Hazel McHaffie

Lost Gardens of Heligan

Childhood haunts

Wow! It’s not every day your home is on TV described as having the capacity to become ‘an international treasure’. But mine was last Thursday.

Tamar ValleyI grew up in Cornwall on the Pentillie Estate with a grandstand view of the Tamar valley from the back of our house. At the time, a largish chunk of the county as well as Pentillie Castle was owned by the Coryton family – first ‘The Captain’, then young ‘Major Jeffrey’, as we knew them. It was a storybook setting. With its fair share of intriguing characters: the beloved heir to the estate killed in action in 1942; a baby who was neither fully male nor female; a lad with a glass eye (which he occasionally took out for our entertainment/terror); a chauffeur living secretly with a woman not his wife  … they all captured my imagination. But back then we children led a sheltered life, surrounded by loveliness and grandeur.

Some years later the castle underwent a major facelift. Sons joined the workforce alongside their fathers. Modern gadgets crept in slowly. And then in 1980 … the Major died. He was only 57. High drama ensued. His childless widow, Kit, closed the gates to the 400-year-old castle and forbade everyone, even closest relatives, from visiting. She became a complete recluse. Rumours and stories abounded; a veil of mystery hung over the family and the estate. The embargo against visitors remained in force for almost thirty years, and the estate slowly crumbled around ‘Mrs Jeffrey’. Like something out of Dickens, eh? Only this was all too real.

When Pentillie’s Miss Havisham eventually died, Jeffrey’s cousin, Ted Spencer, inherited it. A requirement of his inheriting was that he change his name to Coryton. He did, but as a consequence his father disowned him. (Shades of Georgette Heyer.)

The castle of my childhoodComing into possession of an historic castle and 2000 acres of prime Cornish land might sound like a fairytale, but in this case it came with an outstanding tax bill of £6 million, on top of the burden of the crippling funds needed to get it repaired and restored. The family locked themselves in the castle and seriously contemplated selling it. But somehow the spell of Pentillie was stronger than the emotional pain and financial burden.

They called in Ruth Watson of Country House Rescue fame to appraise and advise. She was typically scathing about many things, but to the camera she admitted: ‘Everything about this estate is magical.’ And watching the programme I realised perhaps more than I’d ever done, that indeed it was. Magical and beautiful and unique. And it was where I grew up; in the shadow of that great castle. Because my father was the head gardener on the estate in its heyday. But as children we took all that beauty and splendour rather for granted. The magnificent Lime Walk, the fragrant American Gardens, the sweeping views of the Tamar valley – they were our norm.

Best WalkThe gardens my father nurtured with such care and skill, in which we children worked in our school holidays, are in a sad state of neglect now, and it was painful enough to see them on film never mind in reality. But Ruth Watson could see their potential and she was bowled over. Yes, the castle could become ‘a national treasure’, she declared, but the gardens had the potential to be ‘an international treasure’, eclipsing even the Lost Gardens of Heligan further down in Cornwall. Wow again!

Watching her in action throughout the series, I wanted to dive in and rescue the Corytons, never mind the castle! OK, to the viewers she lauded the family as exuding warmth and enthusiasm and energy. But Ted’s wife, Sarah, was reduced to tears by her harsh criticism: she was too emotional, too parochial, too limited in outlook. Why shouldn’t the poor woman feel emotional responses to what was going on? Pentillie represented much personal anguish to her. Why shouldn’t she call on local expertise in refurbishing the bedrooms? Good things do come out of Cornwall!

In this week’s programme Ruth revisited Pentillie to see if they had taken her advice. I was on the edge of my seat. But she was impressed. Yes, actually impressed. The refurbished castle looked fabulous. Visiting figures were phenomenal. In just two days they had 5000 people visiting the gardens! My dad would have been incredulous. And horrified. In this state?

Actually I knew already how enterprising the Corytons have been. My Westcountry brothers have been involved in person. And I’m on the mailing list for the regular newsletter. They’ve even organised literary events there. But it was still heartening to see Ruth Watson admitting their decisions hadn’t been wrong even though they’d defied her advice. All power to them, say I.

Nevertheless it still feels weird to have my old home paraded for the nation. We rarely saw anyone on the mile-long drive from the main road. the entrance to the estateThe sign said PRIVATE; private it most certainly was. Sir James Tillie in his monument on Mount Ararat was our preserve. We weeded and trimmed and swept and harvested to please our father and The Captain; not hordes of strangers. But as Ted Coryton said, it would be selfish to keep all this magnificence just for the family; it should be enjoyed by everyone. And the generosity of spirit behind his tireless efforts to redress a great wrong are reaping their rewards.

One day I hope to return. Who knows, there might even be a story there somewhere for me.

, , , , , , , ,