The Story of Bonython Manor

by Richard & Sue Nathan


Bonython Manor, Autumn 2003

Romantic notions of Cornwall abound and seem to be almost genetically embedded in the hearts of many English-speaking people.  These sentiments are reinforced by writers such as Daphne Du Maurier (far more romantic than Lady Browning!) and her followers. People who come to live in the county identify strongly with all things Cornish.  Whether it is memories of childhood holidays on windswept beaches, tales of smugglers, pirates and wreckers, or a far earlier Celtic empathy, they become hooked on the romance and fiercely patriotic even if Cornwall is only an adopted home.  Thus when in 1999 Sue and Richard Nathan purchased Bonython, a quintessential Cornish manor house close to the sea, they little realised that they were not just moving home, but were about to embark on an all-consuming journey of learning and discovery that was to become a way of life.
Situated in the parish of Cury about 5 miles south of Helston, and covering some 800 acres, Bonython estate is bounded by the Helston-Lizard road to the west, by the road linking Cury to Trelowarren to the north and by the expanse of Goonhilly Downs to south and east.
Various explanations are proffered for the name Bonython, the most likely being from the Cornish bos and ython meaning ‘place of gorse’. Gorse is still  prolific, especially on nearby Goonhilly Downs.

The owners of Bonython immediately before the Nathans were the end of a line that had been in occupation for nearly two hundred years. But that is relatively recent history for this old manor house.  The Bonython family (descended from Norman conquerors) occupied the estate for some 500 years from around the 13th century until about 1700, and from it took their name, de Bonython, as was common at the time. They were powerful and influential, with several family members pursuing careers in law in London. During their occupancy they built several dwellings, the last in the mid 16th century was a substantial Tudor structure which has been partially incorporated into the present house built around 1780.

The main agricultural portion of the estate sits on an area of hornblende schist, which provides a slatey, relatively fertile soil. Across the small valley to the south lies Goonhilly on the bastite serpentine that comprises much of the Lizard peninsula. Prior to the establishment of the Bonython Plantations (a woodland area of some 140 acres) in the mid 19th century, the outlook to the south from the manor was mainly over sparse scrub with craggy outcrops of serpentine and towards an outstanding high rock traditionally recorded as a druid ‘fire rock’. To the north and east was a more fertile farm landscape, and to the west lay the sheltered valley surrounding the neighbouring Bochym estate.

As is the way with many Cornish estates, the land itself was not always sufficient to provide for the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings. There was a time when smuggling and the plundering of wrecks no doubt proved a useful supplement to the local economy. Bonython was well placed to benefit, facing directly towards Poldhu Cove and Gunwalloe cliffs – the site of some notable disasters!

Whilst the Bonython family undoubtedly prospered during their time at Bonython, local superstition tells of a curse on the family which saw both father and son commit suicide (albeit 15 years apart). The estate was dismembered and sold off in the early 1700s and there followed a succession of owners for the next 120 or so years. Amongst these was a wealthy banker/mine owner from Helston, John Trevenen, who is credited with building the current Georgian mansion at the end of the 18th century. Contemporary with these alterations the present walled garden was constructed.

In 1837, Sir Richard Vyvyan (from neighbouring Trelowarren) who had bought the house not many years before sold it and what was left of the estate to Captain Joseph Lyle. Joseph Lyle (‘Capt. Joe’ as he preferred to be called) was a self-made man, born in St Austell in 1793. He had started work at the age of twelve in a tin stamping mill in St Mewan and became a mine captain. He set about introducing new farming techniques and mechanisation, which greatly improved the fertility and productivity of the land. There was considerable competition with the neighbouring estate at Bochym, and during this period the plantations were established with rides and scenic walks to beauty spots such as ‘the stepping stones’ by a stream in the woodlands. By the time Capt Joe died in 1863, Bonython was considered a model estate, which had been substantially enlarged by the purchase of neighbouring properties. However, this situation did not last long. One of his brothers had earlier fled to France to escape creditors after a mining scandal, and another brother inherited before passing the estate to his son (also Joseph) who emigrated to New Zealand in 1872 to avoid bankruptcy, mortgaging his life interest. For the next fifty years a succession of tenant farmers worked the land leaving the mansion mostly empty. Emily, a spinster relative, ran the property on a shoestring for much of that time. When Joseph Lyle died in 1921 it was widely expected that his daughter who inherited would sell. There was land but little money and everything was in a parlous state. However, returning from New Zealand she determined to live at Bonython, rejecting all offers including a substantial one from the heirs of the original Bonython family who had greatly prospered in Australia and wanted to reclaim the family seat.

Miss Lyle died in 1949 leaving the estate to her cousin Robert who was required to change his name from Wyatt to Lyle as part of the inheritance agreement. In 1949 the property was pretty much as it had been left in the 1870s although in far worse repair. Essential work was carried out on the roof. Plumbing and electricity were installed for the first time and a programme of repair commenced which was to continue for many years. The walled garden was dug out and replanted in 1960 with the addition of a pool house and pool. The stream in the valley was dammed and the first lake, Lake Joy, was created. Many trees and shrubs around the house and driveway were removed and hydrangeas were planted along the drive. Robert Lyle and his family had initially used Bonython as a holiday house but by 1980, the Lyle’s had made Bonython their permanent home. Robert Lyle was appointed High Sheriff of Cornwall in 1984 but sadly his wife had died a year earlier. By this time much of the impetus for restoration had gone, and on his death in 1989 his son and family who inherited grappled with the tasks, which were far from complete.

In 1999 when Mr & Mrs Nathan arrived, the gardens were considerably neglected. The walled gardens, which had been a model of 1960s design, had been largely grassed over. The pool house was collapsing. The vegetable area was reduced to one small bed and a fruit cage full of weeds. Lake Joy was visible but the second lake (now named Lake Sue) was completely covered by weeds and scrub, and penetration as far as Quarry Lake was impossible. As clearing commenced, the water of the second lake emerged to daylight for the first time in thirty years! The walled gardens were the first major redesign and planting project. The pool house was rebuilt in a classical-influenced style with stucco walls copied from the lodges at Trengwainton. The beds were enlarged to their original widths of fourteen feet and restocked with herbaceous and other shrubs. They are at their best in high summer and Mrs Nathan’s colour planting owes much to her South African background, which introduces an entirely different colour palette.

The Walled Garden, June 2003

The Walled Garden, June 2003

In spring the walled garden starts off with hundreds of tulips in whites and yellows and continues with irises and a huge variety of Alliums: globemaster, giganteum, aflatunence, christophii and many others. This and other plants carry the colour theme of blues, purples, yellows and whites that dominates in spring and early summer. The old vegetable area has been re-landscaped to become a formal potager with symmetrical beds and pathways. It now houses the ornamental vegetables: swiss chard, lettuces, celery, carrots, fennel, parsley and many others. It also provides cut flowers for the manor, with a colour theme of pinks and burgundies. The roses that have been trained to ramble over the old walls are in shades of pink.

Potager Garden, June 2003

Potager Garden, June 2003

Planting on the banks around Lake Sue includes many South African grasses and plants. This is where the Proteas, Restios, Heleniums Echinaceas, Stipas including the beautiful coloured Stipa Arundinacea are to be found. All the planting in this area has the hot colours of late summer, so when most Cornish gardens are over, this area is ablaze with strong, reds, oranges yellows and burgundy. Says Mrs Nathan ‘Coming from a country where there is a lot of sunshine, I love a garden to have a long season of colour’.  This summer planting has made the gardens at Bonython unique among Cornish gardens usually renowned for their spring and autumn interest. The valley walk is a sheltered haven where plants thrive. Plantings of tree ferns and rhododendrons have been increased.

More than fifteen thousand trees have been added to the thinning shelterbelts that were originally planted some 250 years earlier but are now suffering from age and wind damage.

The orchard has been recovered and paddocks restored to lawns.

Building work continues on the manor house updating services and creating a new garden court at the rear.

To describe Bonython as a Georgian Manor House close to the sea in Cornwall is only one chapter of a story that continues to unfold. Over the generations, the people who lived there have created great enterprise followed by long periods of relative neglect. It ever was thus.