I was at my desk when I received a message from someone I haven’t heard from in years. We’d dated for a while at secondary school, or as it’s known in the US ‘high school’. It was nice to hear from her; she’s very happy, with a loving husband, two kids and a fabulously successful career.
Short-lived teenage romances seem rather insignificant compared to the relationships, and heartbreak, we experience as adults, but at the time they were so important to us. There’s a temptation to clasp on to the things that bring us joy and comfort; it’s logical to try and get through life holding on to the things and people that make us feel good, including places that keep memories alive.
I hadn’t visited Pine Lodge Gardens, now known as Pinetum Park, in Cornwall for around 15 years. It was one of the first Cornish gardens I got to know well.
Pine Lodge was created and owned by Ray and Shirley Clemo. The Clemos had decided to use their retirement to create a garden filled with botanical delights, all thoughtfully laid out in a beautiful garden. As a young man looking to forge a career in horticulture in this part of Britain, it was very useful for me to see such a wide range of plants growing in one place. There was also a small nursery that propagated things from the garden for sale, so I had the opportunity to take home plants to grow in my own garden.
Old age and new changes
Time marches ever onwards and nobody gets any younger. Keeping up the garden was taking its toll on the Clemos; it was time for them to move on.
Property is quite expensive in this part of the UK. The mild(ish) climate and rugged landscape of Cornwall makes it a desirable place to live. Did you get the BBC series ‘Poldark’ in the US? If you did then you’ll have got a feel for the rugged beauty of the Cornish countryside.
Ray and Shirley sold the whole site, the house, garden and some fields, to the only person who was interested. The new owner assured them that their garden would live on.
It wasn’t long before that plan changed; permission was sought to build houses on the garden. There was a local backlash and permission was denied for the garden to be demolished. The new owner was forced to keep the garden going.
First trip back
Earlier this year I went back to Pinetum Park (as it’s now called), wondering if I might see the ‘Pine Lodge’ of my memories.
It’s not unfair to say that the garden is now a shell of its former self. They talk about the ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ that colour our memories to make them seem better than they really were; I’ve been consciously trying to clarify how things really were in my memories. This process isn’t helped by the fact that I lost all of my pictures of the garden taken in those early days (due to a computer disaster).
Inevitably there have been changes. The nursery greenhouse still stands, just about, but is now filled with junk where once it housed so many exciting exotic and scarce plants for sale. You can still buy plants during your visit but they’re now a fairly generic range of things bought from a local wholesaler.
The garden itself was strange; there were echoes of what I’d known before but it was hard to reconcile what I saw with my memories of the garden as it had been. I’m sure the place is now smaller than it was before.
The Japanese-themed garden seemed almost completely as I’d remembered it. How the granite stonework hadn’t been ‘re-homed’ when the site was abandoned and facing demolition I don’t know, but here was the ‘Japanese Garden’ of my memory.
There was plenty to annoy me as a ‘plant nerd’: the Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora (known commonly as ‘Montbretia’) growing in the Japanese garden is something I don’t seem to recall from times gone by, and the new planting of Acer negundo, a large American maple species, in wholly the wrong location for a tree of its size and origin caused me mild physical discomfort.
Were irritating details like this always there or has my knowledge increased to the point where I notice these things now?
Tucked away was the collection of Japanese Hydrangeas that I’d known before, most with their old labels at their base.
The ‘Japanese Garden’ had managed to retain the sense of the place I’d known when I first encountered this garden.
One of the things I had always associated with Pine Lodge was its unimaginative ‘pinetum’. Rather than setting out the collection of conifers artistically, the Clemos had set each conifer out in a sort of loose ‘grid pattern’. The effect always was something of a ‘stamp collection’; each tree stands sad and forlorn, devoid of companionship.
Certainly no spark of imagination or desire for change reached this bit of the garden. The conifers remain in their places, seemingly none removed and definitely none added.
I like conifers as trees and believe that they should be included in gardens wherever possible, but this sort of planting should be consigned to the 19th century.
The Winter Garden, and a possibly new pond
The ‘winter garden’ is the only area I’m conscious wasn’t there when I used to visit before. It’s a strange bit of garden, like a ranch for evergreen trees and shrubs; it’s just an assembly of plants in a fenced area with little sense of purpose.
Like so much at Pinetum Park, there was a sense that this area isn’t entirely under control.
There might also be a new pond. It seemed familiar but also unfamiliar (and was being re-lined during my visit so I didn’t take picture).
Time can skew perspective. I associated Pine Lodge with a time of joyous discovery for me, but maybe the garden and I have just moved on.
I get the impression that things have been left to decline, but has the development of my own expertise and experience meant that I’ve just moved on and that gardens like Pinetum Park no longer have the same level of interest?
The new owner was much more interested in developing the land rather than owning and nurturing a garden, and there are signs of this all around.
New houses intrusively border part of the site, while part of the site is now a caravan park, with the caravans backed right up to the garden fence. (Do you have caravans in the US or are they a European thing? They’re like a trailer version of an RV that you pull behind your car.)
I’m not naïve about these changes: the income they generate is almost certainly subsidising the upkeep of the garden. Opening a garden to the public can be very expensive, and while Pinetum Park isn’t shy about its entry fee (£16.50 per adult, just over $20 at the time of writing) I’m sure the place will have its ‘lean times’ where gate revenues don’t meet the costs of running the place.
Not Bad, Not Great
Looking solely at the Pinetum Park of summer 2023, I must say that it’s neither bad nor good.
It’s clearly lacking the devoted love of a passionate garden owner. The garden is reasonably well presented, yet there is also a sense of neglect. The gardeners are clearly trying to manage the decline as best they could, and I couldn’t help wondering how much of the garden was on a sort of horticultural ‘life support’. I suspect the garden is operated on a very tight budget.
I left just over an hour after I’d arrived, feeling rather numb to the whole place. Maybe I expected too much? Maybe as the years rolled by my memories of this place became warped, and it was never quite as good as I remember?
The biggest challenge for Pinetum Park is competition from other gardens. Cornwall is crammed with excellent gardens to visit: 10 minutes in one direction takes you to Tregrehan (likened by some to the world famous Kew Gardens in London), while 15 minutes in the other direction takes you to the wonderful garden at Trewithen (a garden embarking on an exciting redevelopment that will vastly increase its offering to visitors). There are also fine gardens at Lanhydrock, Trelissick, Heligan, Pencarrow, Caerhays, Trebah, Trengwainton, Enys, St. Michael’s Mount, Tremenheere, Glendurgan, Trerice…
The next few years will decide the fate of this garden; survival will depend on funding and a desire to make the place better.
My prediction is that it will slowly slip away.