Words by Lowenna Merritt
With a rich history and blooming landscape, Trebah Garden brings a taste of the exotic to the Cornish coastline.
Above the Helford river lies 26 acres of vibrant garden, bursting with the colours, scents and atmosphere of a tropical paradise. Trebah goes above and beyond the average garden – it maintains its own unique biosphere with ponds, canopies and secret tunnels, serves delicious food and drink, hosts live performances, activities and weddings, and even has its own secluded beach. Trebah is a Cornish gem, encapsulating the very best of what Cornwall has to offer from scenery and wildlife to community and food.
Trebah has a history spanning back centuries, marking the gardens as a great cultural importance for Cornwall. The very earliest records show Trebah being passed through many significant Cornish families, including the Killigrews and the Nicholls. Standing proud at the head of the valley is a remarkable Georgian house and this was built by the Nicholls in the 18th century, pre-dating the development of the garden. This building oversees the landscape which, as according to the Ordnance Survey map of 1813, began as a wooded valley before being developed into the exotic haven it is today. An invaluable documentation of the area’s heritage, later Ordnance Survey maps also show the original boathouse situated on Trebah’s beach.
The real beginning of Trebah, however, commenced as the house, garden and Polgwidden Cove were purchased from the Nicholls by Charles Fox in 1838, marking the start of almost 200 years of horticultural endeavour which made Trebah what it is today. The Fox family pioneered Trebah as a ‘pleasure garden’, filling it with many exotic plants which had never been grown in Britain before. During the 40 years of ownership, Charles Fox built an additional Victorian house to the east of the original house and planted hundreds of pines and oaks to protect Trebah against weather conditions.
The following 30 years of ownership by the Backhouse family saw the planting of exotic trees and plants from all over the world, making Trebah look similar to how it stands today with the digging of pools from the stream which runs throughout the valley. Its exotic blooming, however, was halted during World War Two. The beach was concreted to allow access for tanks, and the garden was used as an ammunition store, with trenches dug in the lower part. In 1944, 7,500 American troops from the 29th US Infantry Division embarked from Trebah beach towards the Isle of Wight and then onto the D-Day assault, the biggest amphibious landing in history. A memorial at the bottom of the garden commemorates their sacrifice.
In the post-war years, Trebah has changed hands many times, but its rich and diverse array of plants and trees have continued to grow. Today, it is owned by Trebah Garden Trust, an independent charity who ensure that the garden is preserved and maintained for generations ahead. It is open to the public and welcomes thousands of visitors yearly who wish to marvel at its seasonal beauty.
The garden itself is indeed ever-changing depending on the time of year that you visit. Spring sees a kaleidoscope of colour with 100-year rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias all bursting to life. In summer, not only does the beaming sunshine add to the tropical aura, but the giant gunnera make a striking appearance for the sunny months. Autumn welcomes shades of blue and white in the Hydrangea Valley, which reflects across the beautiful Mallard Pond, and winter sees plants from the southern hemisphere flowering whilst Trebah’s magnificent trees stand tall and proud.
Trebah is a unique garden, situated on a gentle slope which leads down to the private cove at the bottom. On the way, you encounter tropical champion trees with large palmy leaves, a bamboo maze known as the Bamboozle, a water garden and selection of ponds. Other striking features include Hydrangea Valley and Rhododendron Valley, each filled with delicate colours. Gunnera Passage is a delight for both children and adults alike, allowing you to walk beneath the large ‘Elephant’s Rhubarb’ leaves which shelter you from the rain or create shade on a sunny day. The Chilean Coomb hosts a range of South American plants, including fascinating trees such as the Monkey Puzzle Tree, the Chilean Lantern Tree and the Chilean Fire Tree. Koi Pool is a tranquil haven to admire the dozen Koi fish who live there, whilst Mallard Pond provides an idyllic view with its picture-perfect wooden bridge and range of flora.
Once you have explored the sights of the magnificent garden, you have the chance to sit and relax at Polgwidden cove, Trebah’s very own hidden beach. Luscious greenery surrounds the cove, in which you can paddle in crystal-clear waters, explore the many rockpools, or collect some of the tiny shells that settle on the shoreline. Once a place of great historical importance and sacrifice, today Polgwidden cove is a sanctuary for peace and relaxation. The Boathouse beach café was originally built by Donald Healey, motor racing driver and designer of Healey cars, to store his boats whilst he lived at Trebah from 1961 to 1971. It is now the perfect place to absorb the views with a scoop of Roskilly’s ice cream or a cup of tea.
Magnificent cuisine can also be sampled in the garden’s very own Trebah Kitchen. This season they are going for a street food vibe, and all dishes are made using plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and seeds, and wherever possible, local produce is sourced. They emphasise their use of herbs and spices to flavour, rather than salt, and attempt low-fat options as often as possible, including the use of healthy oils as opposed to butter and fats. For early risers, their on-the-go ciabatta breakfast rolls are made with fresh bakery bread and are perfect for an al-fresco brunch. Lunchtime classics include their famous Trebah flan, which they have been serving for over 30 years, and other street food-esque options such as a mezze platter, vegetarian or beef burgers or ciabatta sandwiches.
Having been a part of the community for decades, welcoming in guests and hosting communal activities is important at Trebah. This is why they host a wide range of activities and events all year round – from theatre, music and comedy to education. In the heart of the garden lies an amphitheatre, a perfect spot for welcoming a diverse variety of artists and performers locally and nationally. Within the cosy centre of the amphitheatre, performances can go on into the night and there is always something exciting happening. Trebah also has its own promenade where theatrical performances can come to life, as the vast landscape helps to make performances become epic. Another vital part of their activity calendar is inviting children from local schools to engage with activities such as acting and dance, bringing a community buzz to the beautiful gardens. Made and cared for by Cornish people for decades, Trebah is all about giving back and sharing the wonderful environment that they have with people from all walks of life.
Born from the hands of local people and nurtured to life over many years, Trebah prides itself on its vibrant, sub-tropical wildlife, unique landscape and rich history, all of which combine to make the gardens so special. Stepping into Trebah is like stepping out of Cornwall as you know it and into a new land which, with its fabulous heritage and buzzing environment, feels like a slice of paradise.