From the seventeenth century

– Posted in: Garden Adventures, Garden Visits

Godolphin House in Cornwall, is a relatively recent National Trust acquisition. A great house until the 17th century when the money began to run out, it never got ‘modernized’ by Capability Brown or his cohorts, so retains old formal features. Previous owners popped in the old rose bush and tree peony but little else, or at least not much else has survived a period of neglect. The primroses have gone mad as they do in Cornwall, self-seeding everywhere, loving the wet, the mild winters and cool summers which gives them the long growing season they like; truly a flower of the Atlantic fringe, where the weather is remarkably similar through the year. This is a pavement of stones set into the ground. For some reason primroses flourish here better than grass.

Why the odd pink one I don’t know. Possibly because primroses-gone-wild in gardens have some genes left over from crossing with garden polyanthus. Seems pretty universal in ‘feral’ populations.


A garden with lots of ‘fossilized’ garden features, of box and yew which were clearly once shaped through regular pruning, but which have now grown beyond their alloted place and form. These might have been topiary animals for all we know. But certainly a hedge.


And this was a hedge, and yet more primroses.

There is an odd purity about this garden, it is like the ghost of a formal garden; it has been tidied up, but not ‘restored’ or National-Trustified. One can see the bones of the place. There was no doubt much fussiness here: parterres and coloured gravel, but now it is just these skeletal hedges and run-away formal features. Probably nicer.

I wonder what these yews used to be. They are so regularly spaced they were clearly part of a formal garden feature once, but have liberated themselves to become trees instead.


Part of the old house was demolished about two hundred years ago, but bits of masonry turn up in the garden to shore up soil or trees.

This reminds me of Angkor Wat, where the jungle swallows up masonry.

There are no plans, I’m relieved to hear, to ‘restore’ the garden, just keep on top of what a careful clearing operation has revealed. Its an interesting place to go to to learn how to ‘read’ an old garden.


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Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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John April 14, 2012, 12:01 pm

Great Post! We were there four years ago. There is something primeval about this house and garden. Every aspect is worthy of note. I recall lots of bluebells and climbing on the local hills in wet, windy weather.

Flâneur Gardener April 14, 2012, 11:35 pm

I like it when a garden is completely restored to what it – probably – looked like at a certain point in history, but… There’s an effortless elegance to formality that has faded and gone slightly off its original plan; it looks like a very pleasant space, and I agree that it is nice that they will not try to “do up” this garden.

DAY April 15, 2012, 6:26 am

Angkor Wat, indeed!
It is fun to discover a spot where well meaning busybodies haven’t been given free rein.

Theresa Forte April 15, 2012, 7:31 am

Fascinating read – it’s an interesting way to look at an old garden! Thanks for sharing!

carolyn mullet April 15, 2012, 10:31 am

I like that you wandered about suggesting answers to the questions the remaining plants raise. That’s the way I go through gardens, new and old.

Elaine Sawyer April 16, 2012, 8:35 am

Great post! Sometimes I think about what my gardening will look like in the future…I hope some of it lasts!

Jeff April 19, 2012, 4:07 pm

I’m a bit of a tidy freak but I can still appreciate the beauty of places like this and the depths of Helligan.

The Intercontinental Gardener April 29, 2012, 8:32 am

Beautiful, even if a little ghostly. And such a rare opportunity to see time really working on a garden, without the new layers.

Angela at Frugal Gardening April 29, 2012, 2:21 pm

What a unique garden. It is perfect ! Thanks for sharing.

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