What changes, improvements and developments are happening on the Caerhays Estate?
Visitors to the castle gardens frequently enquire about how the estate operates, how many people it employs and what businesses it undertakes. Our marketing team have suggested that an overview would help people to understand more fully what the Caerhays Estate has to offer and, also, to understand the challenges and longer term objectives which a country estate like Caerhays faces and hopes to achieve in the future.
I write this now under a COVID-19 lockdown where nearly all the estate staff have been sent home with 80% of their wages being underwritten by the government. While I have more time to write this properly I have no idea yet when we will actually be able to, again, move forward with our plans for the future.
Estate businesses – overall the estate employs the equivalent of around 90 full-time staff
The estate owns and manages 12 holiday lets. It is estate policy not to turn existing dwellings into holiday lets but only to convert redundant buildings into holiday accommodation. The estate also has four other properties where tenants and the estate have joined forces to develop accommodation and holiday lets in redundant farm buildings.
Converted from a derelict rectory, The Vean now provides high quality serviced accommodation with eight double ensuite bedrooms for holiday groups, wedding parties, anniversaries or special events and shooting parties. Burncoose House offers a similar standard of accommodation for these events near Redruth.
The estate has four wedding venues; Beach Meadow, The Old Coastguards Lookout, The Vean and Burncoose House. In 2019 the estate hosted 23 wedding parties of varying sizes.
Caerhays Castle Gardens are open from mid-February to mid-June and welcome around 15,000 visitors each year. The castle itself is open for conducted tours between mid-March and mid-June. Organised group tours can visit the gardens and castle outside these normal opening dates.
Porthluney Beach at Caerhays is enjoyed by some 25,000 people each year. The beach café now remains open for much of the year if the weather is favourable and lays on evening events and entertainment through the summer months.
Around 1,200 people visit the estate, and utilise accommodation at The Vean, during the winter months in shooting parties. These high value tourists come from the USA, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Ireland and Iceland as well as from within the UK.
The home farm, Caerhays Farms, manages some 800 acres and has a full-time staff of two. The farm has 600 breeding ewes which lamb in November and March and around 250 cattle of varying ages. Around 60 of these are purebred Saler cattle, originally from southern France, and the remainder are crossbred with more traditional English breeds. The land is managed extensively with low inputs under the auspices of a 10 year Entry Level Scheme and a Higher Level Scheme delivering environmental benefits which ends in 2023. The farm manages historic parkland, historic water meadows and restored coastal wildflower meadows.
Burncoose Nurseries (established 1987)
The 30 acre woodland gardens at Burncoose are open (free) all year round to customers visiting the nurseries. Burncoose produces an annual mail order plant catalogue but around 80% of its business is generated online from its extensive website. This offers up to 4,000 different ornamental trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Burncoose is one of the top five mail order plant businesses in the UK and its website is visited by up to 1.5 million visitors each year. The website is rather more than just a selling site with extensive plant care articles on over 500 different plant species/varieties as well as hundreds of videos and topical tips demonstrating how to care for your plants through each month of the year.
The core of the Burncoose plant offerings come from Caerhays propagation material which is then grown at the nurseries. Camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons are prominent on the website but so are a whole range of rare and unusual plants which are seldom ever available from garden centres.
The highlights of the Burncoose year are (normally) Chelsea Flower Show and Hampton Court Show. Over the years Burncoose have been regular winners of gold medals for their large stands at Chelsea in the main marquee. These often contain 500 different types of plant and it takes three lorries to carry the exhibits to London.
The nursery employs around 25 full-time staff and, last year, packaged around 16,000 individual mail order orders. Trade and export (Europe only) mail orders are also delivered to garden designers and historic parks. The nursery also offers a landscape design and fulfilment service from the landscape team led by one of the partners, Phil Knuckey.
KPK Builders Ltd (originally established as a partnership in 1989)
The need for larger scale and more specialised restoration work on Caerhays Castle itself and the need to convert redundant barns on the estate into holiday accommodation gave rise to the idea that the estate needed to establish its own independent building business to be called upon for more major works. KPK converted barns into the new Burncoose Nurseries offices in 1991 and have, since then, operated from their own offices within Burncoose Nurseries.
KPK and its team of up to 25 staff and full-time subcontractors specialise in renovations or repairs to historic buildings including country houses, churches and public buildings. Over the years they have undertaken this sort of work for other Cornish estates and the National Trust. While this may be the core of the business, KPK has, fairly recently, undertaken a highly successful new build project in Redruth involving 28 houses. Today KPK has a small works team who concentrate on small scale school and university work while other teams undertake larger building projects.
Further expansion of the woodland gardens at Caerhays with public access
In 2007 a 10 acre field, called Kennel Close, ceased growing arable crops and being used as a pheasant rearing field. We planted a thick windbreak of Pinus insignis (Monterey pine), Quercus ilex (ilex oak) and Laurus nobilis (sweet bay) at the westerly end of the field which is only one field away from the sea together with three separate laurel hedges to compartmentalise the field into three sections. A few specimen sized acers and rare Aesculus trees were then planted together with subsequent yearly additions of over 200 different named magnolias, around 20 named sweet chestnut species, many very rare and unusual new trees and shrubs and some bold banks of colourful azaleas. This is exactly how the woodland gardens started to be created with huge laurel shelterbelts and the establishment of planting coupes starting their own little microclimates as plants progressively grew together to protect each other 100 years ago. It all takes time but, 13 years on, the results are already impressive.
In 2012, and with grant aid from Europe, we decided to clear Old Park Wood (20 or so acres), restore the old Four Burrow Hunt kennels and encourage new public access to the whole area. Old Park had very much been part of my great grandfather’s original garden before the First World War when there were over 60 fulltime gardeners at Caerhays. Since the 1950s and, subsequently, the estate lacked the manpower to maintain it properly. Fallen trees, overgrown laurel clumps and brambles had taken over and concealed many original Chinese plant introductions. After clear felling the end of the wood a large grove of new named magnolias is quietly establishing. In the centre of the wood there is a collection of wild collected rhododendron species which had never been grown at Caerhays before. The original Chinese plants are now much more clearly visible.
Visitors this year can see the clearance and replanting of the Tin Garden at the near end of Kennel Close. Tin Garden was where my great grandfather started his daffodil breeding programme in the 1880s which was to become his gardening passion long before he began to fund plant hunting expeditions to China between 1905 and 1932. At a time of great hardship in rural communities his objective was to turn the early flowering daffodil into a new cash crop for small farmers in Cornwall. In this he was hugely successful. The Tin Garden, which I remember from the 1960s, was surrounded by upright galvanised tin sheets around a potting shed. The hut still survives but, for the last 60 years, the Tin Garden has been planted with trees and, latterly, was used as a pheasant release pen.
The trees were cleared in early 2019 to make way for a new memorial planting dedicated to my father’s lifetime work hybridising magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons. Most of the hybrids which he, and his head gardener, Philip Tregunna, raised between 1955 and his death in January 2019 have now just been planted out. The hut now contains photographs and a description of the history of the Tin Garden which now has a new purpose in commemorating my father’s gardening achievements in an otherwise very full public and vaguely political life.
Forty Acres Wood
Two new clearances have been made in this wood in the last 20 to 25 years which is opposite the lake and the water meadows across from the main castle gardens. The new clearance opposite the ferneries on the drive now houses a reasonably well established collection of American bred magnolias. The clearance of the original garden in Penvergate, beyond the lake, has some of the best of the newer American yellow flowering magnolias which were planted there before anyone appreciated exactly how good they were. Given time, more manpower, and the clearance of new views across to Forty Acres Wood from the main drive, the hope is to provide public access to this part of the garden as well.
Before the (current) pandemic of COVID-19 the original plan was to fell this spring all the conifer trees within the old kitchen garden which my father had planted in the late 1950s to try to retire the two elderly (kitchen) gardeners which he had inherited from my great uncle in 1955. Fortunately we had received grant funding in 2013 to restore and repair some of the Kitchen Garden walls which had been battered by trees and neglect over the last 60 years.
Coronavirus may have delayed implementation of this work this year but the plan is still to create something startling and new in plant terms here. A new bank of 25 Camellia sasanqua varieties has been planted at the entrance already. Kitchen gardens used a lot of lime which is not conducive to growing ericaceous plants. So, in advance of the delayed clearance work, we ponder doing something radically different plant wise here. Perhaps a collection of Chilean plants or New Zealand natives? The only fun of COVID-19 is thinking about the future.
These four new, and one further development, together with the removal of Rhododendron ponticum shelter belts between 2003 and 2010 and their replacement with other wind resilient species, have allowed the woodland gardens at Caerhays to expand by around 40 acres to some 140 acres today.
National Collections of plants in the gardens and propagation plans
Caerhays Gardens are currently home to two National Collections of plants under the auspices of Plant Heritage (formerly the NCCPG); Magnolias and Podocarpus.
We may not be formally recognised as an arboretum or as a botanic garden but, in reality, Caerhays is actually quite a lot of both. We have around 80 record UK and Irish trees in terms of size or girth (which rates us well into the top 10 of UK and Irish tree collections) and many more county (Cornish) record trees. Quite a number of these record trees were originally collected as seed in China and are near or already over 100 years old and counting.
Often we are asked if we are still hybridising and breeding new plants and the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. Each year, weather permitting, we try to cross or hybridise new magnolias, rhododendrons and other genus which no one else has yet thought about using in this way. Much like earlier generations in fact!
In the last few years we have registered around 10 new named Caerhays bred magnolias with The Magnolia Society International based in the USA. Our rhododendron breeding has produced less concrete results of late but we have registered and named a few new hybrids to add to our historic track record. The recent x williamsii camellia hybrids were largely named by my father although Burncoose Nurseries have registered a couple in the previous decades.
Perhaps, with COVID-19, we will all now find more time in the garden to make new crosses. However it does take time. Magnolia hybrids can take eight to twenty years to flower and new rhododendron hybrids a bit less depending on the species chosen.
Our National Collection of Magnolias, including Manglietias and Michelias, which have recently also been reclassified as Magnolias, now numbers around 120 to 130 species. In 2019 alone we flowered five new species of Manglietia and Magnolia some of which had probably never been seen in flower before in the UK. There are at least 800 named varieties of magnolia growing at Caerhays today and plenty more, as yet, unnamed hybrids. It is doubtful that there is a larger collection of Magnolias growing anywhere in the UK.
Around 60 species and hybrids of Podocarpus were displayed by Caerhays at the Hampton Court Flower Show in 2019 as part of the Plant Heritage National Collections exhibit.
Caerhays has long established collections of evergreen oaks and acers. More recently, collections of Styrax, Stewartia, Staphylea, Enkianthus and Meliosma are taking shape. These may well one day form new National Collections as well.
The Garden Diary
My great grandfather, JC Williams, started the Caerhays garden diary in 1897. The bound volume has one page for each day of the year. My great uncle, Rt Hon Charles Williams MP, carried on the diary entries from 1939 to 1955 when my father took over the work. The diary gives a record of the first flowerings of new plants introduced from China, the dates in each year when the first flowers were seen of many species. It also gives an account of the weather and the great disasters this brought to the garden over the decades. At a time of supposed climate change it makes interesting reading.
As a historic record the garden diary is therefore unique.
In recent years, since Lizzie and I moved to live at Caerhays, I now make daily online entries to the diary every day with multiple photographs. Indeed the whole of the diary is now online after transcribing my forbears’ rather illegible writing. On any day of the year visitors to the Caerhays or Burncoose websites can click onto the garden diary and see what was happening here over the last 123 years.
Up to 3,000 people per month are now viewing the garden diary and beginning to add their contributions and comments about individual plants featured therein.
Farming policy for the future on the home farm
After Brexit government policy towards the countryside and farming has still to be agreed and published. We expect to see the reality of what ‘public money for public goods’ actually means in the new English Land Management Scheme (ELMS) over the next two years. The presumption is that the old Basic Payment Scheme farm subsidies based on land areas farmed will be replaced by payments for less intensive land use, biodiversity and, perhaps, encouraging a reversion to farming practices from the 1950s and 1960s. Direct payments for large scale food production by agrifarmers will probably disappear entirely.
Since the home farm has operated under environmental managements schemes since 1992 (Countryside Stewardship, Entry Level Scheme and Higher Level Scheme) we envisage carrying on in a similar manner with low density stocking rates and carefully targeted new environmental schemes.
To remove the need to overwinter some cattle outside we are considering erecting a new cattle shed at Caerhays Barton Farm. This would reduce the ever present threat of TB in our cattle which has led to a succession of TB testing failures and culls over the last 15 years. It would also free up the existing sheep shed for indoor lambing to take place again in the face of increasing lamb losses from ravens. As the core of the farmyard operations moves away from the original range of old barns and buildings facing the sea so, in time, these may become available for conversion to domestic use.
Currently the concept of ‘rewilding’ has captured the public imagination. However rewilding will not produce adequate food to feed the country. Most of Caerhays Farms land is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The coastline at Caerhays is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and graded by Cornwall Council as one out of ten. With these underlying attributes it is not difficult to see that the future may well not bring any major changes to our existing farming policy.
In such an isolated location, and with local roads which are impassable to heavy lorries, the estate has never had a viable forestry business. The problem is made worse here because much of the existing hardwood timber woodland is 150 years old and is now over mature and almost worthless. The estate has always had to pay contractors to fell over mature or storm damaged woodland.
Despite these impediments to a commercial timber operation the estate has created new woodland on previously farmed land, planted scrubland with woodland trees, and felled/replanted around 25 hectares of woodland in the last 30 years.
This is all part of an ongoing formal UK Woodland Assurance Scheme which has a 10 year and a tentative 30 year plan. This plan, and all our woodland operations, are audited and monitored annually by Tilhill Forestry. Without UKWAS certification the estate would not be able to qualify for future, and as yet largely unknown, ELMS woodland management grants.
The woodlands on the estate are part of the designated heritage landscape at Caerhays and, as such, are managed with biodiversity and regeneration in mind rather than timber production or sales.
Previous woodland management grants have involved ride cutting for wildlife, deadwood habitats, management of veteran trees and public access as well as thinning and brashing new plantations of young trees. Squirrel and deer control are also a key element of this work.
The estate is considering the establishment of a new 10 hectare block of woodland with the new government planting grants and then being able to sell the carbon credits arising from this woodland creation for the next 35 years. However, this only makes real sense, if timber production is also the long term objective. Until the details of grant assistance for other land uses under ELMS are known it is currently difficult to take firm decisions for the future.
In the meantime we wonder how exactly to react to the first signs of ash dieback disease on the estate. Will all the ash trees die or just some of them? Dangerous roadside trees aside, is there a danger of overreacting with too hasty a felling programme?
Tenanted farms on the estate
We live in an era of major social change in the countryside where smaller scale tenanted family farms are becoming, sadly, increasingly unviable. The retirement of tenant farmers, with no family successors, has led to farmsteads on the estate being converted into hamlets in the countryside. Traditional barns are converted into dwellings, farmhouses are renovated and re-let to non-farming tenants, and the land is offered to larger nearby farmers who need to expand to survive or to fulfil their contracts with the supermarkets for vegetable or potato production.
Marketing the estate to visitors
Ten years ago the estate converted a stable block into a new marketing office. This now has a full and part time staff of five with separate responsibilities for running Caerhays Holidays (holiday lets), The Vean, weddings on the estate and group tours / garden visitors.
After battles with BT and Openreach over several years, the estate now has fast fibre to the office, all the individual holiday lets and, potentially, also to 37 separate properties in the parish. This has been a revolution which has assisted the marketing and development of all estate businesses where we previously had absurdly slow internet speeds and many breakdowns in normal business communications.
A new Caerhays website was launched in 2019 as well as the new Caerhays Holidays website backed by social media and PR campaigns organised by and with our marketing team.
The recent article in ‘The Garden’ about the National Collection of magnolias here is a prime example of the success of this work. The number of visitors attending evening events at Porthluney Beach and the growing success of the beach café is another example.
Our key marketing message to visitors and customers alike is:
Caerhays is a unique, beautiful and unspoilt location which has much to offer many different types of visitors.
Improving the biodiversity of the gardens, woodland and farmland on the estate is the highest priority for the future.
The estate is adapting to climate and social change in a responsible manner for the benefit of its growing numbers of staff and visitors
Maintenance of estate properties and challenges for the future
Government legislation requires all new tenancies of estate properties and, shortly, every estate property to have a compliant Energy Performance Certificate (EPC). This means major improvements to the insulation of estate properties and new (electric) heating systems to ensure that they can then obtain an upgraded, compliant EPC. The majority of estate dwellings were built in the 1880s or 1890s. Many are listed or in designated heritage areas. Here the legislation is conflicting and less clear as to the rules and compliance.
Fortunately UK government funding is available as part of their commitment to climate change and the objective of the UK becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Wood burning stoves and open fires are also subject to forthcoming new regulations.
The estate is already well into what will be a lengthy and expensive conversion process which will take many years to fully implement fully, especially in older historic properties. Around 10 conversions have recently been completed and a further 15 or so scheduled for the coming 12 to 18 months. These works are a major inconvenience to the occupiers of estate properties but government funding is given not to the estate as such, but on the basis of a qualifying occupier, who needs financial assistance to ensure that work is carried out.
Chimney flues, obsolete ancient cess pits, the lack of mains sewage and the maintenance of estate sewage treatment plants also pose ongoing problems for the small estate maintenance team and the team of small local specialist contractors who help with this work. Rewiring of houses with modern electrical fittings and fuse boxes is normally part of the EPC improvements.
This is all in addition to the four to five year repainting programme and the many day to day repairs which need dealing with
The next projects
While COVID-19 puts everything on hold for the moment there are several things in the pipeline:
Completion of the reroofing of Derrecks Barn
Conversion of The Hovel Barn into two new properties for current or retired estate staff
Renovation of Treberrick Farmhouse and the Old Village School
Conversion of three barns at Trevarrick Farm into new dwellings
Moving the family mineral archive to the Cornwall County Records Office to provide full public access to these estate records
Improving the English Heritage designation of the woodland gardens from Grade II* to Grade I with a fuller description of the historic Jacobean garden which existed before the castle was built
In the 1950s my great uncle would immediately decamp to his Scottish estate when he saw more than five cars parked on the road alongside Porthluney Beach. (In these days the car parks were cultivated fields). How times have changed as regards the estate’s attitude to visitors!
Estate owners are actually only curators or managers who, for a brief spell in the historic context, can make their mark (or not) on the future development of their estates. A few Cornish estates have gone into hibernation and failed to develop their capital assets in new ways to create new jobs, income streams and opportunities for the whole local community. Caerhays, and other similar Cornish estates, has not!
The Caerhays Estate now employs around the same number of staff as it did before the First World War and, unlike then, they are today far more actively employed in productive businesses which generate income for the future.
We have all had to adjust to Brexit, social change, climate change, proving net biodiversity gains and to run ever faster to meet new targets and objectives so that the estate can survive into the future for the future wellbeing of all those involved.
Charles Williams VMH
25th March 2020
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