Pengersick Castle’s Garden Trail

by Angela Evans


Pengersick Castle

It seems a long time now since we became members of the Trust.  We were certainly one of the first gardens recorded (1992).

So much has happened since those distant days some thirty years ago when first we viewed Pengersick on a brilliant June morning.  The rising sun gave the ancient granite a rosy glow.  From that moment, the magic and mystery of the place bewitched us.  We worked unceasingly to re-create what must have been a spectacular triumph of early Tudor building creation.

Through the years, our links with the Cornwall Gardens Trust have grown closer.  Daphne Lawry (CGT Secretary) became one of our first Trustees and it was her inspiration that revealed the potential of our home in the development of garden history.  Her loss in 2001, so sudden and unexpected made us ever more determined to preserve her inspiration beyond a mere memorial plaque.
Gradually the idea evolved to illustrate our 5000 years of Cornish history with a Garden Trail, drawing it all together by means of a Woodland Walk.  This takes visitors from the original evidence of prehistoric settlement through to the end of the sixteenth century when fate again intervened and ended the Cornish family connection.

The first requirement of settlers from earliest times was an ample supply of fresh water.  Our search for some evidence of this led to dowsing.  The proof we hoped to find came with a visit from an expert in this field.  His skills revealed the evidence of two watercourses, one still active, though located some 30 feet beneath the present ground level.  Further exploration indicated the existence of a range of round houses linking up to an extensive settlement from the period, around near-by Tregonning Hill and archaeological discoveries on Praa Sands Beach.

Dowsing being no conclusive proof of anything but water in the view of archaeologists, a trench was opened in the hopes of finding at least a post-hole to prove the existence of this early settlement.  Better than that the remains of a quern came to light.  This has now been reconstructed on site.  A selection of plants known to have been part of the diet and domestic needs of our ancestors is now being cultivated.

The Dark Ages
Still to be developed is a link between pre-historic and medieval times.

A scattering of acorns several years ago was quite forgotten.  Then suddenly we noticed we had an embryo Oak Grove!  Here was the connection the Druids! Their background is obscure but there is mention of their presence in Gaul around 50BC, with a suggestion that they had come to Gaul via Britain.  There is evidence in the writings of Pliny 70AD of ‘Holy Groves in the Gallic Provinces’.  There is also reference in Celtic mythology to rowans and yews, both of which can be found around our Woodland Walk.

Medieval Times
On the way to the foundations of the original home of the Pengersick family, a possible burial site has been identified.  Its location is typical of the custom of the time, being sited against the prevailing wind.  At least 20 members of the Pengersick household are believed to have perished in the 1361 outbreak of The Plague.  A selection of plants likely to have been used in the hope of warding off infection is being grown.
The site of the original Pengersick home is being enhanced with a cobbled area containing plants used to celebrate the Summer Solstice, supplemented by another selection of plants introduced by the Crusaders.  In all probability, Alexander Lord of Pengersick (c1250) was a Templar Knight.

The Gilly Flower Garden
Clove carnations and wallflowers were grown from early times beneath castle walls for their sweet scent, which wafted upwards through open windows.  It is thought that seeds might have reached Cornwall in stone imported from the Continent.  A link is being made by means of a woodland walk, to introduce a planting of the Nine Sacred Herbs designated in the Leechbook of Bald (AD 900-95) as a defense against unseen powers and natural disasters.  This leads to the probable site of an Oratory Chapel last licensed in 1400.

A Medieval Herb Garden was created several years ago on a site likely for such a requirement.  The design for this was based on that for the Monastery of St Gall, the prime source for all subsequent constructions.  Certainly, Bishop Aelfric who drew up the first planting list known in England in AD 995 must have had knowledge of it.  His catalogue contains some 200 entries.  We have based our scheme on this evidence.

The Middle Ages ended at Pengersick with the death in 1476 of Isabella, the last direct descendant of the original family.  She left her Cornish inheritance to a daughter Elizabeth, the wife of a prominent Devonian, John Milliton.  They created a magnificent fortified Tudor dwelling in a new situation, re-using what fabric they could from the old home.  It is the dual tower complex of this, which survives today.

Sadly, the likely site of their gardens has been destroyed over the years but evidence for an orchard and a Parterre Garden has been identified.  The Tudor idea of a viewing platform or ‘mount’ for appreciation of their pleasure gardens came into fashion about this time.  This could translate into the prospect from Pengersick’s crenellated tower from which our newly created Knot Garden can be viewed to perfection.  We are basing our concept on Thomas Hill’s The Gardener’s Labyrinth, published in 1577, which gives instructions, mathematically based, on garden design.

We are now working on a display ‘Roses in the Context of History’, taking the development of the early Alba, Gallica and Damask stocks, to produce a longer flowering season (whoever said that you can’t grow roses in Cornwall should pay us a visit in June!).  This story also provides a useful link with the Wars of the Roses, the catalyst for the success of the Milliton family in 16th-century Cornwall.

One of our Friends of Pengersick, more as a joke than a serious challenge, said, ‘Why not try a display of the cultivars mentioned by Shakespeare?’  Why not indeed, we replied in our usual impulsive way!  It certainly proved more of a challenge than envisaged, but Wild Thyme now flourishes upon a bank and a chart displays, under individual plays, the range of plants referred to, even if it is impossible to illustrate more than a fraction of them.

We have certainly made some progress since we first took on the thickets of brambles and briars, which formed the frontiers of our property when we first met the challenge all those years ago! We now hope this Garden Trail may provide a sustainable future to preserve Pengersick’s magic and mystery for another 5000 years.

Angela Evans

Pengersick Garden Trail is open by appointment only.  Telephone:  01736 762579