I realised what it was like to be an aristocratic landowner when I visited Cotehele in Cornwall the other day. There were no pesky visitors and apart from one or two staff scurrying rapidly from building to building my partner and I had the place completely to ourselves. Admittedly it was immediately the site opened on a Tuesday morning in February but the main reason for the apparent lordly solitude was the fact that it was raining. And when it rains in Cornwall it rains. And when it wasn’t raining hard it was drizzling steadily through the thick and clinging mist. It was a case of water, water everywhere. But whereas I normally would be sensible and stay at home I was on holiday and determined to see the place…and suprisingly the weather didn’t matter, particularly when I recalled a letter about a garden visit that I’d read written by the Dowager Countess of Mount Edgcumbe in the summer of 1862: “Unluckily it began to pour (at Tavistock – where you know Charles II said it always rained) – & we walked about the charming gardens under umbrellas.”
And it certainly wasn’t as bad as June 1872 when she wrote:” We had a great thunder-storm last Tuesday – with rain really like ramrods. …The rain came thro’ the ceiling of Ernestine’s room, & through the floor, into the Housekeeper’s room below – wetting her books, & soaking some clothes in a drawer. The carpet was taken up as quickly as possible, & hung up to drain – & the rain from the quadrangle ran down 2 steps into the lobby – & 3 buckets full of water had to be taken up before they could lift off the matting on the floor.”
So seeing Cotehele in the mist and rain is nothing out of the ordinary and just meant walking complete with a mac, wellies and an umbrella…and, even at such an inhospitable time of the year, the grounds which she helped create are so stunning it would been worth walking around even without them!
Cotehele sits on steep slopes high above the west bank of the Tamar, the historic boundary between Devon and Cornwall. It belonged to the Edgcumbe family for about 600 years from 1353 until 1947 and its fortunes were very much tied to those of the family.
A mediaeval manor house was remodelled by Sir Richard Edgcumbe, who had supported Henry Tudor against Richard III and then again by his son, Sir Piers who died in 1539. A plan of Cotehele from his time shows two parks, together with orchards and enclosures around the house. However Sir Piers moved the family seat to a new house overlooking Plymouth Sound: Mount Edgcumbe, and after that Cotehele was always a secondary home and only occupied on an occasional basis. This probably explains its survival, altered but always in the same spirit.
The family rose through the ranks and in 1742 another Sir Richard was created Baron Edgcumbe for his political support for Sir Robert Walpole. A Viscountcy followed for George Edgcumbe in 1781, who was an antiquarian and friend of Horace Walpole, and in 1789 he was raised to be Earl of Mount Edgcumbe.
During all this time Cotehele slept, until it became the dower house for Caroline, the widow of the third Earl after his death in 1861. The house was renovated and partially remodelled, and major improvements were made in the gardens. Her daughter, Lady Ernestine, then made it her home. After her death in 1925, Cotehele reverted to a secondary residence and remained unmodernized. It was only lived in again by the head of the family after Mount Edgecumbe itself was bombed in 1941. With the decision to rebuild that house, Cotehele became the price paid to the government in lieu of death duties, and it was then passed by them to the National Trust who have owned it ever since.
The National Trust think there are suggestions of a mediaeval or Tudor garden to the north of the house but by the 1839 tithe map they were just orchards, whilst the Valley Garden [No 3 on the map] that runs down the steep slopes towards the Tamar was still woodland. But when the dowager Countess arrived there was probably no real garden to speak of. This might have frightened some people but Caroline was the half-sister of William Fox Talbot, of Laycock Abbey, the pioneer of photography and a great plantsman [see the post on Abbotsbury for more info]. More to the point she had already made her mark on the gardens at Mount Edgecumbe before she was widowed.
400 of her letters to William survive. Written between 1814 until his death in 1877 they reveal, amidst the domestic and family details a continual fascination with gardens and love of plants, with scarcely a letter that does not mention something about them.
Once the decision had been made for her to move to Cotehele she turned her attention to the gardens. By May 1862, before she had moved in, she had arranged to borrow Banks, the estate stonemason from Laycock, and he “has been to Cotehele to build a stove, & has ordered the hot air apparatus at Trowbridge. If you have an opportunity, please enquire how soon it will be ready.” It was quite a modest affair compared with some: only 60ft long, divided into two, with a warmer section for grapes and a cooler part for later grapes and flowers.
The following month, in the first letter she receives at Cotehele from William the pattern is clearly set: “Many thanks for your letter received at Cotehele, & the little green fern it contained. It is beautifully done. Is that your invention or one I have seen specimens of before – a large book that was published somewhere? [The fern she refers to was almost certainly a photoglyphic engraving. He published one in “Photoglyphic Engravings of Ferns”, Transactions of the Botanical Society (Edinburgh), v. 7, June 1863, p. 569].
Caroline of course returned the favour and sent him some dried ferns from the garden at Cotehele: “One is the Osmunda regalis, now coming into flower – The other is a very handsome one, coming up like large Ostrich feathers from the ground. It measured 4ft high. But there are a great number at Cotehele & here too (11 sorts I believe) & endless wild flowers – I wish you could see them. The handsomest are White Columbine, & blue do – the most beautiful blue you ever saw – what they wd call in the shops a new colour – tho’ I imagine it must be one of the oldest. Also white Valerian.”
Of course making Cotehele her home did not mean that she was often there. She was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, travelled frequently around the country to see friends and relations and abroad for a sizeable part of the winter, and often spent time back at Mount Edgcumbe. BUT she did keep on working at the garden.
The first area to be created was probably the three formal terraces [No.1 on the map] that descend from the long east side of the house. [They look a lot better in the summer!] It was this wing that was upgraded for her main living quarters. The Countess had orange trees puts out in the borders during the summer, and roses and jasmines planted against the walls. In fact, as you can see, the house almost disappeared under the weight of planting!
At the lower end of the terraces a sunken path and stone-lined tunnel leads through to the Valley Garden. Largely woodland in the Countess’s day it was devastated in “The Great Blizzard” of 1891 when many of the ancient trees were lost. It was estimated that over 100,000 cubic feet of timber fell.
The slopes were replanted with newer introductions such as American Oaks, Purple Beech, Western Hemlock and the Western Red Cedar which had been introduced by Cornish plant hunter William Lobb in 1853. Of course by the time the National Trust acquired the estate the whole valley had become completely overgrown again, and since it is inaccessible to any heavy machinery all the clearance and restoration work had to be by hand. To help counter the difficulties with access the NT replanted the area in the 1950s largely with low maintenance shrubs such as magnolias, azaleas and rhododendrons.
But the overwhelming presence, even in winter, is that of Gunnera. These, as in so many south Cornwall gardens, proliferate in the damp, mild and humid atmosphere. They form massive clumps around the rill and cascades that tumble through the garden, and I’m determined to come back and see them – and the mass of ferns and candelabra primulas – when they have leaves!
Close to the top of the Valley Garden, Perched on the edge of a mediaeval stew pond, stands a dovecote, probably dating from the 15thc. It had partially collapsed by 1885 but was restored by the Trust after they took over. Together they formed a mini-larder, helping make the estate self-sufficient. And nearby is a thatched summer-house rebuilt in 1990. Unsurprisingly they too look better in more temperate weather!
The valley descends to a viewing point that looks out over the Tamar and the Callington railway viaduct.
The reverse view is just as spectacular, with the house hidden in the woodland. However, behind it, standing in open ground is the triangular Prospect Tower, probably built in the mid-18thc. A similar one stood at Mount Edgcumbe, only 11 miles away as the crow flies but more than twice that distance by road, and one theory is that they were used as signal stations between the family’s two houses.
From the terraces a series of interconnected gardens run round the house. An Acer Grove  leads to a Meadow, planted with spring bulbs that were just coming into flower. There are around 120 varieties of daffodil including some indigenous to the Tamar valley such as the very late-flowering Tamar Double White, a double form of Narcissus poeticus ‘plenus’ apparently first recorded at Cotehele in 1629. They formed the basis of a large-scale daffodil growing industry in the area until quite recently and which is commemorated at Cothele.
Next comes the Upper Garden , another of the Countess’s creations was originally known as the Italian Garden complete with terraces, complex flower beds, gravel walks, and the central pond complete with island. The design was simplified by Graham Stuart Thomas and John Sales around 1970. Not much sign of their colour themed borders in the February drizzle but the dogwoods on the island did provide a bright highlight in the gloom. Beyond again is a cutting garden  with a small greenhouse on the site of the Countesses 60 footer, and then two large orchards mainly of cider apples [11 & 12]. One of these was planted as recently as 2007-08 to preserve local varieties otherwise threatened with extinction.
The visit may have been wet, but we fell in love with Cotehele and were really zinging its praises in the rain – so looks like there will have to be another Cornish trip quite soon!