March 20, 2018
The snow settled on the camellias, flakes perching on petals, too cold to melt. It blew in misty clouds among the tall magnolias, their petals, happily, still furled in swelling buds. It gusted and spiralled and stooped in twirling white petticoats into the valley hiding the sea. I have a new measure of cold: when the snowflakes landing in your champagne pause before they melt.
The champagne was to toast a Williams family quartet of auspicious dates. Julian is 90, Charles is 60, John is 30 and Isla Rose has just been born. Roy Lancaster cut the tape to open a two-acre plot of new planting on the steep bank just above Caerhays Castle, commanding a grand view down to the sea. It foamed, brown and white, on the rocks sheltering an inlet perfect, I thought unworthily, for a spot of smuggling.
It is just as well the big Asiatic magnolias that are Cornwall’s pride are a good two weeks late this year. A few precocious flowers had already been frosted. A spell of cold like this, the wind chill taking it down to -8’, would have finished the great display. Camellias, though, seem to just shine all the brighter – and the supply and variety of them around here is overwhelming.
The Woodland Garden at Antony, near Plymouth, shelters the National Collection of Camellia japonica in a steep-sided valley, its little stream clattering down to the River Lynher and Plymouth Sound. Big oaks and beeches form the roof; the ceiling is painted with Magnolia campbellii and its kin, and the gleaming dark green of camellia leaves forms the background for all the girly colours, and the ruffled whites and deep bloody reds of the tribe.
Antony is far more than a great plant collection. Humfry Repton instructed the succession of glimpses of seawater framed by the trees. There is the oddity of an 18th century stone bathhouse supplied by opening sea sluices. There are formal yew walks, the biggest black walnut I have seen and what is surely England’s finest cork oak, seventy feet high and spreading far wider than that. The Antony mansion, grey, cool and precise, a statement of the Age of Reason, now belongs to the National Trust but is still home to the Carew Poles.
Snow curtained off the views of Plymouth across the water and lodged on every branch. The views from the train home, the combes of Devon and the levels of Somerset, white under gently settled snow; fields and fences, roofs and trees, were Breughel revised by S.R. Badmin.