The National Collection of Magnolias at Caerhays
on Caerhays history
A hundred and fifty years ago a visitor to Caerhays would have found a ruined mock Castle surrounded by a Deer Park. Caerhays has been lived in by two families since 1370. The Trevanions from 1370 to 1840. The Williams family purchased the property in about 1855. The first owner, Michael Williams, Mine Owner and Banker, died in 1858 so it is highly unlikely he ever lived at Caerhays.
A great deal had to be done to the property and his son, John Michael, a man with international mining interests, carried through even more repairs. His eldest son and successor, J.C. Williams, was born at Pengreep in 1861 and succeeded to the property on his father’s death in 1880. For a few years John Michael’s widow lived at Caerhays until her death in 1884 which, in turn, was the same year that J.C. Williams married his cousin Mary Christian. It would appear therefore that it was not until 1892 that Caerhays became a proper home for the Williams family.
As a result Caerhays missed the excitement of the Indian plant discoveries of Wallich and the later introductions of Sir John Hooker from Sikkim. The first Cornish gardens to try out these new arrivals were Carclew and, later, Heligan.
J C Williams
J.C. Williams and his cousin and friend, P.D. Williams of Lanarth, became members of the Royal Horticultural Society in about 1892/93. J.C. Williams had become attracted to the gardening ideas of William Robinson and was beginning to harbour ambitions for making a wild garden at Caerhays but, in 1897, he was diverted by a new interest; namely that of daffodil breeding. If J.C. Williams became interested in something he was not one to take half measures. His friendship with the Reverend George Engleheart began in 1897 and was very opportune as Engleheart had started to show off his work as a pioneer on daffodil hybridising. JCW was a heavy purchaser of these new varieties and they formed the chief basis for his future hybridisations. The other basic varieties he used for plant breeding were Lulworth, Monarch and Weardale Perfection, coloured representations of which had featured in William Robinson’s magazine, ‘The Garden’.
J.C. Williams only named one daffodil variety himself, the rest were named by other people and they can be found in the New International Daffodil Register.
J.C. Williams was a very private person and prized his privacy. It is almost certain that he was not very pleased when William Robinson visited Caerhays in 1899 whilst J.C. Williams was away and described developments being made with Rhododendrons, Bamboos, Tree Ferns etc. The article was signed with a large ‘V’ which possibly showed that he thought getting into Caerhays was a triumph.
The next stage was the arrival in Veitch’s Nursery of the first new rhododendrons from China which had been collected by E.H. Wilson. It is then that the subsequent debate that must have occurred as to where these new varieties, which held great potential for British gardens, were to be tested. Caerhays was chosen. Many of the original Wilson species and plants from this time can be seen in the garden. The biggest cluster is in the Big Quarry which visitors will see when they come down the hill when leaving the garden (that is if they follow the suggested blue route around this garden!).
Mr Wilson continued to explore China but changed his employers leaving Veitch’s Nurseries and going to work for the Arnold Arboretum which is outside Boston, Massachusetts. At that time, the Arboretum was under the management of the greatest expert of the new Asiatic plants, Professor Charles Sprague Sargent.
Wilson remained in close contact with J.C. Williams and must have told the Professor about Caerhays and the way Chinese plants were being tested.
So it was in 1911 that plants arrived from the Arboretum some of which visitors may come across in their garden wanderings today.
Liquidambar formosana var. monticola
Magnolia sargentiana (not sargentiana robusta)
Plans must have been put in hand for Professor Sargent to visit Caerhays which he did.Alas his choice of dates were very unfortunate. He came to Caerhays at the end of July 1914 and the first World War broke out on August 4th.
J.C. Williams thought that a BRITISH Plant Hunter should be employed to explore other areas of China and that British gardens should be the prime beneficiary. After consulting with Kew Royal Botanic Garden and Edinburgh Botanic Garden such a man was discovered and he was the great George Forrest. He had been working for A.K Bulley who ran Bees Nursery in Cheshire but he wished to have a wider remit for plant collection.
His first expedition after this change over took place between 1912 – 1914.
JCW was not completely mesmerised by Rhododendrons and asked for Forrest to look for new Rubi-a group of plants that was engendering some excitement at the time. To emphasise the variety of Forrest’s remit it is interesting to note that the first Forrest introduction to receive acclaim from a wide audience was Primula helodoxa.
On page 166 of the journal of the RHS Primula Conference held in April 1913 “P. helodoxa”, wrote Professor Bailey Balfour, “is the latest of Forrest’s species. It was collected in 1912 for J.C. Williams and should be in our gardens this year. It is a magnificent plant of strong growth producing many whorls of large dark yellow flowers”.
The description of the proceedings of this conference is truly amazing.
(1) for the great number of Primulas listed
(2) the wealth and length of the papers presented to a one day conference
JCW’s first two years with Forrest had been happy and successful but the coming of the war, and the high taxation which accompanied it, meant the cost of future expeditions had to be shared out by syndicates of gardeners. Caerhays was still to play it’s part in helping to raise new introductions in the years ahead, chiefly rhododendrons in the period 1917-1922 and other plants in the expeditions of 1924-26. The chief legacy of this last period which will startle the fortunate visitor was the Michelia doltsopa plants.
J.C. Williams’s plant interests kept on widening – in 1919 and the years that followed Oaks (Quercus) started to arrive.
The 1920’s saw JCW take an interest in Camellias and Fuchsias. It was at this stage that the first cross between Camellia japonica and Camellia saluensis was made. The resultant hybrids took the name x williamsii and, in the next 75 years, literally thousands of different named x williamsii hybrids have been bred all around the world. The two old original plants still just survive today against the castle wall. It was the hybrid vigour resulting from this cross that turned the camellia from being a tender rich man’s conservatory plant into the hardy, floriferous garden plant which has such universal appeal today.
In 1935 his health began to fail and he died in 1939 at the age of 78.
Evacuees at Caerhays
The new owner was Charles Williams, M.P., a keen gardener with a very good eye for blending colours together when erecting stands at shows. He found that he faced huge problems – Death Duties were a cause for great worry. The war came and upset everything even more. A school from the East End of London took over the Castle so that Charles Williams and his wife Mary had to camp in it. Invasion scares, food scarcity and petrol rationing did not make things easy but it was the garden that faced the biggest threat. The young gardeners left to fight. Those who remained were in their late 50’s or early 60’s and did not have the benefit of todays chainsaws or allan scythes. The garden was a large one and the weeds and brambles had been very robust indeed.
It fell to Charles Williams when the House of Commons was in recess, to work vigorously at the weekends with his old fashioned hand scythe to cut and cut again the army of potential destroyers.
It may seem to be an exaggerated description but weeds can take control very quickly. So he saved the garden. After the war some of the young staff came back. Planting was resumed on a small scale. The Chinese plants put out in the 1920’s and 1930’s were beginning to reach maturity and the great excitement was being endangered by the display of deciduous tree magnolias. Every year the trees grew bigger and the displays more impressive. In 2005 they still do.
In 1955 Charles Williams died. Again a period of entrenchment occurred as even bigger tax bills were faced but the future of the garden was never in any doubt. A magnificent staff have improved it year on year and there have been frequent changes and set backs. For example we have not had a cold winter since the early 1960’s. We all recall that too well. Lesson 1, always know who your plumber is and where he lives! In 1962/63 the damage to plants was dreadful.
Warm winters meant garden pests and bugs thrived. Drought in the 1970’s weakened greatly the more mature Beech trees and older large Rhododendrons. The Great Gale of January 1990 took out 20% of the garden in one night. The carnage was appalling. Caerhays has indeed paid the price for growing champion sized Nothofagus trees. When these fell they destroyed plants growing in large areas. It was very fortunate that at this depressing juncture the writer’s son, Charles, appeared on the scene. He was already running the new Burncoose Nursery outside Gwennap on the main A393 Falmouth – Redruth Road. He took charge and the mess was soon cleared up and the new areas replanted but it was a fearful incident.
There have always been threats to a garden. Now we have ‘Sudden Oak Death’ (SOD) and the excitement that this has produced. One of the qualities of this new age in which we live is for ministries to take hasty and drastic action very quickly as soon as the problem appears. Rhododendron ponticum has been identified as a potential source of Sudden Oak Death in trees so many clumps of ponticum have been cut doomed to extinction and cut down. The lessons of Foot and Mouth have sadly not been learnt.
What can destroy a garden like Caerhays very quickly is to destroy the windbreak that surrounds it – it is put there to keep the wind out.
It is for this season Rhododendron ponticum is there. So mass ponticum destruction will let the wind on to Caerhays as it’s replacement as a windbreak will take many years to become effective.
Very little thought was given to the effects of knee jerk reaction.
An old friend used to say “deary, things are never as bad as they seem”. He has always proved right in the past and one hopes it will continue to in this case.
Visitors will wish to know what has happened since 1955 and what is planned for the future.
The first few years after 1955 were again periods of retrenchment but soon replanting resumed. Many tree Magnolias were put out at that time. In the early 1970’s the garden had a happy visit from the great American Camellia enthusiasts Milo Rowell and Maynard Munger. They encouraged us to grow new strains of the new japonica Camellias which had been bred in the USA. These are now showing their paces. Since 1990 many new plants are now showing what they can do.
Jaimie Parsons, Philip Tregunna & Roy Lancaster
In 1996 a milestone was passed with the retirement of Philip Tregunna who had worked all his life in this garden and been Head Gardener for forty years. Luckily he has not disappeared and still helps the estate and the Williams family in many ways. His advice and experience he shares with great generosity.
His successor, Jaimie Parsons, took over in 1996. He had been aware of the estate most of his life. He assumed the helm at a time of enormous challenge. We have replanted large sections of 2 nearby woods which it is hoped visitors will enjoy in years to come. The major thrust of recent years has been to choose and to grow the best of the growing host of the new Magnolias which now form the NCCPG national magnolia collection at Caerhays.
Charles has also noticed that one of the chief beneficiaries of the warmer times we now enjoy has been the podocarpus family. Podocarpus salingus has always been spectacular at Caerhays but the podocarpus collection has now become a considerable feature at Caerhays in its own right and now new Podocarpi are growing with vigour especially along the Hovel Cart Road.
Caerhays has always been a plants man’s garden i.e. one where good specimens of interesting (and at times spectacular) plants grow. It is the opposite of the formal garden.
Under Jaimie Parsons leadership, it is hoped that this garden here will be enjoyed by an ever increasing number of people.
The House is opened for a short spell in the Spring.
Firstly it is a home. The contents show the ceaseless accumulations of its residents over the past 140 years. The geography of the house makes it impossible to give unlimited tours to large numbers of people at any one time so the size of each party is restricted to 12/15 people.
There are collections on display and the displays alter year by year but include Victorian Jugs, the crockery used for running the House (19th Century Houses were very labour intensive), the Bric-a-Brac of an Edwardian Billiard Room and much more.
Any house, large or small, depends upon the constant vigilance of its owner and you will see the results of the unremitting hard work of the staff in keeping everything clean, keeping wind and water out of the House and keeping at bay the ever present danger of destructive rot and termites. Over the years the House has been blessed by a long line of selfless and hard working people. It is hoped that their hard work will give pleasure to visitors as they wander around.
Outside the front door is a Porte Cocherre, a handy enclosed area used by people when alighting from their carriages. (One hundred yards away on each side of the entrance were places where carriages could be turned; one is known as the four-in-hand).
Details of the House tour have not been reproduced so as not to spoil the enjoyment of some elements of the tour.
As you leave the house with its aura of foli de grandeur, you may not have a very high regard for John Bettesworth Trevanion or for the extravagance of the home he built. However, he was only 21 years old when he came to Caerhays in 1801. It is as well to recall one of the few opinions we have of his contemporaries who described him as a ‘complete man of fashion in the best sense of the word and without anything frivolous or effeminate’. The quotation comes from the history of the House of Commons 1790-1820. If you visit Caerhays Parish Church you will find two monuments. One is a statue of a seaman in black – he was a naval officer who served under Nelson at Trafalgar and died in a shipwreck of Norway – he was John Bettesworth’s brother. The deep hold and affection for Caerhays of the Trevanion family can be glimpsed in the plaque near the old harmonium which was put up a few years after the departure of the Trevanions to Paris.
Caerhays Parish Church