The Tamar Valley can be a grey and dank place between November and January. Outings tend to need the right sort of clothes and a brew. A trip, at this time of year, to the medieval Manor House, Cotehele, provides numerous muddy walks along rivers or in the countryside and plenty of chances for a brew. It also alleviates the dankness with a fabulous flashback to the fecundity of Summer.
The tradition of the garland goes back to the 1950’s. It celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2016. Because it appears in November and carries on beyond the new year. Many first time visitors are surprised by its colour scheme. It doesn’t shout Christmas with rich jewel colours or bold glossy green foliage, instead it is a joyous celebration of summer colours. Everything in the garland is grown, dried and stored on the estate.
My eye is always caught by the bright pink abstract wiggles of Limonium suworowii or Pink pokers. Tethered, as they undoubtedly are, in the garland, they look like horticultural escape artists waiting to break free.
The garland is the responsibility of the head gardener. Each garland takes 12 days to assemble but it has taken a full gardening year to grow the plants from seed and then harvest them to be hung and dried ready for the November assembly. Depending on the quality of the summer weather, between 23,000 and 35,000 flowers are produced. Volunteers spend 70 hours a week caring for, then cutting and stripping the flowers ready to be dried. Picking starts in April, once ready, they are bunched and hung to dry until November.
Each garland differs slightly depending on the growing success, or not, of the various flowers that traditionally form the garland. Some years a theme is adopted that has a particular significance, for example, last year was the centenerary of the end of World War 1.
The green base of the garland is the product from fifty Pittosporum or Cheesewood trees, an evergreen shrub with small, shiny, leathery leaves. Ninety feet of rope forms the beginning of the swag, bunches of Pittosporum are then tied to the rope until it is covered.
Photo credit . The National Trust. Cotehele
The swag is then ready to become a garland.
Scaffolding is erected indoors and the swag is hung in the Great Hall, gardeners clamber up to create the lofty design, the beauty of a years harvest of flowers and hard work are pushed into the greenery one colour at a time to ensure an even distribution.
The Garland attracts 32,000 visitors to the estate. For some it is an annual visit, to rekindle the memories of past visits, for others, it is a unique experience, never to be repeated but wonderful never the less. The volunteer guides at Cotehele are a huge asset. This pondering was all gleaned from talking to a volunteer for less than ten minutes, I don’t think she missed a single thing.