Cotehele has been on my must visit list for some time now. A Tudor manor house with 19 acres of gardens and woodland perched above the River Tamar in Cornwall it was once owned by the wealthy Edgecumbe family but is now managed by the National Trust.
The gardens were fading into autumn and, as with most Cornish gardens, are probably at their best in spring and early summer when the azaleas and rhododendrons are in full flourish. But it was not so much the gardens that I had come to visit, strange as it may sound because this was more about a bit of fruity pilgrimage.
The River Tamar forms the boundary between the counties of Devon and Cornwall and, once, used to be a hub of food and flower production. The slopes of the valleys down to the river used to be the site of many market gardens and away from the Tamar orchards covered the land. The area benefited from good rainfall, shelter and ground that warmed up quickly in spring and was particularly famous for its fruit with the first strawberries and cherries being especially prized in London. As far back as 1796 Bere Ferrers was known for its pears, cherries and walnuts but it was really the Victorian period up until the 1940s that saw the peak of production.
Much of the produce was taken down stream by steam boats to Plymouth and Devonport but once the railways came to the area the fruit, vegetables and flowers would leave from stations such as Calstock destined for the markets of Borough, Spitalfields and Covent Garden in London.
Once tourists used to travel upstream on boats to gaze at the blossom that clothed the valleys and the daffodils grown for picking for florists in London. Now the valley is no longer so productive. It’s still possible in places to see where the market gardens once were but the land has mainly become overgrown. At Cotehele, however, they are still trying to preserve the heritage of the area. They have some 13 acres of old orchards and in 2007/08 they established the ‘Mother Orchard’, 8 acres of mainly Cornish and Devon varieties of apples, pears and cherries that have become under threat with the grubbing up of orchards. These trees will act as a gene pool, allowing the National Trust to propagate more trees, for sale and planting at other properties. I’m always astounded by the incredible number of apple varieties we used to have that have fallen foul of modern agriculture, supermarket supply chains and us, the buyers, seemingly happy to buy bland but shiny, uniform and blemish-free fruit. Cornish Gillyflower, Colloggett Pippin and Manaccan Primrose. The names of these forgotten varieties alone make them worth buying.
The old orchards with their sprawling, lichen covered branches were beautiful and must be an incredible haven for hundreds of species of insects. The trees looked like they had had a hard time, just as many fruit trees do after this year’s appalling weather. The ‘Mother Orchard’ is in its infancy still but it was such an inspiring place and I loved the apple sculpture giving a modern touch. Wellyman was rather more taken by the solar powered mower that was pootling about keeping the paths trimmed. A clever little creation that knew when its battery was running low and would take itself off to its little ‘kennel’ to get a recharge.
At the top of the orchard was a large barn that housed a cider press from the 19th century that had been relocated from Bovey Tracey in Devon, restored and ‘pressed’ into action. It can squeeze 1.5 tonnes of apple pulp in one go making 900 litres of apple juice. There were a few barrels dotted about and Wellyman spotted one that looked like it was in use. Easing the plug out of the barrel we had a sniff and I was nearly floored by the potency of the liquor inside. Wellyman, on the other hand, is made of sterner stuff.
The visit was special for another reason. Some of my family, long before I was born used to live in a small Cornish fishing village not far away. When the fishing industry went into decline at the end of the 19th century and work was hard to find many moved to Plymouth to work in the large naval dockyard and that is what my ancestors did. This is an area they would have known well which added another element, knowing that they would have seen this area in its heyday.
Cotehele has another claim to fame and that is the everlasting garland that is created from over 30,000 flowers grown on the estate which is then hung in the hall. Visitors from November can see the garland being constructed by National trust staff and then see it hanging in place from December. I have yet to see this spectacular but hopefully I’ll time my next visit for winter.
For more information on Cotehele (pronounced Coatheel, by the way) take a look at the National Trust’s website.