This time last week we were down in Cornwall at the Port Eliot Festival. It was the second time I have been asked to speak there and to be one of the judges for the Flower Show. I have a particular fondness for the festival, which takes over the grounds of the estate, wraps around the house, runs alongside the banks of the River Tamar and nestles in a series of old walled gardens. The events and the tents and the happenings are carefully choreographed in a low-key fashion so that, as you roam the grounds, you discover as you go.
The landscape gardens were set out in the 18th century by Humphrey Repton, who made a grand move to push the river away from the house and in its place sweep a rolling lawn that connected a ha-ha in front of the house to the hills and woods beyond. I was lucky enough to stay in the house last autumn at Halloween with Perry and Cathy St. Germans, the Festival Director, and had the opportunity of looking over Repton’s Red Book. His books became one of his signatures as a designer and featured images of the existing landscape with a reveal that you could pull back to see the proposed vision. It is wonderful to walk in this vision today and for this festival to be so easily integrated into the historic setting.
The grounds are filled with delights. You will never see a hi-vis jacket and people are free to roam and picnic or swim wild in the estuary. The tents, which are scattered in clusters that each have their own atmosphere, hold talks, readings, conversations, cooking demonstrations and performances – anything from a discussion with an artist, musician or writer to a blindingly brilliant set by the Japanese band Bo Ningen. There are craft workshops in the Hole & Corner tent, where you can learn to forge a nail, dye with indigo, make a green oak stool or watch Britain’s last traditional clog maker at work. You can learn bushcraft skills or go foraging for food, plants and flowers to make your own botanical inks.
In the Wardrobe Department kids can take life drawing lessons from Barbara Hulanicki – with models including Oscar-winning Costume Designer, Sandy Powell – have a hat made by top milliner Stephen Jones, or take part in themed fashion shows – last year it was Game of Thrones, this year ’80’s Disco. The eateries are plentiful and always good and between events you can retire to the waterside gin bar and sit in a deck-chair people-watching with a backdrop of mudlarkers when the tide is out. There is a Wild West saloon with live music and real swing doors to make an entrance. You can take a hot tub on the banks of the river under the stars as we did, or boogie in the woods till dawn, or both if that is the way that the evening pans out.
Finding respite from the crowds in the house, the high ceilings and faded grandeur provide an elegant setting for magical installations and exhibitions of historic interest. In the Dining Room this year two articulated dolls made by Leonidas set an appropriately spooky tone, which put us in mind of The Turn of the Screw.
The garden, which rolls over the undulating terrain in a series of copses and clearings boasts some magnificent trees and, wherever you go, there are surprises; a huge Magnolia delavayi, a camellia walk, a maze that took Perry years to plan. The Walled Garden, which is gardened lightly today, has runs of colourful Higgledy Garden annual seed mixes jostling against high, lichened walls. A huge Crinum powelli ‘Album’ makes an appearance next to the Orangery and hydrangeas burst from behind box hedges, as if from another age. As you swing down to the estuary, dramatically spanned by Brunel’s viaduct, you are greeted by a lawn punctuated with clumps of giant Pampas grass. This is the way to see them, marching confidently across the landscape.
The serious matter of judging the Flower Show started on Friday afternoon as we took a sneak preview of the entries as they started to arrive into the below-stairs corridors beneath the house. Cool flag floors and no windows provided a perfect environment for the flowers, which were arranged on trestle tables according to the entry classes. A workbench at the end of the corridor was set up for last minute arranging and adjustments, and the judging started at 9:30 prompt the following morning.
Michael Howells, the festival’s Creative Director, adjudicated. The judges, Sarah Husband, Tony Howard, Huw and myself followed behind to make our selections. A pair of redoubtable local WI members ensured that the judging was rigorous and fair, recorded the names and entry numbers of the entrants and placed rosettes and cups. The themes of the Flower Show at the festival are always inspiring and spawn great leaps of imagination amongst the entrants. True to the best of English flower shows there are sections for both adults and children.
The adult classes this year included a range of subjects marking a number of significant anniversaries. The 300th anniversary of the birth of Capability Brown was celebrated in a miniature landscape garden. I love a miniature garden and attribute my career to a rosette-winner I made when I was ten for the Liss Flower Show.
The class ‘Fire Fire !!’ marked the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London and entries used the best of high summer colour to paint this picture.
‘All the World’s a Stage’ celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, whilst ‘A Sight for Sore Eyes’ (commemorating the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings) generated the Best in Show award with a gory battlefield, set against a bloodied English flag. King Harold, made from torn paper, arms and legs akimbo, lay with an arrow in his eye and drops of glistening blood.
‘Down the Garden Path’, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter was, not surprisingly, a delight and one exhibit stood out immediately for its attention to detail with miniature tools and even a tiny cross bearing Peter Rabbit’s blue coat. It was a world within a world and a unanimous First Prize winner.
The children’s section (“‘My Hero’ – a sculpture of your favourite Roald Dahl character made of fruits and vegetables”) is always fun and shows great inventiveness, and we struggled from wondering if one or two had had adult assistance, they were that clever. I loved the anthropomorphic transformation of fruit and veg into characters. They were pure unbridled fun.
We finished by moving out into the light again to the banks by the house to judge the scarecrow competition. Ancient Magnolia grandiflora pressed themselves tight to the walls of the house and great billowing clouds furnished the sky above us. This year’s theme was Angels and Devils. My favourite scarecrow was of Boris Johnson, complete with mop of straw hair and a Brexit badge. It felt like he had found an appropriate and fitting home for himself.
This year’s was a particularly meaningful festival, because Perry (Peregrine Eliot, 10th Earl of St. Germans) was buried little more than a day before it opened. It was extraordinary timing on his part and, given that he and Cathy have always been the most generous of hosts, exceptionally fitting and true to his spirit that the party simply continued.