Words by Rebecca Hawkey
A once forgotten wilderness finds its place in the present day with sustainable farming at its heart.
Photography by Alex Brier
Digging into the bygone days of The Trelowarren Estate is no easy feat; with over one thousand acres of land that have been owned by the Vyvyan family for almost 600 years, there is a lot to explore. In the 19th century, Richard Vyvyan, desperate to impress one of Queen Victoria’s nieces, poured his passion into the aesthetic of the grounds, and whilst the buildings of Trelowarren are a sight to behold, it’s the gardens and grounds that hold onto history. The entrance is effortlessly captivating. A seemingly endless driveway that has been unchanged for decades, taking you past the wild ponies that graze on the heathland, past the fields of untamed grass that ripples in the wind, finally taking you through the intricate Restoration Gates, delivering you to what feels like the heart of The Trelowarren Estate.
The Walled Garden sits at its heart, a one-acre haven guarded by the original brick fortification, softened by plum trees (Prunus domestica) trailing the walls that burst into life in the summer months. It has become a restoration project for The New Yard Restaurant, who lease the buildings and garden from the estate. This is somewhere visitors to Trelowarren can immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, and tastes the garden has to offer. A year into the project, having started in 2021, the restaurant and garden now work harmoniously to pair plate and plant, foraging produce that inspires their unique and ever-changing supper night menus. Head Gardener Jenny Cucco has been integral from the start, and with such an immeasurable task to undertake, it was, and still is, her devotion for sustainable agriculture that has driven it to where it is today. A fully functioning, regenerative ecosystem that is in harmony with nature.
Left two images by Rebecca Hawkey | Right by Alex Brier
I first visited the garden when this project began. Carefully treading through the dishevelled archway and seeing the overgrown jungle before me, I didn’t know where they were going to begin. A greenhouse consumed by thorns, barely a pathway visible to reach it even if you wanted to. An insurmountable to-do list for the number of hands they had available. The wilderness had well and truly taken over – and taken back – the landscape.
Fortunately for the team they had a strong start. Not only was the soil healthy enough to plant in, and the greenhouse useable, the thirteen-foot-high walls protected all this from the elements over the years. They also look like they were built in the not-so-distant past; their shell has held up remarkably well, given the lack of maintenance over the past several decades. “These are the crème de la crème of walled gardens,” says Jenny. “In other gardens, they would quite often, in order to save money and time, do a serpentine construction. The wall would be jagged, like a zig-zag, with the single skin wall handling the elements much better than a straight single skin wall.”
This is not the case at Trelowarren, with the walls over a foot in depth no expense was spared in their construction, protecting the gardens against the wildest of the Cornish weather. Their grandiosity is clear to see due to the demolition of a section of the south side wall, taken down during the Second World War in order to provide shelter and solace for soldiers, which was then left to be claimed by nature and yet to be rebuilt. All of this just adds to the spirit of The Walled Garden, stories entrenched in the very walls.
Photography by Alex Brier
During the summer months, the flowers were in bloom, colours bursting, wildlife flourishing in the utopia that had been salvaged, life was moving again. They had reclaimed this unloved land and a plan was slowly taking shape with the kitchen already making full use of the produce that was available. In the bitter blue-sky days of February, I went back. A stark change in temperature from those almost tropical Eden scenes not so long ago, with even more change happening inside those walls. A satisfying crunch underfoot meant that fifty tonnes of gravel had been painstakingly laid for the pathway, in preparation for the eagerly awaited opening day in March. The layout had also changed, as it always will with the regenerative, no-dig system Jenny had put in place.
She explains: “We are trying to include some permaculture principles here. This term was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holgreen back in the ’70s. It’s a lot of indigenous living and going back to our traditional farming roots. Not looking at tilling the soil or planting a bunch of annuals, but looking at permanent sources of food. Lots of fruit trees and bushes, and whilst we haven’t made a start on that yet, we have used many other ideologies. Intercropping is just one example, where you plant all your crops mixed together. This reduces the chance of specific diseases and it helps with pest control. It’s better to diversify this way, breaking up the soil cycles and increasing the range of pollinators that you attract. The animals play a big part in that also, helping us to fertilise the soil. We have two Kunekune pigs, native from New Zealand, they are very clean animals and help us keep the ground down. They are called Hebe and Basil, and everyone loves them!”
They are certainly a lovable addition to the garden, enjoying as much attention and belly rubs as they can garner, even fulfilling the age-old cliché of rolling in the mud to get one. Their value comes from digging for forgotten or leftover plant roots, which they thoroughly enjoy. They have quite the nose for a delectable treat and do not like anything standing in their way, including the gate to their pen, which I carelessly did not close properly. Proceed Hebe and Basil making short work of charging their way through it and out to the veritable snacks beyond, with myself and Jenny coaxing them back with mountains of food. Safe to say the pen will be tightly shut when the visitors arrive!
Photography by Alex Brier
Contiguous to the pig and chicken pen and the rotating crop bed, they have a polytunnel, a greenhouse, and a composting system. The seventy-foot polytunnel is a new addition to the garden and has been extremely useful over the winter. “We will be able to fit nearly 100 tomato plants in there this year, including heirloom and heritage varieties for the kitchen to use. We are going to mulch the inside of the tunnel with seaweed when we are ready to rotate the crops from winter to spring/summer. Seaweed gives lots of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus; we forage a small amount each year from our local high waters where it is safe and environmentally sustainable to do so, and what we don’t use for mulch, we use to create our own fertilisers.
We let it ferment in its own water, the longer you let it ferment the higher the concentration. You can use it almost 50:1 when it’s been sitting for a good couple of months.” This is just one example of where the team here really does make use of what is naturally available. She goes on to explain: “We also use nettle feed, as we had a lot in the garden. Even with your most common weeds you can pull them out, immerse them in water, leave them to ferment and you’ve got yourself fertilisers. What is bad for the garden, can also be really good for the garden if you know how to use it. It’s there for a reason and if you give it back to the soil you end up solving two problems.” By keeping techniques as natural as possible you are limiting the amount of unnatural, external minerals/by-products that enter the food chain.
If sourcing their own seaweed fertilisers from our very own Cornish beaches wasn’t remarkable enough, Jenny also goes on to explain the plan they have in place to eventually use recycled IBC tanks in order to catch rainfall, of which we have plenty down here in the south west. This will reduce the reliance on their mains water supply and is one hundred percent natural. Whilst this approach will help support the crops on their journey to harvest, it helps to start their life off on the right foot by using peat-free compost; peat is a natural material that forms the foundation for vital habitats around the world, and any product that uses it comes at the cost of damage to those ecosystems. In the realm of horticulture, it is becoming increasingly unpopular, and at The Walled Garden, it isn’t used at all.
Seeing all these processes come together first-hand is remarkable, inspirational, and informative. Not only are they putting into practice principles that are beneficial to the environment, they are also educating children and adults alike through their school trip initiative. Last summer they had their first visit from a local primary school, where they took small groups for a tour of the gardens and gave them the chance to get their hands dirty, try vegetables fresh out of the ground, and of course, say hello to the animals. “We get them to try whatever is growing at that time, and no matter what I offered the kids they all put their hands up! They loved it.” This is just a testament to how important this conversation is. Educating children while they are young about the journey that produce goes through before they see it on the shelves, and eventually on their plates, has never been more important. Climate change linked to agriculture is a topic under much scrutiny at the moment, so it feels like the right time to bring sustainable farming to the forefront of what the next generation should be learning about, and The New Yard Restaurant are doing just that.
Left Photography by Alex Brier | Right Photography by Rebecca Hawkey
Supporting and supplying the restaurant kitchen may be the overall purpose here, but the garden provides the New Yard team, volunteers, and visitors with so much more. A chance to learn, to experiment, to escape, and explore. In the past year, the garden has been through a radical change from where it started out, and I know I am not the only one who is impatiently awaiting the warmer months, in order to see the garden burst into life once more.