Rootloose 10

Travels to the Past


by Derek Burch


For me, so much of traveling in England is reliving memories. It is not true that you can never go back. I am often able to soften the twenty-first century reality through a filter of nostalgia and wishful thinking to enjoy the warmth and the heart that I hope to find. Whatever the explanation, a second summer spent largely in England was everything for which I could have hoped.

I should like to revisit with you, two gardens that actually are dedicated to reviving the glories that once were a part of the everyday life of the owners. One is recreating the gardens as they once were, and handling many areas with the tools and equipment that would have been available. The other is taking the damaged remnants of years of neglect bordering on vandalism and creating something gloriously lush yet functional for a very small workforce.

The small-scale garden first, but, believe me there is nothing small-scale about the effort, or work, or dedication that is going into this one. The garden is in Devon, an hour or so from either coast, and is last remnant of a once-grand country estate. A relatively modern house sits inside a wall that is 14' tall on the north side and scales down to 8-10' on the south where it is an advantage in the winter to have a lower wall to allow the winter sun to get in. The enclosed garden is about 300' north of the site of Winsford Towers, the main house of the estate which is now completely gone. The lady of the house and her guest would come to the garden through a decorative gate at the end of a walk through an extensive orchard, which, sadly, is also now just a memory.

It is not strictly true to refer to the wall as a surround to the garden. It is on all three sides of the garden to the east of the present house, but on the west, the west wall was replaced by a series of greenhouses. One point which Michael, the owner, makes is that people's idea that the walls were to keep out the cold is not true. Solid structures act a windbreak for a distance equal to only about the height of the structure, and the wind whistles and swirls beyond that point, often doing a great deal of damage. As foresters know, a planting of mixed conifers and hardwoods is far more effective as a windbreak since they slow the wind but allow some through, and give protection for at least three times their height. It is true that the south faces of the wall allow some wonderfully mild sites, but Michael is sure that the protection that the walls were designed to give was protection from theft. Certainly the conditions for agricultural labourers in nineteenth.century England were very harsh, and an unguarded fruit or vegetable garden would have been an unbearable temptation to hungry countrymen.

The garden was a shambles when Michael's family bought it in 1991, with large parts of it so overgrown after it was "occupied" during the war ( there was a 40' long asbestos mess hut, concrete chicken houses, duck houses, kennels, and a pig sty) that the full extent of the grounds could not be seen. It was bought on the basis of the parts of the wall that could be seen, and the fact that the house was in good enough condition that it would not need any work done (to conflict with the work to be done on the garden! A keen sense of priorities at work here!)

What has been done since then is remarkable. Before dark on the day that they moved in, a double hedge of xCupressocyparis leylandii between the gate and the front door had been cut down, and were in a bonfire when the moving truck arrived the next day. (Sure, we all move into a new house carrying nothing but a chainsaw and a box of matches!) And this was just a flexing of the muscles for what was to come: Giant evergreens that had self-sown in the skeletons of the greenhouses, all the pigsties, nissen hits, chicken houses, mounds of used tyres, engine parts, kitchen equipment and the debris of a military camp that defies cataloguing.

Everything reusable is being reused: blocks from the pigsty as the base for a path, bricks dug and cleaned from "everywhere on the site" as a glorious curving path ending around a circular patio..

Paths were seen as the first priority since they get everyone around, but also define the beds and the position of other features. Then there were the decisions about what was left of the greenhouses.

The full range of 13 houses was felt to be more than the family needed or could handle, and the difficult choice faced of which to try to rejuvenate.
One of the houses, built against the south-facing wall in an early stage of rebuilding

The work is never over when it is too dark to see outside, and the evening job, for a long time, was tracing the greenhouse builder, running down catalogues, getting the word out to other clients of the builder that parts were needed, and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning to get the metalwork back into perfect shape as little by little the frames were rebuilt and the glazing added.

Like everything else about the property even contemplating the work involved in bringing any one back to life would have finished most people, but like everything else that has been done, every piece of ironwork, every hinge, every window frame was cleaned perfectly, and the houses that have been restored are as sound and immaculate as they were when first built.

Each visit to the garden shows more that has been accomplished, and everything is recorded in a website that traces the development since the garden came into the family. It is more than a straight narrative, branching into the philosophy of the design, and most recently the history of the original house and the family. It is well worth a visit to browse this record of amazing hard work - go to If this whets your appetite sufficiently, you should know that they have added two brand new b-and- b rooms, and the welcome is as warm as the winds outside coming off the moors can be cold.

The other window into history is Heligan, poignantly but accurately described as 'The Lost Garden" since it spent many years melting back into the countryside when the house to which it belonged lost a whole staff of gardeners to the Great War of 1914-18, and eventually the family who had lived there

The estate had more than 1000 acres in its Victorian heyday, and was self-sufficient to a large degree with productive woods, farms, orchards and gardens, and served by quarries, a brickworks ( the earliest in Cornwall dating from 1681), a flour mill, a sawmill and a brewery. It ranged over a long valley leading to the sea and the broad headlands that flanked it as well as sheltered areas inland. The house dating from 1603 was the seat of the Tremayne family, and successive generations of the family created more than 150 acres of gardens and ornamental woodlands with plants brought from all over the world by nineteenth century plant explorers.

The valley was the heart of the southern garden, with the stream dammed to form a series of ponds that were fringed with tree ferns and palms that thrived in the mild air sheltered by the collections of trees and shrubs.
Gunnera and tree ferns enrich the edges of the stream

The northern part of the garden and the model farm were a triumph of production with extensive walled gardens for vegetables and flowers for the family and staff, and glasshouses for the tropical fruits that the family prized.

When work began to restore the gardens in 1991, after about 70 years of neglect and damage intensified when the house was used by the American army during the Second World War, very little of even the outline of various areas could be seen. Today, after an incredible renaissance, much of the glory of the old garden has been restored. The complete neglect had one good feature in that the very lack of work in that time means that the garden is truly a Victorian garden, rather than one in which the integrity of the period had been gradually lost by improvements through the years.

Much of the operation now is authentic to the period, in the spirit of the time if not completely to the letter. Many varieties of the crops are those which would have been grown, or are those which a conscientious Head gardener would have brought in. There is almost no use of modern chemical pest control, although some of the Victorian chemicals have been shown to be so dangerous that they too have been banned. The walled gardens now serve the kitchens of the shop on the grounds, making for a much more diverse menu than one might expect from a public garden.

On the other side of the coin is the enormous freedom to do things correctly that having plenty of money from the visitors brings.This is reflected in the beautiful workmanship to be seen on the repairs and the newer structures, and the sense of quality and caring that overlays the whole garden.
An earth sculpture (of medern vintage) in the woods  

It is a wonderful day out, and I keep going back, even passing up another trip to the Eden Project a few miles away this summer to spend more time in the lost and now found garden.

Read more about the garden in the official site ( - don't miss the two magic lantern shows on this anniversary page. Another good account which also deals with the recent history is at

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