A tea plantation, swaying palms, giant banana trees… who knew Cornwall was so exotic? Welcome to a magical tour of the southwest's horticultural highlights
Looking for something a little exotic? It may not come first to mind, but Cornwall has the most to reveal on that front in the UK. We’re talking gardens, of course: oversize 15ft-tall Brazilian rhubarb unfurling down a steep ravine to a private sandy beach; a tea plantation stretching across a grand old pile; jungle-like fronds and palm trees generously doting the landscape.
Long before the contemporary success stories of Tim Smit’s Eden Project - with its steaming biomes featuring out-of-place banana trees and umbrella bamboos in an old china clay pit near St Austell – or his restoration of the Lost Gardens of Heligan close by, the county had those marauding Victorians to thank for transforming it into today’s outlandish landscape.
Still, it’s a bit of shock to see such tropical plants thriving here; it may be a few degrees hotter than the rest of England, but it’s not that hot. Yet there are some 60 gardens throughout the county, each a flourishing testament to its climatic prowess. And the best thing? They aren’t restricted just to summer blooming, which means it’s easy to tour gardens here out of season – and avoid being called an emmet, the Cornish word for ant that doubles as a descriptor for the 4.6 million tourists who visit here every year. (We’re not grockles, remember – that’s used only on the other side of the River Tamar, which divides Cornwall from the rest of England.)
Basing ourselves at a converted self-catering cottage on the 1,000-acre Trelowarren estate near the Lizard – all the romance of a grand estate and its gardens without the worry of looking after it – we head out on day trips. Along with fabulously memorable place names such as Lusty Glaze, Come to Good or Pityme, we’re soon bombarded by signposts featuring three Cornish prefixes: Tre, which means village or homestead; Pol, equalling stream; and Pen, indicating headland.
The first horticultural hit is near our cottage in Mawnan Smith, en route to the well-heeled harbour of Falmouth. Cultivated with seeds from all over the world (it has a long history of keen gardeners), Trebah is a showcase for exotic yuccas (from Central America), England’s tallest Trachycarpus palms (China) and that Brazilian rhubarb mentioned before. Lap up the vista down the ravine to a pristine sandy beach that, in 1944, was used by 7,500 US infantrymen, their tanks and boats en route to the D-Day battle. If the history and gardens don’t wow the kids, Trebah’s Tarzan’s camp will. What’s more, the climbing ropes and paraglide virtually guarantee they’ll sleep on the car journey home.
Our next destination is the 550-acre estate of Godolphin, 20 minutes away near Helston and part of the recently designated World Heritage Site, with its old copper and tin mining sites. Via a long drive and fern-clad walls, we pass the Italian-style elongated house - punctuated with grand 17th-century Tuscan colonnades – and find ourselves surrounded by swathes of bluebells, formal 14-century gardens and terraces and rows of ancient sycamores.
Over at the 14th-century Tregothnan near Truro, we luxuriate in Britain’s only tea plantation and other Darjeeling rarities, which spread out across the estate. Having grown the first camellia – the source of tea – ornamentally outside for the past two centuries, the estate has been plucking the first leaf at dawn and yielding tea for the past seven or so years. Its shop has some of the best goodies on offer, including classic tea sachets starting from £3.99.
A few miles away (locals are quick to tell us that you’re never more than 10 minutes from a garden in Cornwall) is Trelissick near Feock, where we happily get lost in the robust rhododendrons and azaleas in the 20-acre gardens. Heading out into the more open parkland, we peer down to the serene Fal estuary - and one of the top 10 ferry crossings in the world, the King Harry. Check out its pretty route over to the unspoilt Roseland peninsula and the oh-so smart Tresanton Hotel.
Heading an hour and a half further up the county, through confined lanes, we are faced with an onslaught of Himalayan magnolias at the late-Victorian 900-acre estate of Lanhydrock near Bodmin. While one in five tourists heads to a garden during their holiday in Cornwall, the wide-open spaces ensure you’ll never feel crowded.
Eating is easy in Cornwall (and most gardens have adequate eateries), but back at Trelowarren we are also spoilt by the New Yard restaurant, housed in an expansive converted stable on the estate (four courses from £30pp).
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to visit Cornwall before this Victorian invasion. Plenty of hedgerows and pastures, but nary a hint of the exotic magnolia, camellia or palm trees… I’m doubly thankful that I'm here in 2009 when I spy, on the walls of Trelowarren offices, a framed notice stating that one Cornishman was sentenced to four months' hard labour in 1847. His crime? Stealing just one oyster.