I wouldn’t like to guess how many cups of tea I’ve drunk in my lifetime. Today’s definitely been an exception with only one (so far…) I started drinking tea as soon as I mastered draining the dregs from my mum’s mug, soon moving on to draining the mug when she unsuspectingly put it down half-finished and left it for a minute or two. This led to me getting my own mug, albeit slightly smaller, and a whole cup of tea to myself, and I’ve never looked back. When my housemate moved back to Cornwall I offered him a cup of tea while he was unpacking, querying his affirmative with, which kind? He replied that now he knew he was back in Falmouth – typically here everyone has an impressive range of tea in their cupboard.
As it happens Viscount Falmouth knows more than a bit about tea. His family home at Tregothnan – old house at the head of the valley in Cornish – sits amidst grounds occupying the wedge of land between the confluence of the Truro-Tresillian and Fal-Ruan Rivers on the Fal Estuary (click here for aerial view/map). It is this specific situation and the micro-climate created by the estuarine rivers, the shelter of the valleys and the damp but warm south facing slopes that made the gardens here the perfect nursery for developing exotic specimens brought back from botanical forays into the Himalayan valleys over two hundred years ago. Plants and trees such as magnolias, rhododendron, and azaelea that had previously not been seen in Britain were successfully established, replicated and hybridised at several Cornish estates. It was the camellia, however, that was to become the speciality at Tregothnan, who claim, (alongside a couple of other places it has to be noted) to be the originators of camellias in the UK. Whether this is true or not they are certainly among the oldest growers and cultivators of the species which arrived here from China, where it is named cháhuā 茶花 : the tea flower.
Tea has been grown in China and Japan for millennia, primarily from the selectively bred Camellia sinensis. The top two leaves and bud are plucked, rested, rolled and were traditionally steamed to create green tea. Black tea involves drying the leaves to two percent moisture level and was invented when it was found to travel the long distance to Europe better than its green counterpart. Black tea was a hit in Europe, but in England it really took off, going from the height of luxury when it was made fashionable in the court of Charles II to becoming what many consider to be the National Drink. Initially tea was exorbitantly expensive due to the high import costs and restrictions in getting at the raw product itself. It was opium that opened up tea trading for the British East India Company with China, as this was a high value product in great demand there which was not produced within China itself. The English were also responsible for introducing tea to colonial India: despite the fact that camellias grow widely in the Himalayas they had not been cultivated for tea production. Once this got underway the problems of expensive tea trading with the closed doors of China were solved as tea could be produced for the British in what was British territory. However it wasn’t until 2000 that anybody tried experimenting with tea production in Britain itself, even though camellias had proved well suited to the home soil for more than 200 years. After a few trials the first brew from tea leaves grown on British soil, in England itself, was poured in 2006 from Tregothnan’s first Classic Tea blend.
I’ve wanted to go to the Tregothnan garden for years, ever since I set out to explore the tidal reaches of my local river, the Fal, for a writing project (which you can read in 13 instalments, here). Usually the grounds are closed to visitors except for private tours, which is fair enough if you don’t want random people wandering round your garden every weekend as the Boscawen family do actually live in the house, so I had to make do from the outside. Once a year, though, the secret garden is opened up for a charity event, and this year, finally, I made it.
I’m never quite sure what I think about camellias. Partly I am fascinated by their near-perfect blooms: waxy rose-like forms of fractal origami, a fully open camellia flower is a thing of beauty. Half open they look like roses made from curls of waxed card, tightly bound within a small hemisphere. German botanist Kaempfer referred to the camellias he saw growing in the hedges and gardens of the Far East before they were introduced to Western Europe as Japan Roses. But the flowers don’t last long and I’m slightly repulsed by the way they brown on the bushes and trees or drop fully formed to the floor where they go to mush. When in full bloom for every pink or red or white there is at least as many browned flowers on a camellia. The newly opened camellia maze at Tregothnan was possibly a few days past its best at the charity weekend, though still very pink and really quite stunning in comparison to the usual evergreen choices for a maze’s ‘walls’. Designed like a traditional labyrinth with a series of concentric circles, the innermost with red blooming specimen, the rest pink, this year marks the first time it has been opened to the public. The Head Gardener, who was gamely serving customers in the pop-up shop, said it had been twelve years in the making. Walking round it earlier I’d overheard someone a few rows in from me comment that everyone in the maze was wandering round completely lost, but with a big grin on their face. It probably wasn’t hindered by the fact that when you got to the middle, instead of the traditional statue or seat, there was a life-size, multi-coloured model of a cow.
As for the tea? Well Mrs Boscawen in her apron and her team in the stable block might not be as practised at service as some of us who’ve had to do that for a living but after a breezy afternoon wandering among the Himalayan slopes of the Cornish Riviera in her back garden I was definitely ready for a cup.
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An insight into the secluded stretch of the River Fal that forms the boundary of the Tregothnan Estate, from quiet and almost unreachable estuarine nature reserve of Ruan Creek to the bustle of afternoon tea at Tolverne where the Fal joins the Truro River.