Words and images by Chris Tuff
One foot in the past, an eye to the future, Trelowarren adopts a unique model in continuing the legacy of this most magnificent of estates.
There is something special about the Lizard peninsula. It possesses a rugged, authentic charm and, for a relatively small land mass, a smorgasbord of landscapes and habitats. From the primeval grandeur of Kynance Cove, to the open expanse of heathland across the Goonhilly downs, and the narrow streets and thatched cottages of working fishing villages like Cadgwith and Coverack. Away from the stunning coastline the interior of the peninsula boasts even more. It is criss-crossed by verdant, tree-lined creeks that wind their way to the sailing waters of the Helford river. Immortalised in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Frenchman’s Creek it is a romantic, atmospheric, magical landscape with an air of tranquil and timeless beauty.
Situated on the south bank of the Helford river is one of the jewels in the crown of the Lizard, the Trelowarren Estate. When du Maurier first visited Trelowarren in the early 1930s she described it as ‘the most beautiful place imaginable’ and I believe she would say the same today. Steeped in more than 3,000 years of history, the estate covers some 1,000 acres of woodland, farmland and gardens. It is easy to see why it provided the inspiration and backdrop for Daphne du Maurier’s swashbuckling, gothic tale of love, political intrigue and smuggling, set during the reign of Charles II.
The estate has been in the hands of the Vyvyan family for more than 600 years and the current custodians are Sir Ferrers and Lady Vyvyan. Since inheriting the estate at the age of twenty-three, Sir Ferrers has brought it back from the brink of bankruptcy and revived its fortunes. With a foot in the past and an eye to the future Ferrers and Victoria have created a unique model for a country estate, taking on the enormous task of restoring the house and gardens to their former glory, an ongoing labour of love, but also creating a successful, sustainable, eco-holiday business.
The estate’s self-catering cottages are designed with sustainability in mind
In addition to the historic housing stock, which includes cosy, chocolate box, 16th century thatched cottages, elegant Regency houses and barn conversions, a range of sympathetically designed, high-quality holiday homes have been built. The new houses have impeccable eco credentials, constructed using natural building materials with as little embedded energy as possible. They are ‘super’ insulated and efficiently warmed by a district heating system, which is fuelled by a single bio-mass boiler. Most are supplied with water from springs and wells on the estate.
Sustainability and responsibility are watchwords at Trelowarren, which is why they have opted to offer timeshare on a range of properties. As Sir Ferrers explains: “Timeshare provides socially responsible tourism. The houses are occupied for forty weeks a year, bringing benefits to the wider local community and not standing empty as second homes. This also means they and their owners don’t contribute to the distortion of house prices in the area.”
Whilst there is an abundance of opportunities to enjoy the natural beauty and history of the estate, with woodland walks, an Iron-age fort and the Neolithic Fogou – a fascinating and mysterious underground tunnel and chamber – visitors and guests can also make use of the leisure and fitness facilities. Within the surrounds of an historic Walled Garden are the all-weather tennis court, heated ozone swimming pool, gym and spa. And, in the Stableyard there is also an art gallery featuring the work of an acclaimed collective of local artists, an impressive craft centre offering the best of locally produced ceramics, textiles, jewellery, sculpture and furniture and the New Yard Restaurant. NYR is one of my favourite restaurants, producing stunning dishes using local, seasonal Cornish ingredients as well as home-grown produce from their own walled garden. For my money it is up there with the best places to eat in Cornwall. After a superb lunch I take a Land Management and Conservation tour of the estate with Victoria.
One of the things that makes Trelowarren different is that it is not some twee, frozen-in-time, museum of an estate; it is a gutsy, real-life, hard-working estate that earns its keep. Much of the land is farmed, as it has been for centuries and land management and conservation are close to Ferrers and Victoria’s hearts. They are champions of progressive, sustainable farm management practices and the majority of the farmland is in managed Higher-Level Environmental Stewardship schemes. This places emphasis on wildlife conservation, maintaining and enhancing the character and quality of the landscape and protecting natural resources. Since much of the estate is wooded, the forestry is also ecologically managed to provide biomass and increase biodiversity.
One of the major environmental projects has been the restoration of an area of lowland heath, an increasingly scarce natural habitat for a diversity of flora and fauna, including rare plants, insects and reptiles. Cornwall has just over two per cent of the world’s heathland, which has been progressively lost to agriculture and development. Because of the unique geology of the Lizard, with its magnesium rich serpentine rocks and alkaline soil, it is perfect for heathland plants. Astonishingly, nearly half of British native flora flourishes here, including fifty-five rare and endangered plants and lichens, including the pygmy rush and golden hair lichen.
The Lizard, in particular the Goonhilly Downs, is also the only part of Britain in which the heather, Erica Vagans, the county flower of Cornwall, more commonly known as ‘Cornish heath’, grows. It is said that when Joseph of Arimathea arrived in Cornwall to trade for tin that he slept on a bed of Cornish heath.
To re-establish the heathland habitat, trees have been felled around the ‘double lodges’ entrance to the estate in order to open up the land, and the area is grazed by a small herd of ponies. Ponies tend not to eat the flowers, preferring to graze on the grass and gorse. Trelowarren is also home to a pioneering project to reintroduce red squirrels to the Cornish countryside. Once common in the UK, today the red squirrel population numbers approximately 120,000, with only around 15,000 in England. The last recorded sighting of a red squirrel in Cornwall was 1984 and without such reintroduction projects it is estimated that the red squirrel might be extinct on the UK mainland within 20 years. The Lizard and in particular the Trelowarren Estate are ideally suited to the project because of its relative isolation and ancient wooded valleys which provide the perfect red squirrel habitat. It is hoped that the initial breeding pairs will successfully reproduce and eventually establish a thriving population living in the wild on the Lizard.
There is much to love about the Trelowarren Estate in all seasons but what I love most is that it has not been restored to within an inch of its life and somehow sanitised and ‘Disneyfied’, if that is a word? It retains its rustic, historic charm. I love the fact that there is a surprise around every corner. It is quirky and individual. It supports a community that is alternative, arty and artisan and it has not succumbed to shiny corporateness. It is authentic, it is unique, it is slightly eccentric, but above all, it is honest and true to the vision of its owners. It is a shining, genuine gem in a jewelled setting.