Louise Danks loses herself in a slice of Cornish woodland at Caerhays Castle


The first glimpse of Caerhays Castle is nothing short of magical; it appears as if from nowhere after mile upon twisty Cornish mile of high-hedged lanes. It holds a wise and knowing position nestled into the hillside away from the worst of the saltspray and wind that whips in from the coast. Exciting enough as it would be to stumble upon the wide stretch of sandy beach that is Porthluney Cove, imagine looking over a shoulder and catching sight of this impressive castle designed by John Nash at the beginning of the 19th century surrounded by its Medieval deer parks and Georgian and Victorian landscapes.

When a rush of new plant introductions hit the UK from China in the early 1900s, Cornwall and its gardens were more than suited to raising these precious rarities and Caerhays with its existing garden, perfect climate and the enthusiastic gardener and plantsman JC Williams meant that many rhododendrons found a new home and thrived.

From the earliest spring days a rich, vibrant tapestry erupts in the hills surrounding Caerhays Castle, across the 120 acres of woodland garden which look out across Porthluney Cove on the Roseland peninsula which is made up of a vast collection of magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons. These true staples of the Cornish spring garden are presented at their best here under the watchful eyes of head gardener and estate manager Jaimie Parsons and the team.

Gardening has always been a part of Jaimie’s life. He recalls helping his grandfather grow chrysanthemums and pushing a wheelbarrow into the woods in order to collect leaves to make leaf mould for his own compost mix. He even asked for a greenhouse for his 12th birthday so it’s no surprise to find him as head gardener at one of the most important gardens in the UK, where he’s been for more than 20 years.


Mention camellias and it would be difficult not to talk about the Caerhays Estate and the Williams family; the two go hand in hand. This relationship goes back to the 1930s when George Forrest - a well-known plant hunter of the time who worked very closely with JC Williams - returned from his travels with Camellia saluenensis. Two of the original specimens can be found growing against the castle walls today.

This plant was to become a vital part of today’s gardens. JC Williams made an enormously successful cross between C. saluenensis and C. japonica which resulted in a great number of Camellia x williamsii hybrids, many of which are well known by gardeners the world over. The gardens bring joy in the form of free-flowering, hardy and reliable garden plants, C. x williamsii St Ewe’, Cornish Snow’ and November Pink’ are a few of the most popular.

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Jaimie shares some camellia pruning tips. Camellias respond really well to pruning, you shouldn’t be afraid of cutting them back hard, you’ll get masses of vigorous new growth,’ he advises. Just after flowering is the best time to prune, if you have to do a drastic pruning job, you might lose the flowers for the following year but when they do form there’ll be more than ever.’ Jaimie adds a thick layer of mulch and an ericaceous feed after pruning to give the plants a boost at Caerhays.

Another star of this astonishing woodland garden is a breathtaking tree: the magnolia. Caerhays holds the National Collection of Magnolias, boasting more than 80 species of magnolia and its relatives, 170 cultivars and around 250 seedlings yet to be named. It’s a collection that has been amassed from all over the world. There are few gardens with the resources, knowledge or space to hold such a valuable collection and even less that could rival the impact of these trees in flower.

The area known as Old Park has been open since 2013 and allows visitors to access a part of the estate for the first time in 30 years and can be viewed from afar: one of the countless stunning views within the garden opens out across Old Park and reveals beautiful areas of moorland and mixed woodland in the near distance and in spring, cleverly planted magnolias flower, send up flares of colour between the lush green of the year’s first leaves. Old Park can also be enjoyed from within through a network of paths (depending on how long you have to visit).

From a successfully completed project to further development projects such as the restoration of the Old Kennels and the opening on Battery Walk - a coastal lookout point, the team work hard to keep the garden fresh and full of interest. The garden is worked as one entity but the gardeners are acutely aware of the numerous micro-climates within the garden and the way in which the weather, especially the wind direction can affect the garden. The wind-breaks alone are an endless exercise in logistics; the taller slower growing trees need protection from the elements as they reach maturity but there also has to be a barrier of thick, low-growing shrubs to fill the spaces at the base of traditional shelterbelt trees such as Pinus radiata and Quercus ilex. Laurel hedging is used effectively and forms an attractive, dense layer to stop the potentially damaging underdraught. It’s worth remembering, especially in exposed areas of any garden that windbreaks can be planted and they needn’t be a permanent fixture, they can be removed as soon as the plants they are protecting are well established.

Due to the sympathetic management of the garden, wildflowers are allowed to set seed and thrive here, the result is spectacular. It has been known for visitors to pass comment on the banks of primroses in the spring rather than the magnolias, some of which have flowers as big a dinner plates.

One of Jaimie’s passions is propagation, he enjoys taking cuttings, sowing seed and hybridising plants in order to create his own cultivars. I remove the hard orange seed coat to reveal the black seed inside, the seed coat will prevent germination,’ he explains. I use a mix of 50/50 peat and sand and sow the seed fresh; they don’t tend to over-winter well. I don’t fill the pot right to the top with compost though, I leave about an inch at the top of the pot, push the seed in and cover it with a sheet of glass, this keeps moisture in and the mice out - they’re like children in a sweet shop with these seeds!’

One plant that he has bred and raised is a pretty, primrose-yellow rhododendron, Rhododendron Maisie’ named after his grandmother. Another of his favourites grows in the garden. Lady Alice Fitzwilliam’ has large yellow-throated white flowers that almost form a ball of scented flowers.

This important garden is an example of Cornish woodland gardening at its best; there are the huge floral showstoppers, blooms in abundance of every colour imaginable rubbing shoulders with the rare and interesting specimens that will delight. Stumble upon the contorted acorns of the Lithocarpus pachyphyllus - a type of evergreen oak – or the age-old practice of surrounding the base of the tree ferns with a low circular wall to keep them upright, every plant and feature has a story to tell.

It is impossible to get away from the rich horticultural history that has its roots deeply anchored in the soil around the estate but the planting schemes are constantly being developed and areas of the garden rediscovered. The winding paths encourage exploration, the relaxed atmosphere means that the garden invites the more curious, plant-minded visitor to stray from the hard path and get a closer look at something special.

This article first appeared in Cornwall Life April 2016. To take advantage of our latest subscription offers for Cornwall Life head

Opening times

Gardens open on Monday 22 February 2016

Gardens until 19 June 2016

The castle opens on Monday 21 March 2016 until Friday 17 June 2016

18 August -Miracle Theatre’s producion of The Magnificent Three on Caerhays Beach

Group visits are welcome from February to the end of July. Any groups visiting between the 21 June and end of July must be guided.