Cornwall’s National Trust houses merge the magic of the past with the wonder of the present, through their fascinating histories and blooming gardens.
For 125 years, the National Trust has worked to preserve heritage, nature and wildlife so that it can be enjoyed by everybody. In Cornwall, that means taking care of the selection of magnificent houses and gardens which are dotted across the county. Cornwall is rich in history, and this is best explored through the beautiful buildings which once housed many of its most iconic families. Each house tells stories of the past, and these stories are kept alive through the continued use and upkeep of the buildings and surrounding areas. The gardens burst with life and new plants blossom with the seasons, and many of the original features of each estate continue to be used, keeping the essence of the houses alive.
Trelissick is a regal manor house which looks out onto woodland gardens and maritime views of the Fal estuary. Situated in Feock, near Truro, the Grade II listed house is set on its own peninsula and stands proudly atop a rolling hill. The house is atmospheric and enticing, with a diverse history which is still being uncovered. In fact, it is described as a house of secrets. Trelissick’s history is a fascinating tale of prosperity, collapse and change, being remodelled by each of its five owners. The journey of discovery began when National Trust volunteer Mike came across an old tin box full of unlabelled keys. This began the unlocking of history, and to this day the various keys are being tried on the many doors and cupboards of Trelissick house. Discovered by chance was Trelissick’s ‘lost room’, a room which is completely sealed off from the rest of the house and can only be accessed through the floorboards of an under-stairs cupboard. The house also features a secret tunnel, and mysteries such as these only add to the building’s exciting aura. The surrounding gardens offer equal potential for exploration. Visitors can wander through the meandering paths of the garden, enjoying the exotic plants and herbaceous borders which are bursting with scents and colours. There is also a variety of woodland walks across the parkland with stupendous views down the estuary towards Falmouth town. Complete with a renowned art gallery, second-hand bookshop and cosy Crofter’s café, Trelissick is abundant in features which make it a Cornish gem.
Another Cornish building full of intrigue is Helston’s Godolphin House. A Grade I listed Tudor-Stuart mansion, the estate is complete with early formal gardens which date from the 1500s and Elizabethan stables from the 1600s. The house is hugely atmospheric, with stylistic features from the mid 17th century and fascinating archaeology. Some features even date back to the Bronze Age. Like Trelissick, Godolphin House harbours many tales from the past – local folklore suggests that the rock-strewn hilltops of Godolphin and Tregonning were the work of warring giants that stood on top of the hills and threw rocks at each other. The gardens are of equal historic importance – they were built in the 16th century by Sir Francis Godolphin, and much of his original layout remains, making them a site of national heritage. The garden offers a conservation area for butterflies alongside the first native bee haven on a National Trust site, situated in the Paddock. It also harbours carefully selected plants that benefit bees, butterflies and other pollinators, creating a buzz of wildlife which can be enjoyed on the many walking routes throughout the grounds.
A similarly remarkable Tudor marvel with Medieval roots, Cotehele house is situated in the parish of Calstock in the east of Cornwall. Perched high above the River Tamar, the manor house boasts a working mill, an expansive estate and a rambling garden with views of the valley. The house is one of the least altered Tudor houses in the country, and is decorated with tapestries, arms, armour, brass and old oak furniture. Little of the interior has changed since it was built by the Cornish Edgcumbe family in 1458. The estate, spanning 1,300 acres, includes woodland and fields, industrial ruins, an original dovecote and working farm buildings, making it a bustling preservation of the life it has harboured for hundreds of years. Its magnificent gardens include formally planted terraces, a Medieval stewpond and two orchards, bursting with apples and cherries.
Full of fascinating nooks and crannies, Trerice house in Newlyn East is a unique Elizabethan manor on a small scale. Like Cotehele, it preserves the atmosphere of its original time. It has many special elements to it which maintain a sense of intrigue – its collection of historical gems includes wooden skittles, a 300-year-old longcase clock and original antique furniture. Its striking architecture makes it a marvel to behold. The Great Hall window is a major original feature which never fails to impress. The 567 panes include pieces of glass from the 16th-century to the 19th century, which shimmer in the sunlight. Notable for its scale and individual details, including graffiti where names have been scratched into glass, the window would have been a grand statement of wealth when first built. The house has a regal history, with good marriages and positions at the Royal Court helping its original owners, the Arundell family, to prosper and build Trerice in 1572. This sense of importance remains, with the atmosphere of the house being that of great splendour. The small knot garden helps to maintain this aura, with its precise and decorative planting bursting with scents of lavender and roses. This can be looked upon from the Great Chamber windows and is a delight of colour all year round.
The fifth of Cornwall’s great National Trust houses, Lanhydrock stands out as a magnificent late Victorian country house with a picturesque wooded estate and garden. Situated by Treffry in Bodmin, Lanhydrock embodies the very best of what inland Cornwall has to offer, with its rugged history and green landscapes. Although it is quintessentially Victorian in its style and design, it only appears so due to a complete redecoration in the 1880s, following a fire which destroyed large amounts of the building and sadly ended the lives of its original occupants. Its history continued to be turbulent – despite several happy years as the home of Thomas and Mary Charles from the restoration and onwards, it was affected again by WW1. Having no immediate heirs, the property and its surrounding land was gifted to the National Trust by the 7th Viscount Cliften in 1953. The great house has been maintained ever since, with its Victorian architecture preserved. There is an abundance of rooms to explore, from kitchens, nurseries and servants’ quarters to a grand dining room and elegant bedrooms. Visitors can soak up the ambience of a wealthy and marvellous Victorian home, play the Steinway piano in the Long Gallery and explore the extensive museum and bookshop. Stepping outdoors, there are over 900 acres of grounds surrounding Lanhydrock House. The vast space contains walking and cycling trails, ancient woodlands, fields of livestock and even a hidden Victorian swimming pool. Full of tales of the past, Lanhydrock is a wonder to explore.
The National Trust prides itself on preserving and honouring beautiful spaces so that they can be enjoyed by all. Their Cornish houses are sanctuaries of tranquillity, which are to be explored and treasured. To quote Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust: “We all want quiet. We all want beauty... We all need space.” And within these magnificent houses, that is exactly what can be found.