Voyages to Antiquity’s 15-day British Isles circumnavigation cruise, departing 22 July 2018, visits Tresco Abbey Garden in the company of Royal Horticultural Society judge John Hughes, as well many other attractions in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Voyages to Antiquity guest lecturer Professor Sandy Primrose reveals the history of one of the UK’s great gardens in our latest blog post.

Tresco Abbey Garden

Tresco Abbey Garden

The sea around the Isles of Scilly is too shallow even for a ship as small as Aegean Odyssey to dock in Hugh Town. So we drop anchor and tender in to the jetty on Tresco. From here, it is a meandering half-mile walk on a path through the sand dunes to the entrance to the Tresco Abbey Garden. Either side of the path bloom blue Agapanthus – a colourful precursor to the exotic blooms that await us.

For this garden is a glorious oddity; a vision of the Mediterranean on English soil. In the Scilly Isles, off the coast of Cornwall and warmed by the Gulf Stream, spring comes early, autumn stays late, and winter barely appears at all – perfect conditions for plants and flowers from Brazil to New Zealand, Burma to South Africa, which would have no hope of survival just 30 miles northeast, to survive and thrive. Mesmerised visitors wander the criss-crossing walkways in admiration of towering palms and flowering proteas, vivid red flame trees and blue spires of Echium, Furcraera leaf-bursts and brilliant pink Pelargonium.

Beautiful pink Pelargonium

Beautiful pink Pelargonium

The gardens were created in the early Victorian era by Augustus Smith, who had taken a lease on the Isles of Scilly from the Duchy of Cornwall. He became a local benefactor, funded the construction of schools and made school attendance compulsory years before the mainland. Most of the male alumni went to sea, some returning later with plants from far-flung countries. Smith chose to live on Tresco because it afforded him privacy and shelter from Atlantic gales by the other islands. Here, in the grounds of an old Benedictine Abbey, he designed and built his house and (by 1858) his garden, the latter sheltered from the wind by mass plantings of cypress and Monterey pine.

The layout of the garden today is essentially unchanged. There are three walks that run east to west along the side of a small hill: the Top Terrace, the Middle Terrace and the Long Walk. These walks are connected by the Neptune Steps, so-called because at their head is a figurehead from the 1841 wreck of the SS Thames – part of a collection of figureheads, the majority of which are displayed in the garden’s Valhalla Museum. When Augustus Smith died, the house and gardens passed to his nephew Thomas Dorrien-Smith. Though he did little to change the gardens, he was responsible for initiating the cultivation of daffodils for the cut-flower trade, providing valuable employment after the decline of local shipbuilding. Thomas’ son, Major A A Dorrien-Smith, was a keen plantsman and sent back specimens from the Veldt whilst on military service in South Africa during the Second Boer War, and even whilst on honeymoon in Australia. His additions to the gardens earned him the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour.

Two of the major’s three sons were killed in the Second World War. The other, Commander Thomas Dorrien-Smith, was not a gardener when he inherited the property but became one over time. His main contribution was to put the estate on a firm financial footing. This he did by building holiday cottages and a hotel so that visitors could spend more time on the island rather than coming just to see the gardens. However, his failure to recognise the need to replace the tree shelter around the garden almost had disastrous consequences.

Norfolk Island Pine planted to provide shelter from the wind

Norfolk Island Pine planted to provide shelter from the wind

In 1987, with the gardens in the hands of the fifth generation of the family, Robert Dorrien-Smith, Tresco suffered an unparalleled cold snap, with temperatures plunging to -8°C (-25°C with wind chill). 80% of the plants perished. That summer, the gardeners visited botanic gardens and public gardens all over the UK to restock the gardens at Tresco. Then, in 1990, the garden was hit by hurricane-force winds that gusted up to 127mph. This brought down many of the original shelter trees which had long needed replacing.

When we visited in July 2017, it was clear that the garden had been restored to its original glory. ‘Mr Robert’ (as he is known) and his family,have added a number of very attractive features to the garden in recent years – a statue of Gaia carved from a block of marble donated by George Harrison of Beatles fame, a sculpture of Robert’s children playing, a gazebo decorated with shell murals by his wife Lucy, and an agave fountain. It is still the place to go to enjoy spectacular plants and flowers from all over the world. I even spotted one from Robinson Crusoe Island, more than 400 miles off the coast of Chile!

Spout of a Water Feature in a Granite Wall

Spout of a Water Feature in a Granite Wall

 


Voyages to Antiquity guest lecturer Professor Sandy Primrose will be accompanying Aegean Odyssey on a 13-day Ancient Greece & Dalmatian Coast cruise, departing 6 May 2018 and visiting Athens, along with Nauplia, Olympia, Delphi, Corfu, Kotor Bay, Dubrovnik, Split, Trieste and Venice. Contact our Reservations team for more information.