The Lost (Japanese) Garden of Helford

Adapted from an article by Dr Mark Smith published in Shakkei Vol II No. 2 Autumn 2004

When Jean and Ged Proctor retired to Cornwall in the late 1990s for quiet rest and relaxation, they could have scarcely imagined what was to follow.  The Lodge their new home turned out to be the stable block of an Edwardian country house called Trewince, nestling in the side of a lush valley at Port Navas on the Helford River – a house and garden with an intriguing secret.

Sir William Austin owned the house during the early 1920s, and it seems likely that he laid the foundations of an interesting terraced garden reflecting the style and tastes of the day.  However, the next owner, Mrs Jackson arriving from Scotland with her husband sometime around 1925, had very different ideas and these were waiting to be exposed.  Unfortunately, Mrs Jackson was widowed early and following her second marriage to the Rector of Mawnan Smith, Rev. Gunstone, in 1940 she moved away.  During the Second World War, the garden became choked with weeds and disappeared.

As Jean and Ged began to unload and reposition their enormous collection of trees and shrubs brought down from the Midlands, they started to uncover Mrs Jackson’s intriguing and forgotten secret garden.  Just outside the official boundary of the garden land owned by Trewince, was a collection of massive granite boulders, apparently deliberately grouped on a level piece of ground of  approximately 250m2.  Careful investigation revealed a mass of stones laid out in groups in a larger flat area – which still had evidence of much smaller flat blue stones laid out around their base.

It seemed likely that something rather unusual had been created in this quiet Cornish lane.

A quick look around nearby houses revealed more clues to the origins of what was now almost certainly an early dry Japanese Garden.  In a bungalow across the lane, there were two rather unusual granite lanterns one tall and one squat.  The owner of the bungalow, Tony Meyers, turned out to have once owned Trewince when the house was run as a hotel and restaurant.  The hotel closed in 1968 and the grounds left to return to nature but Tony had moved some of the statues to his retirement bungalow for safekeeping following the disappearance of two bronze cranes.   Finally, a property developer bought the house in 1970 and converted it into six apartments and the stable block into the Lodge.  The developer parceled the land up (the Japanese Garden was outside the land allocated to the house) with a weather eye to capitalising on sales later.  As Jean and Ged uncovered something of the background of the garden, the original property developer approached the Trewince House Management Group (apartment owners) with the possibility that the piece of land immediately in front of the old house might be sold.  The Group saw the opportunity to buy back the parcel of land which included the overgrown Japanese Garden.

By now, it is apparent that the garden was of some considerable historical significance.  It emerged that the garden had been created between 1925-35 in a fashion that was already establishing in Scotland.  A garden lecturer from Writtle College visited as part of her PhD research into Japanese Gardens.  She described it as, ‘the very first, and possibly only, dry landscape garden (kare-san-sui) from this period in the whole of the UK’.  She went on to say, ‘Trewince is certainly among the top ten (Japanese-style gardens) for its state of preservation, and archival evidence (in Britain)’.  The expert explained that the garden had been laid out to represent an ‘ocean’ (the original gravel would have been of crushed granite of a uniform size, capable of holding a raked pattern).  Grey-blue pebbles and a raked wave line depicted the shoreline.  In addition, the mound in the northwest corner is a clear representation of Mount Fuji with a representation of a river in rock.  In fact, there are several of these dry streams entering the ‘ocean’ and there is evidence in photographs and still on the ground, of wooden yatsuhashi-style bridges.  There appears to have been little planting what there is is used to emphasise the ‘ocean’ and enhance particular features of contour or symbolic significance eg Mt Fuji.

Further evidence also emerged of the original garden designer.  Local residents recalled a Japanese man called Suzuki being involved with the garden.  Is this the famous Professor Suzuki of the Soami School of Imperial Design?  Records reveal that a Japanese designer of that name was established in London at that time.  A Professor Suzuki is the designer of a number of famous Japanese gardens in the UK including Fanham Hall in Hertfordshire (1900) and Cowden in Scotland (the largest Japanese garden in the UK created in 1907).

Whatever the historical significance of the garden, the next task was simply to clear the ground and recover whatever features remained.  Between 1998 and 2000, Jean and Ged removed all the invasive weeds and dug out soil that had covered the original ‘ocean’ for decades.  They found many flat, bluish stones that once formed the ‘beaches’ around the ‘islands’ of granite boulders.  The bases of some of the ornaments and evidence of the position of the original walkways were also discovered.  Oddly, no evidence for the original granite chippings remained and so small local pebbles were bought in and spread over the ground in 2001.  Whilst many of the invasive trees were removed some of the original planting seems to have remained, although no longer in proportion to the island on which they were planted.  However, even outsized, it seemed a shame to remove various acers including some lovely Japanese maples and they were left in place.

By the end of 2000 the garden was starting to take shape, trees had been cleared and various plants returned.  The outstanding projects included:

  • Replacing missing ornaments the lanterns and the two cranes!
  • Rebuilding the yatsuhashi-style bridges
  • Replacing the large umbrella-like structure
  • Clearing ‘Mount Fuji’ and returfing to return the correct profile.

One contribution to the progress has been the return of the two granite lanterns bequeathed by Tony Myers in 2003.  Plans are underway to put back the zigzag walkways providing an uninterrupted path around the garden.  Further developments are dependent on securing funding.