Some days fate steers you into a direction you could never have planned and backs up the theory that things happen for a reason.
On Friday of the October half term 2019 I was supposed to catch the train from Carbis Bay to St Ives but instead I wistfully walked on Carbis Bay beach, daydreaming about this and that, taking in the calm sea through the drizzle. After studying the contemporary planting of a new-ish seafront eco hotel (now the source of global media attention after becoming the location for the next G7 Summit!) I decided to walk the coast path to St Ives.
Upon emerging at Porthminster beach I stopped to admire the Porthminster beach cafe kitchen garden and realised the gardener was in residence. I struck up a conversation and before we knew it we discovered our horticultural studies and earlier years had many similarities. It was like meeting a long-lost friend but for the first time!
This complete chance meeting set off a priceless insight to the best kept secret in St Ives' rich cultural history.... Talland House, the former family holiday home of Virginia Woolf and the inspiration for one of her best known literally masterpieces 'To the Lighthouse,' as well as influencing 'The Waves' and 'Jacob's Room.'
I garden for a descendent of Virginia Woolf and have a personal fascination with the Bloomsbury Group: studying the Pre-Raphaeiltes at Art College, so there was plenty to discuss!
Polly Carter, RHS and National Trust trained heritage gardener has taken on the restoration of this listed building's grounds. To my utter surprise and immense excitement Polly dropped everything to take me to the Talland House and show me round.
Her enthusiasm for historical accuracy has led Polly to research Virginia Woolf's prose to find clues as to what the garden may have looked like in those first twelve influential years of Virginia's life when Talland House became the centre of her universe for three-months every summer.
The family and entire entourage of servants would take the 10-hour train ride from London to Cornwall. The restraints of Victorian city life ebbed away down the track and made way for unchaperoned, freedom. The young girls could explore freely the one to two acre garden and St Ives without the usual constraints of victorian society.
Years of changing ownership had left its toll on the gardens and it only narrowly escaped being ripped up; history may have been lost forever but thankfully Polly's sympathetic redevelopment is gradually removing the clumsy later additions to the garden and replacing with what existed in times gone by.
For example the plot boundary had become a mish mash of various random shrubs but Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that the house was surrounded by an escallonia hedge and she adored the scent of the crushed leaves so Polly replanted the entire hedge, as it would have been in the 1800's and that has now reached a healthy half metre in height.
Polly has taken inspiration from Virginia Woolf's memoirs where she recounts the train journey to St Ives, waking up from a nap to see her mother's dress and recalls the fabric of purple and red flowers on a black background. Polly has introduced this concept into the garden's colour scheme through sweet williams, tulips, cosmos and perennial sweet peas.
The garden is edged with a dry stone wall and Polly has introduced cordon apple trees along the length of the border as a nod to the former orchard which lay beyond the sadly demolished and built upon glasshouses which boasted three permanent gardeners in their day. It must have been a tremendous sight.
“We passed through the gate, groped stealthily but with sure feet up the carriage drive, mounted the little flight of rough steps,” says Virginia Woolf's 1905 diary entry, "we peered through a chink in the escallonia hedge and “hung there like ghosts.”
Even though the original wooden gate has been replaced with metal, the “rough steps” can still be trod and the new escallonia hedging is growing strong, leading you into the lawns and borders and the spectacular view of the house with its majestic French windows and balconies surrounded by the former 'carriage drive' which visitors can access even though the property is privately owned.
I could literally feel the history embodied at Talland House and could imagine Virginia and her siblings exploring the hidden, secret nooks of the garden, marvelling at the lapis blue sea reaching out to Godrevy Lighthouse.
A view which was controversially compromised in 1895 by the building of a hotel.
To tread the paths Virginia would have herself trod felt humbling and enchanting.
Although Talland House is a listed building it is privately owed and split into flats so any visitors are received by the kind nature of the residence. There is no trust in place to protect the property; this makes it even more commendable that Polly has taken it upon herself to breathe life and historical accuracy back into Talland House.
Sadly family summers to Talland House abruptly ended in 1895 with the death of her mother, Pre-Raphaelite model, Julia Stephens nee Jackson. Virginia was 13 years old and her world tragically and unexpectedly fell apart but Virginia revisited those long lost days in 1927 via her most autobiographical novel 'To the Lighthouse,' where 32 years on, she brought her mother back to life.
The carefree Cornish days would inspire her her entire life and be fondly referred to as 'a pocket paradise.'
All photos by Debi Holland © 2019
Please be aware that this visit was not planned. Some of the most amazing adventures and discoveries are spontaneous but due to this my photos were all taken on the spare of the moment with my iphone on a grey drizzly day... I've done my best!