Gyllyngdune Gardens, Falmouth: a Potted History

Gyllyngdune Gardens, Falmouth:
a Potted History
by Nigel Mathews

In 2011 Cornwall Council completed the restoration of Gyllyngdune Gardens; a scheme costing some £2.7 million of which a large amount came from the Heritage Lottery as well as contributions from organisations such as Play Builder, Cory Environmental Trust, Carrick Leisure and latterly the CGT and a private local trust. The project has improved the ambience of the gardens by cutting away surplus vegetation, remodelling the footpath system and repairing the decorative features. A rebuilt tearoom with modern catering facilities, a restored veranda, a new glasshouse and a small play area have all breathed new life into a rather run-down dull area. Now the Gardens are a proud piece of Falmouth's attractions.

However the current gardens are only the relict of a much larger estate that has had a chequered history. Although the area of the gardens lies within what was once the Arwenick Manor estate, nothing of this proud Elizabethan/Jacobean garden remains and it would appear from the 1842 Tithe map that the Gyllyngdune Estate was carved out of agricultural land. The pocket estate was originally developed by General William Jessor Coope who commissioned George Wightwick to build him a house overlooking Falmouth Bay. During the Regency period and the years which followed many new villas or large houses with small estates were being built for rich nabobs who had retired from military life or service to the Empire. They were carved out of larger estates where money was short or built in attractive locations such as the seaside which had been made popular earlier in the century by people such as the Prince Regent.

The house must have been completed by 1837 as Barclay Fox comments on it in his diary of that year. Originally it was to be called Summerlands but unfortunately the General was killed in an accident shortly after the house was finished and when his son, the then Rector of Falmouth, took up residence the name changed to Gyllyngdune House. As the Reverend Coope was to occupy Gyllyngdune House for the next 20 odd years it is assumed he and his family made the major impact on the garden.

The First Edition OS map showing the elaborate gardens at Gyllyngdune

The Tithe map recorded the area round the house as simply plantations and gardens. However the Ordnance Survey First Edition shows a quite elaborate garden with adjacent parkland with perimeter tree belts. The whole was bounded in the north by Melville Road and by the cliffs to the south.  There was a walled garden to the west of the main house with a stable block adjoining and another small garden with a greenhouse; on the north side of the house were shrubberies, a lawn and the approach drive from a small lodge on Melville Road; close to the house itself are wooded lawns while to the south is an area of dense shrubbery with interweaving paths leading to the shore. The south-eastern and western areas appear to be paddocks or parkland. In fact the whole gives an impression of a Regency style landscape of lawns, shrubberies and winding paths together with kitchen and fruit garden within the walled area. The extra dimension was the seashore and the cliffs where the Reverend Coope built a summerhouse known locally as Parson Coope's Chapel. It seems unlikely that it was ever consecrated but used for entertainment and a place where he could meditate if he wished. According to the Falmouth Packet there was a bath house below the chapel and a tunnel that led to the private beach. Like the summerhouse, the tunnel steps, walls and balustrades still survive and are listed, Grade II. The bricks used in the construction are an Italianate rustic design that can be found in many other gardens of this period.

The other important feature was in the shrubbery and its interweaving paths. This area is known to contain the quarry supposedly opened to provide stone for building the house. Converting the quarry into a garden feature added a highly picturesque component to the landscape providing an ideal space to display exotic planting schemes such as ferns and natural curiosities such as native minerals, corals and shells as well as creating a brooding atmosphere. A grotto with a seat and lined with shells and pieces of glass was built into one corner of the quarry while above it a small domed seat also lined with shells was built to give views out over the sea. The grotto could be lit with candles that would have given an entrancing effect reflecting off the glass and pieces of mirror. The shell decorations are thought to be the work of Reverend Coope's daughters as it would have been seen to be a suitable occupation for young ladies. On the south side of the quarry a tunnel was excavated to lead out to the lower garden and steps and ramped paths were also created to gain further entrance. The tunnel roof was lined with graded stone to give a sort of flame effect. To complement the domed seat a monolithic arch in the manner of Stonehenge was erected on the high ground to the west side of the quarry probably in response to a then current interest in antiquities.

In 1861 the waywardens for the parish of Falmouth brought an action against the Reverend Coope for obstructing the footpath along the cliffs at the bottom of the gardens of Gyllyngdune House and he was ordered to make the path six feet wide throughout its length and allowed to make two bridges over the footpath to give access to other parts of his grounds. The path shows up on the OS First Edition. Whether this action caused offence or for some other reason, the property was put up for sale in 1863 and bought by Sampson Waters Esq. for £10,000 and the contents of the estate were auctioned, including a choice collection of 1,500 green and hothouse plants. In 1900 the then MP for Falmouth, Frederick Horniman bought the property and in 1903 sold the coastal strip to Falmouth Town Council to enable them to complete their Cliff Road scheme. This severed the chapel and the steps to the tunnel that led the private beach from the rest of the garden. Gyllyngdune House became a private hotel and further land was sold off to the Town Council for housing development and the creation of a public winter garden.

(© 2012 The Cornwall Centre Collection, Redruth)

A plan of c.1905 in the possession of the Council shows that the Town Council intended dividing up the acquired land into development plots but retain section of the gardens to the west and south of Gyllyngdune House linked by a dog-leg path for public amenity. The gardens were to be developed as a winter garden adding to the attractions of Falmouth as a tourist resort. The coming of the railways had opened up the potential of the town as a holiday venue and the Town Council were wishful to add to the natural amenities by creating a promenade along the sea front with a garden at the end offering shelter and refreshment.

As part of the development to establish the new winter gardens, a retaining wall pierced by a lych gate was built along the boundary in Cliff Road and a considerable transformation was effected in the walled garden with a bandstand in the centre and an elegant veranda on two sides. The garden to the south of the walled garden was developed into a Rosary with a glasshouse for exotics. Gyllyngdune Gardens, as it was to be known, were opened in 1907 by the Mayor's wife who ceremoniously unlocked the lych gate and led a walk up through the gardens to the new bandstand and marquee. Photographs from the following year show the appearance of the gardens in their first year as public gardens. The quarry garden, grotto shell seat, veranda and monolithic arch are all there with repaired paths and mature planting, evergreen shrubs and ferns. An impressive tree fern has centre spot in the quarry and a cast iron gate restricts access to the grotto. In the rosary iron hoops span the path with new roses climbing up them.

The bandstand, veranda and Gyllyngdune Gardens entrance, c. 1910
(Photo kindly provided from the History Collection of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society archives)

The rosary iron hoops, as seen in the postcard on the Journal's cover, have now been replaced.

Over the following years the Princess Pavilion was built on the north side of the walled garden and was opened in 1911 by Princess Alexandra of Teck. In 1920 the gardens are described as:

an attractive resort no matter what the weather. In the upper grounds are covered promenades, a pavilion and a bandstand where vocal and instrumental concerts are given daily in the summer. The tea house is open all the year round. A feature of the tasteful gardens is the Grotto with sub-tropical plants. The gardens are sheltered from all but the southerly winds and by night they are lit with electric light forming a popular rendezvous.

The monolithic arch today

The gardens continued to be well used and maintained to a high standard over the succeeding years with various changes such as the inclusion of tennis courts. Around them desirable housing sprang up and another hotel, the Bay Hotel, was built on a former part of the estate almost complementing Gyllyngdune House. By the 1970s the care of the gardens had passed from the Town Council to Carrick District Council. The lych gate was taken down and this entrance to the gardens reformed to make them more inviting. In the late 1980s many of the overmature exotic plants were lost in the Great Storm and the glass house became unsafe and had to be demolished. By now most attention was concentrated on the Princess Pavilion and the gardens became more neglected especially the lower gardens which became the resort of undesirables.

With the decline of the gardens and structural problems with the veranda, teahouse and the Pavilion itself, in 2004 Carrick District Council decided to embark on a restoration scheme. This involved applying successfully for a grant from the Heritage Lottery so leading to the Gardens' renaissance.