From a derelict field full of baler twine to a garden filled with exotic plants and a James Turrell installation in 15 years. Hats off to Neil Armstrong, we say

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Pictures: Allan Pollok Morris

Some people are gluttons for punishment.

Not satisfied with juggling job, family, normal life and remembering dates some people will insist on piling on more stuff. For example, if you were a busy doctor
in Penzance with wife and children and a pretty good-sized garden to deal with, including polytunnel, would you willingly take on about 20 acres of semi neglected hillside with the intention of turning it into a spectacular garden
studded with sculptures made by internationally renowned artists?

No, I didn’t think so, and neither would I. But, then, neither of us is Neil Armstrong who has created the gardens at Tremenheere in Cornwall.

Mounting ambitions

The process began 15 years ago - although Neil had had his beady eye on the hill for a while. “It used to be a farm that grew vegetables for the monks who lived on St Michael’s Mount” he says “cartloads of cabbages were trundled down to the sea and across to the monastery at low tide”.

Now there are no vegetables but you still get a spectacular view from the top of the garden of the Mount – a picturesque rock tantalisingly just out of reach at high tide, but accessible by foot at low water.

St Michael’s Mount has a colourful history. After the monks were turfed out during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (around the mid 16th century) it was seized by Cornish rebels, sold by Elizabeth I to Robert Cecil and finally (in 1647) taken over by the St Aubyn family. They still live in part of the island although most of it is run by the National Trust.

Perfect green moments

When Neil started the gardens the whole place was not just overgrown but strewn with litter. All the detritus of modern(ish) farming had been left behind. Plastic sacks, baling twine, wire and bits of machinery had to be painstakingly found and removed before anything even faintly horticultural could take place.

What he has set out to achieve is to make a garden that is a subtle blend of good plants and great art - with lots of surprises.

Over the years of neglect many large trees had tumbled and Neil has worked with them rather than completely clearing the site. Paths go through the branches of a fallen beech and little ferns have germinated among the moss.

The path through the jungle

When you first wander into the garden from the newly built cafe you enter a tunnel of vegetation that follows a stream that cascades through various pools down the hillside. So far, so Cornish.

The path then turns into a timber boardwalk where the native beech and ferns are augmented by towering tree ferns, large leaved magnolias and other, more exotic plants. Subtly, the mood has changed to a sort of temperate jungle.

There are some pretty staggering plants here and you can hear Neil’s excitement rise as he talks about them. There are four different sorts of Cyathea (brownii, cooperi, dealbata and medularis), one of the very best tree ferns. There are bamboos, dicksonias and a great selection of scheffleras – made famous by the amazing Chelsea Flower Show displays by the Wynn-Jones of Crug Farm Nurseries. There is a fascinating and comprehensive list that you can download from the Trememheere website.

Horticultural theatrics - a surprise at every turn

Then you pop out on the top of the hill and are suddenly in a proto-arid landscape of agaves, eryngiums and all that is dry and succulent.


This was not expected at all. It is a supreme moment of horticultural theatre: like popping into a tardis and not quite knowing where you will end up. Again, there are some extraordinary plants: cacti, succulents, agaves and other things that you expect to find on dry sandy plains, not Cornwall where, as anybody who has spent a beach holiday here will attest, it rains quite a lot.

There is also an area of Fynbos. This is a recreation of the natural heathland that you find in the Western Cape of South Africa – spiny Southern hemisphere eryngiums, restios, agapanthus and palms.

Everyone needs a hole in the roof

At the top of the garden is “Skyspace” designed by American artist James Turrell. Turrell has built similar buildings all over the world (including Spain, Ireland and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park).

Neil describes it, very accurately, as a temple-like building. You enter through heavy doors that lead along a tunnel to a wide chamber lined with benches. The idea is that you sit there and gaze at the sky through a large hole in the roof. Into which Neil’s son occasionally amuses himself by chipping golf balls through the opening from the surrounding garden.

It is a very soothing and strangely hypnotic experience.

From here to eternity

This is one of my favourite parts of this extraordinary garden: the tufts of Stipa tenuissima blow around wildly in the Cornish breezes and the contrast between them and the Beschorneria yuccoides is very striking. Fluffy and exotic is often odd but here it seems just right. Especially with another great view of St Michael’s Mount, shown here looming out of a classically misty Cornish morning.

Just out of shot – click on the hotspot to see more - is a Camera obscura. This is a shed with a revolving lens on the roof through which an image of the surrounding garden is projected (slightly fuzzily) onto a table in the darkness of the shed. It is magical in its simplicity.

This one was built by Cornish artist, Billy Wynter and provides a different focus on this particular part of the garden.

The art of the garden

There is much more art scattered through the garden some obvious and some very subtle.

In the latter category a simple row of eleven pine logs each about a metre high by Kishio Suga. There is a cut along the top of the logs which symbolises our journey through life.

Neil has managed to attract some great artists to Tremenheere. Noted landscape artist Richard Long has just planted a row of Boloskion tetraphyllum (a South African restio) into the grassy slope at the top of the garden - from where you get the very best views.

David Nash (who had an amazing exhibition at Kew Gardens last year) has created a huddle of charred oak shapes, called Black Mound, just on the edge of the surrounding woodland. In the spring it is surrounded by bluebells and fresh new leaves.

Snapper days

The photographer, Allan Pollok-Morris, is running a series of two day Photography workshops for up to 10 people, open to photographers of all levels with individual coaching and a guide to using Capture One software.

For information of further talks by Allan Pollok-Morris see the website.

Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens are open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The Lime Tree Café is open late (until 9pm) and is available for private hire. Tremenheere Sculpture Garden, Gulval, Near Penzance, Cornwall TR20 8YL Telephone 01736 448 089