The South West Branch arranged a day at Caerhays Castle as part of the Group Centenary celebrations. Coming up the drive from the beach, the crenellated castle in its spectacular setting, within clouds of magnolia blossom never fails to inspire and whet the appetite for what is to come.
Thirty-four of us were met by owner Charles Williams with Jamie Parsons, the Head Gardener, and Mike Levett his Assistant Head Gardener; all of whom are incredibly knowledgeable especially where our three genera are concerned.
We spent a happy hour at a brisk pace, looking mainly at the massed magnolias, some of which were mere seedlings now grown into massive trees covered in blooms. Most noticeable in the morning were a pure white form of Magnolia campbelli 'Alba' and nearby, the deep purple colour of the relatively new hybrid, Magnolia 'Caerhays Splendour'.
Having sated on masses of wonderful trees and shrubs, we retired to the house for a glass of wine and were then let loose among items from the extensive Castle archive. There were photographs taken by George Forrest in China in the early part of the last century, the Millais Rhododendron books, proceedings of the early years of the Rhododendron Society, letters from Forrest and Wilson, and many detailed maps of South west China, incidentally, in a detail unobtainable nowadays. Some were printed on silk, and someone, unknown, had even made an apron from one of these silk maps!
This is a remarkable archive from four generations of the Williams family chronicling their involvement in plant hunting expeditions and the acquiring of wonderful plants (which continues to this day) and all at our disposal to peruse at our leisure; a privilege indeed.
After a delicious lunch with more wine, we set off at a pace again into the main part of the garden following our guides. Although Charles Williams led the party, and we enjoyed his informative and sometimes forthright comments on the various plants we saw, it was also excellent to have Jamie and Mike with us as well to ask questions of as we went around. Among the many hundreds of plants we saw, a good deep red enormous Rhododendron caught the eye; this was an old Caerhays arboreum x thompsonii hybrid 'Red Admiral'.
A pair of large Michelias side by side enabled us to sniff the distinctly different scents of M. doltsopa 'Silver Cloud' and another Michelia named manipurense. On our way back to the Castle towards the end of the tour, a magnificent and enormous tree of Magnolia sargentiana 'Robusta' x M, sprengeri Diva was covered in hundreds if not thousands of good pink blooms. Tired, stimulated, happy we thanked Charles and his team for giving us such a memorable day. The South West Branch subsidised working gardeners by allowing them to come at half price, and this enabled young professional gardeners to join us who might otherwise may not have been able to afford to come. It was great to have them join us.
Caerhays garden had just been awarded the Historic Houses Association British Garden of the Year Award 2016 - a first for a Cornish garden, and very well deserved.