Prideaux Place

On October 18th Cornwall Gardens Trust members, led by Chairman Richard Stone and his wife, Trish, gathered at Prideaux Place, Padstow for a guided tour of the house and gardens and an ‘end of season’ lunch.  We particularly wanted to visit the sunken Formal Garden which was the site of the Trust’s first major restoration project completed 24 years ago with the full support of the owners, Mr & Mrs Peter Prideaux-Brune.

After a very warm welcome by Peter and Elisabeth Prideaux-Brune, and refreshments in the Tea Room, we were introduced to Mel, our house guide.  Mel began the tour outside on the front terrace, describing the architecture of the 81-roomed house built in 1562 by Sir Nicholas Prideaux as traditional Elizabethan combined with the 18th century exuberance of Strawberry Hill Gothic.    Fourteen generations of the Prideaux family have lived here, going back to when Elizabeth I was on the throne.  The current owners took over in 1988 and have had to face the challenge of inheriting dry rot, wet rot, overgrown gardens and crumbling temples.

We passed through the massive front door and Mel led us into the dining room with its mixture of Elizabethan and Georgian panelling, blazing log fire and magnificent table – a grand setting for our lunch later. Next the Morning Room, a cosy sitting room full of books, photos and personal treasures and used regularly by the family, and then into the lovely serene Drawing Room with its fine collection of satinwood furniture.  Displayed in here are fine examples of the Prideaux porcelain and miniatures collection.  Among the miniatures is a bizarre relic of the Civil War, which on one side bears a portrait of Charles I and on its reverse a likeness of Cromwell, to be worn according to the allegiances of one’s guests!  Mel opened another door and the magnificence of the Grenville Room was revealed. This room started life as the Dining Room of Sir Richard Grenville, the 1st Earl of Bath, in the manor he had built at Stowe, near Kilkhampton, following the Restoration of the Monarchy.  Within a generation the house had fallen into disuse and disrepair for want of a successor.  Edmund Prideaux saw an opportunity.  He had the entire room moved lock, stock and barrel to Prideaux Place by sea.  The room is rich and sumptuous and houses an important collection of Restoration paintings.  On we went to the library, typical of Regency Gothic style and containing over 6,000 volumes.  Here we met ‘Me Too’ a very characterful teddy bear who has the habit of popping up everywhere!  Fortunately we didn’t meet the ghost of the first landing after we ascended the elegant staircase (also brought from Stowe) heading for the Great Chamber.  Today this beautiful room is used for concerts and recitals, but it had previously been converted into bedrooms, the current owner was born in one of them, and the 16th century ceiling depicting the biblical story of Susannah and the elders had been hidden behind a lower ceiling.

Despite its splendour and treasures this house felt very much like ‘home’.  Shortly after our arrival we’d waved off the Prideaux-Brunes who were leaving to go on holiday so we had the house to ourselves and some of us felt we could have moved in quite gladly.

Nigel Mathews, a founder member of the Trust, knows the garden well and was our guide.  He led us along the drive, on one side skirting a large grassed area that at one time was a formal garden, to an arched building containing funerary casks brought back from his Grand Tour by Edmund Prideaux around 1740.  The seat inside is flanked by two urns which once graced the original entrance to the Deer Park.  On the other side of the drive and at a lower level beneath it is the Quarry Garden.  This consists of a tunnel created for Col. Charles Prideaux-Brune’s wife.  She was unwell, and the Colonel wanted her to be able to go to the Parish Church in a pony and trap without going out through the main gates and along the road.  The garden leads straight to the lych-gate by the church.  The stone from this quarry was used to build the house.  We made our way through light woodland fringing the lawn, climbing gently towards the Temple.
Erected in

1740, the walls are made of Bath stone but the columns with ionic capitals and the pediment were probably bought here from elsewhere.  It stands majestically amongst 300-year old lime trees and holm oaks originally part of a grown-out hedge.  This important building has now been completely restored after being declared ‘at risk’ by English Heritage.  From here we turned into the Acer Glade planted in 2009.  It is planted with hundreds of spring bulbs.  The perennials that follow them in the borders were just fading, but the garden was still looking very attractive.  A gothic rose arch and rose hedge lead on to the Gothic Dairy.  This is a strange building displaying 18th century grotesque work at the back and a simple classical style at the front.  Swiftly passing on we joined the Green Walk, an avenue of 80 lime trees planted in 2004, back-planted with about 100 broadleaves and at their feet thousands of spring bulbs.  To our left and in parallel with the Acer Glade, lime trees give way to a small cherry tree avenue leading to the Shell House which is currently being restored.  We turned to the right and headed along the lime avenue towards the Formal Garden.

Nigel Mathews described seeing a jungle of overgrown brambles, nettles and numerous trees on his first visit to the Formal Garden almost 25 years ago.  The only hint of a hidden garden was a flight of steps and a central fountain just visible.  Nigel obtained old photographs that enabled him to draw a detailed plan of the garden as it had been in Victorian times.  Estate workers set about felling and clearing trees and stumps.  Nigel Teagle, at that time Assistant Head Gardener at Lanhydrock and loaned to CGT by the National Trust for three months, began the dig to restore the paths and was fortunate enough to find slates which had previously edged the beds.

Enough remained to show the route of the paths.  Thirty tonnes of scalpings were used as a base for granite chippings to restore the paths.  Next a sludge pump was hired to clear the central pond found to be 6′ deep.  Four concrete troughs were found in the mud, and it was presumed these had previously contained water lilies.  Beds were dug and, after overcoming a problem with waterlogging, these were designed and planted for low maintenance.

Since that time the garden has continued to develop.  A fountain has been added to the pond, and the garden now has 7 box edged beds arranged around the central pond.  Each bed is planted with roses and an Acer.

Tucked away beyond the Formal Garden is a romantic garden of pleached hornbeams planted as two intersecting avenues, one leading to an 8-sided stone fountain surrounded by roses.  The bubbling of the fountain, which is inscribed ‘EPB from PPB 21.10.98’, has a gentle calming effect.  Walking back along the upper terrace of the sunken Formal Garden past the footings of a long-gone glasshouse, we headed down a woodland path passing evidence of a killer disease (Phytopthora) now attacking laurel plants in the many hedges around the garden yet another challenge to be tackled.  Just before arriving back on the terrace around the house we diverted to cross a bridge leading to The Colonel’s Walk, which skirts the Deer Park and has stunning views over the Camel Estuary.

Our group congregated at a view-point by a statue of ‘Boy with Thorn’ and agreed that the day had been most enjoyable and successful.  We’d earned our tea and cake.  We thank you, Prideaux, for a delightful visit.

An archival record of the gardens at Prideaux Place was made by volunteer members of the Trust and a copy presented to the owners in 1990.  A second copy is held at the County Record Office in Truro.

Jean Marcus