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Tremenheere thankyou notes

Jan Coles on the sculpture garden and site of James Turrell's only UK skyspace.


One of the joys of long-standing friendship is that you can say to one another of painting or author or place, “This is precious to me, take a look” and be reassured that your passion will be treated with kindness and even joy. This is how it was in early August when Caroline and David Windsor took me on a mystery tour to Lanyon Farm, out past Madron Carn, and I at last introduced them to Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens near Gulval.

So singularly mysterious and beautiful is this garden to me that if someone was to insist that I had dreamt it up I would half believe them. Luckily however it does exist and I owe its place in my heart to another friend of mine, Monica Wynter, who first took me to its May-time Bluebell Festival three years ago now. The proceeds from this art installation, plant sale and delicious food stalls went to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (which is the only organisation in the UK to be solely dedicated to the treatment of torture survivors).

The garden spills down the south-west facing hillside, a rich tapestry of greens and gold upon the fertile soil. As a description this immediately fails and frustrates me for of course it is the very structural and architectural nature of the planting and design here which so thrill the visitor. Tremenheere is the creation of doctors Neil Armstrong and Jane Martin who have allowed the natural valley landscape (along with their choice of rhododendrons, evergreen magnolias, palm trees, giant ferns and exquisite bamboo and soft waist-high grasses) to co-exist with man-made works of sculpture in restful harmony.

The late Irish theologian, long-time priest and poet/author John O’Donohue would have loved this place. At the very edge of the land and in perpetual relationship with the horizon it feels to me like one of the ‘thin’ places of Celtic understanding. The veil between our physical world and the numinous slips at these places so that when you arrive here from crowdedness and noise it is indeed a ‘divine embrace’ that settles about you. In his book ‘Divine Beauty-The Invisible Embrace’ he writes:

“The beauty of the earth is the first beauty. Millions of years before us the earth lived in wild elegance. Landscape is the first-born of creation. Sculpted with huge patience over millennia, landscape has enormous diversity of shape, presence and memory. There is poignancy in beholding beauty…often it feels as though it has been waiting for centuries for the recognition and witness of the human eye.”

It is John O’Donohue who suggests that when you love a place and honour it with your attentive presence it will be loving you back with equal tenderness. It will miss you when you are not there. It will wait for your return and you will feel its rejoicing when together once more you breathe of the same air.

Whenever I go to Tremenheere I feel a great kindness here. Time slips. Perhaps it is the love being poured into this place that greets me at the old stone bridge across the stream. I am certain that the ‘wild elegance’ achieved here through the gradually unfolding areas of the garden make it a meditative and contemplative place. It is a Slow Garden , drenched in birdsong, fragrant with trees.

Everyone who comes will see it differently but I experience it as a series of circular ‘rooms’ or stories effortlessly drawing me up the hillside between the wooded columns of its boundaries.

So I see the speckled woodland room with airy space between the trees, the desert room with spiky sci-fi agaves, the American plains room with sensuous waving grasses, the jungle room with exquisitely painted bamboo. The primordial swamp room is almost black with giant ferns and mossy pools, the dense and boggy woodland walk is made infinitely pleasing by the boardwalk under foot. And at the very centre of the garden, like the Grand Hall of a medieval castle, is the sunlit garden room where the August heat, shimmering gold, bounced up from the springy grass and winding path beyond the cool and sighing trees.

Numerous dragonflies zip-locked the air about us darting between dust motes, which like the meteor showers above our heads this same week in August, I imagined to be golden debris in their sights. A paper-thin leaf blowing gently uphill as we approached our first resting place in the woods turned out to be a tiny, inch-long frog! Right at Caroline’s feet an origami frog! So delicate, so bony, wending its way up the sunlit slope with movements as slow and precise as a mechanical toy.

And with the dream-like embrace of Tremenheere about me like a cloak I implore first-time visitors to NOT LOOK BACK as you wander up the hillside, do not be impatient as Orpheus was for a glance of his beloved Eurydice. Allow the paths to lead you upwards to the curved seat of the wooden viewing platform and keep your eyes focused on the gradually emerging Mesa-like terrain and American artist James Turrell’s Skyspace.

Only then may you stop and look back to find yourself amazed. And your exclamation of, “Oh! Just look at that!” will join with the myriad of voices preceding yours, now forever recorded in the air, on dragonfly wingbeats, in the silvery grain of the wooden tower, itself a work of art, built here to welcome you and bid you pause a while. At your feet a stone built camera obscura and all about you, as if you have become a bird, is the exhilarating light as your new element. And up here, close to the clouds and the skyscapes, there appears to be, emerging from the earth itself, a new temple which reminds you of more ancient archaeological discoveries and creates an immediate curiosity and sense of wonder.

What is this building? What is it going to show us surrounded, as it is here, by granite boulders soaking up the sun and stony terraces of palms, grasses and exotic desert plants?

We are rescued at this point by Andrew, the young weekend gardener, with his knowledge of rare plants and their botanical naming and his infectious enthusiasm for this whole project. Without now giving too much away about the work in progress of James Turrell’s installation I found myself at one of those ‘thin’ places in the garden. I thought of cathedrals and the ‘temporary temples’ of August’s crop circles, of sacred space and the way the light and wind and rain actively sculpt our world. Up at this height it is easy to meditate on the ways that light plays upon water, paints and shadows our waking moments and the way it so pleases the human eye to look heavenwards.

We left the garden through the mossy woodland walk and I was taken off to Lanyon Farm. Still stunned by Tremenheere it was lovely to sit in the cool breeze of the tea garden and to look across the patchwork land towards Carn Galver. Auburn and black feathered chickens paraded along the stone hedge with Ding Dong mine in the background. The boxy fields glowed emerald green as we sat and talked of Roger Deakin and his love of wild swimming which thankfully survives him in his book ‘Waterlog.’ It was a perfect end to our day.


This year garden opening times have been extended to every weekend and Bank Holiday until the end of October and a slide show (with identification of some of its rare exotic and tender plants) can be seen on the website www.tremenheere.co.uk