodils planted by school children at Boconnoc, a new wildlife, wildflower summer garden and pond restoration at Trewithen and an informal maze through the camellia garden at Trewidden.
Despite the popularity of Cornwall’s gardens, investment, funding and promotion are only now beginning to emerge and today there is significant potential for growth in both the smaller and larger gardens.

The Cornwall Gardens Project has acknowledged the conflict between the desire for more visitors and the lack of resources available and has pumped a vast amount of time and energy into helping gardens of all sizes. Although its success will be difficult to measure, it will be interesting to see if, after the allocated three years for the project, any long-term changes have occurred.

Whether as a social arena for group visiting or simply a quiet and contemplative setting to enjoy peace and beauty, the Cornish garden offers a unique experience for everyone.  Limited visitors and access to resources at present mean that there is no threat of deterioration to the gardens and despite pressure to conform to tourist demand and increased financial return, sensitive conservation by garden managers suggests that even in the future the interests of the garden will be a priority.  There remains a distinction between the approach larger and smaller gardens adopt and although this prevents standardisation it would be beneficial for the individual gardens to increase formal partnerships and become less fragmented.  The friendly nature of this sector and the enthusiasm and willingness to include the wider community is refreshing but can be developed further by pooling resources and spreading associated costs.  The managers of the smaller gardens have much to offer in terms of expertise and creativity and joint ventures with larger gardens would help those with limited resources share these attributes.  This would ultimately enhance the visitor experience, improve community integration and create a more co-ordinated successful sector.

At the heart of every garden team is a desire to protect and preserve the unique attributes of each garden thus enhancing individuality and preventing any change that may jeopardise the garden.  It has become apparent that enthusiasm and creativity instigates change and development within individual gardens but it is generally sensitive and low-key.

In conclusion it seems that for now and the foreseeable future, the growth of garden tourism has lead to rejuvenation not ruination of Cornish gardens.  Long may they prosper!


Rachel Townend and her Grandmother, Joan Hollis, exploring Gunnera

Thank you to everyone who helped me with my dissertation, in particular I remember Bill Malecki who sadly died before it was completed.

Rachel Townend BSc Hons