Chris and I have just come back from a week away in St. Ives in Cornwall with a one night pitstop in Devon on the first night. It was a wonderful, relaxing bubble of a week. I’m so immersed in designing and writing at the moment I don’t have time for more detailed articles but I do need to get some thoughts down, for me and to cast off into the ether, perhaps you might catch some.
We left the wonder burly of London’s first Houseplant Festival at the Garden Museum hosted by our friend Alice Vincent and arrived at our B&B in Devon. So peaceful by contrast to the city it felt like a dream to me, the surrounding area so untouched and dotted with fairy thatches. Roaring fire and honesty bar inside, native ferns and naturalised cyclamen outside.
As we walked the lane so many of my loved weeds overflowed the garden walls. While I was away I worked on a few articles related to my book and set up camp on a perch with a view, reminding me of the thatched cottage windowsill I grew up on, daydreaming. I could happily have stayed there all week.
Our garden, what is it for and what will it be?
The next day we drove through beautiful, rocky Dartmoor and down to the Lost Gardens of Heligan. We’ve been before and, wanting to return, today it was covered in mist-like clouds of heavy rain.
When we arrived in St. Ives, a place of memories for me from my childhood, the rains had cleared. It is the most beautiful place and the draw of the sea anywhere flattens the mind whatever its internal weather.
For much of the week I longed to sit looking out at the view from our hidy-hole bedroom.
It’s here that I found myself writing features and reading a copy of The Testaments by Margaret Atwood Chris had bought me on the first morning’s breakfast run from a bakery. A little tradition we have from last time we visited in 2017. Last time we were here I was in another job, creating garden designs in my spare time. We agreed that week I would jump off the career cliff to follow my heart. I quit my job the Monday I got back.
I’m going to place the below image from Tate St. Ives and attempt to explain its relevance. It’s not this one image I found inspiring but the full collection and what they represent.
Entering the gallery our little garden was, for some reason front of mind. Over the year I have toyed with our garden, feeling pressure to change it completely. As a design showcase, as a conservation showcase. Nothing quite felt right but then neither does its current iteration.
I’ve visited St. Ives on and off for the last thirty years and while I remember as a child – with Daniel and Benjamin’s family, my childhood best friends – the Tate being built, I don’t recall entering until this visit. Two years ago with Chris it was closed for an extension. This time, it was a reawakening. Micro-Tate, filled only with modernist art, largely local to the area.
I know some people struggle with the point of modern art style – I often do too – and all I can say is to look to what the artist was doing, usually it’s the process not what you see before you that is the finished piece. The energy of the experimentation going into those art works when they were created reminded me of what I’m doing with gardens. The whole point, the essence, not to create something abstract and modern but something pushing boundaries of the medium.
Barbara Hepworth’s studio and final home before she died is in St. Ives too and I do remember visiting this, this little place has shaped my life like very few other places. This really hasn’t changed in thirty years, even the same sleepy cat is there as two years ago.
Here I may as well confess that I have not been happy with our garden at all this year. At. All. Yes there have been some things that have done well, the various Persicaria, the palms and the Cleome ‘Violet Queen’ have rocketed skyward giving height beyond height – many things were better than ever. Who can complain? You guessed, I can and I will. It’s the edges I’ve hated, have dreaded, people seeing on our open day and various photo shoots. I felt it and while I didn’t draw attention to them I saw people felt it too. I want the garden to feel natural, like a clearing in a wood, except situated on another planet. Much like my head you might say. That bubble is burst the second you can see wooden ship lap fences. Despite planting a large number of exciting shrubs, they haven’t grown as fast as hoped.
I’ve felt real pressure this year, of opening the garden, the cameras and my own Instagram self-flagellation. Putting myself out there on social and open days is a path I know I have to go down if I want to continue to be open and sharing but as time goes on it feels a heavy responsibility and hard work at times. Another weight is my own belief that people expect a garden designer’s garden to be designed, a showcase. Ours isn’t, it’s a pre-us patio with my personal collection of plants and combinations to try. I’ve been feeling pushed – all self imposed – to change the garden to a showcase, perhaps I’ll still do this with the hard landscaping but the plants, no, I think I’ll keep going with whatever path it is leading me on. Many native plants but exotics too. I don’t know why but I feel there is an important message in the two. And the colours and textures I love, it’s taken years to push the plant palette to what it is and I love the smudges and shades, much like the Cedric Morris painting above.
Seeing the works of art reminded me to stay true to myself, to continue to adjust and experiment. Something snapped to reinvigorate what I have in our garden now, tropicals, weeds and wildflowers all blurring together. This year may have some downs but there were lots of ups.
In St. Ives town is a lovely little square, a mashup of bedding, hardy tropicals, native wildflowers and weeds. It’s worth pointing out that Cornwall is land of the weeds, they thrive in the high rainfall and humidity, lining walls and roofs. I was sad to see my favourite roof, entirely covered in a carpet of native ferns, had been stripped and replaced with new tiles.
Gurnard’s Head, a mustard yellow pub above a rocky outcrop was part of the reason we were back. A recommendation from our friends Angela and Nic. Incredible food and beforehand a walk out to sea with incredible views and wind battering against our faces, telling you you are are alive as you feel the wind on your skin.
After, we drove to the south coast to Godolphin, a medieval garden and home.
The next day, to Trebah.
Trebah garden is a perfect capture of Victoriana at its most flamboyant, it’s impossible to describe the valley of blue mophead hydrangea. It is beyond.
Next door’s Glendurgan garden is less talked about but has the superior beach; Trebah’s has been de-naturalised by a run of concrete, buildings and walls.
Back in St. Ives I was calmed by the peace of the light and sea, cloud formations and draw of the tide, the weeds and the Turnstones, birds I’ve only seen in this place. They motor around like windup toys, racing to your hand for food which is funny to watch if sad they’ve become trained like this.
On the last night we sat in a restaurant, lucky to have the window seat, eating beautiful food as the tide slowly drew in. At first sliding around the sand in a stretched hug before belly flopping across it all in one engulfing sweep.
For our final day, we broke up the long journey home with a stop at Knightshayes. So impressive we vowed to go back as our time there was cut short by heavy rain and the pull to visit Special Plants nursery in the Cotswolds.
This is a long and rambling blog post and if you made it this far give yourself a pat on your back. I started with some kind of point but all I can reward you with is that a break sometimes is as important as working hard. For focussing the mind, to see new things and, sometimes, to be nothing at all.