The Story of Trereife

by Tim Le Grice

The Story of Trereife is the story of two families.

The house has been the home, first of the Nicholls family and then the Le Grice family since the 15th century when the Nicholls family established their farmhouse on the site of the present house.

The first member of the Nicholls family to venture out of Cornwall was John Nicholls.  He became a successful Middle Temple barrister in the late 17th century.  His memorial at Madron Church speaks so eloquently that there could hardly be a better testimony of what he achieved and what he left for his successors.

Near this place in the grave of his Fathers
Whom he honour’d lyes interr’d the body of
JOHN NICHOLLS of Trereife esquire
Who being born in the year of our Lord 1663
As sent to London in the year 1680
And having served in a laborious Clerkship
Was in 1688 sworn one of the Clerks
Of the High Court of Chancery
And having with great industry and integrity
Encreased the paternal estates of his family
And was in the year 1705 call’s to the Bar
By the Society of the Middle Temple
Where having for some years
Practiced with success
He retired to the seat of his ancestors
And having made many improvements
Departed this life the 3rd day of August 1714
In the 53rd year of his life
Leaving three sons and one daughter
AND Samuel is youngest
(by whose order this monument is erected)
Lye here likewise interr’d

The Nicholls family remained at Trereife benefiting from the ‘industry and integrity’ of this John Nicholls and it was not until 1815 when his grandson, William Nicholls, died at the early age of 28 that the Nicholls ownership ceased.  William’s mother had been widowed at a young age and in 1799, she married a certain Charles Valentine Le Grice who had come to Trereife in order to tutor William.  Subsequently he and the widow had a son, Day Perry Le Grice, and so it was that the Le Grice family became the new owners over the next six generations.

When this former tutor came to Cornwall, he forsook a world of literature and poetry.  His great love of literature was established at Christ’s Hospital, the school in London, where he was the contemporary and great friend of Coleridge who later became perhaps the best-known poet of his generation.  This friendship lasted and Charles Valentine visited Coleridge shortly before his death in 1834 at Highgate.  This was a sad occasion and their thoughts went back to Christ’s Hospital where it was said that they were often locked together in friendly exchanges and the wit combats between them were described as comparable to ‘a combat on the seas between a Spanish Galleon and an English Man O’ War’.

Charles Valentine Le Grice seems to have assumed the mantle of the country squire with ease after marrying his pupil’s mother.  He also took Holy Orders and of particular interest is the sermon he preached in November 1805 on the General Day of Thanksgiving for Trafalgar at Greenwich where the veteran seamen finished their days.

Historically, it is interesting that he was able not only to preach at Greenwich following Trafalgar in 1805 but also in 1815, he witnessed Napoleon’s arrival in Plymouth after Waterloo.  He describes how the Emperor stood on the ‘poop’ of the Bellepheron that brought him to Plymouth.  There he could be observed in a ‘gold-encrusted green coat saluting ceremoniously those who came to gaze upon him’.  This view of the vanquished emperor is summed up in two pithy lines:

So great in intellect so mean in heart
The mighty and yet paltry Bonaparte.

Returning to Trereife, we see a house that architecturally has been described as one of the most interesting in Cornwall.  The Classic symmetry of the Queen Anne style is very evident and extends to the gardens and in particular to the parterre which has been established in front of the house within the last five years.  Lyn Le Grice has designed the parterre to be very much a part of the overall design of the front of the house. The feeling generated by the house is one of welcome.  Here stands, largely in tact, a house that has been a home preserved despite its antiquity.  Charles Valentine Le Grice and succeeding members of the Le Grice family living here have felt responsibility for its preservation despite the in-roads of Estate Duty.

Early prints of Trereife in the first part of the 18th century show the level of the garden and its general appearance very differently.  This was before the walled garden and adjoining terraces were built.  It was also before the landscaping of ‘the Lawn Field’ to give the impression of a small park.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to trace the progress of the gardens over the next period but the gardens as they are now owe a considerable amount to Charles Henry Le Grice, the present owner’s grandfather, who during the 1920s took over responsibility for restoring the gardens.  They had been largely neglected by his father who for part of his life let the house and lived elsewhere for various reasons.  The former was responsible for the planting of the magnificent Magnolia campbellii.  This usually flowers profusely on or around St Valentine’s Day.  Near it, on the outside of the garden wall built in 1750 using clay from the estate, is Wisteria floribunda planted in 1922 and this is usually laden with flowers each year in May and June.

The next owner of Trereife, Charles Le Grice, contributed to the garden by establishing a collection of camellias around the pond.  However, the gardens had been all but abandoned during the Second World War when part of the house was commandeered by the Home Guard and it was his main contribution to begin yet again the period of restoration.

The next most significant and recent development the establishment of a parterre in front of the house was conceived as a millennium project.  Buxus sempervirens suffructicosa is used to edge the beds and this is flanked by Santolina with the centre filled with Ceanothus repens.

A yew hedge has been planted beyond the parterre and a canal with water shoots is proposed that will add movement and drama to the garden.  Pleached medlars surrounding the lawn area behind will complete the plan.

A particular feature of the house is the yew growing on the south side.  This has been there for nearly 300 years and it is difficult to imagine the house without it.  Indeed, Charles Valentine Le Grice who has featured so much in the history of the house and the family had something to say even about the yew.  An inveterate punster one feels that temptation proved too much for him.  His wife, previously the widow Mary Nicholls was born Mary Usticke.  The Usticke family was a well-known local family from Pendeen.  Charles Valentine Le Grice as the widow’s new husband took it upon himself to refer to the fact that after he was married he had yew and Usticke inside and outside the house!  Whatever may be felt about the pun, the fact remains that the yew continues to be healthy.

Tim Le Grice

May is the perfect time to visit Trereife, Penzance to see the parterre in all its glory.  Check the website for opening times: