Cornwall boasts the most gorgeous gardens in Britain so I was thrilled to discover a new addition to its great outdoor attractions.
Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens is hidden in a lush valley with woodlands, a stream and dramatic vistas which provide the setting for contemporary art installations.
International artists such as James Turrell and David Nash have created permanent art works which make the most of the beautiful landscapes at Tremenheere.
Art and the great outdoors
I discovered Tremenheere by accident when visiting nearby St Michael’s Mount, another of Cornwall’s best-loved attractions.
I was surprised to discover that in the 1200s Tremenheere was owned by the monks of St Michaels’. The land is thought to have been the vineyard for the Mount in the 15th Century. Later, in the 18th Century, it became well-known for its strawberries which thrived in its warm and sheltered climate.
Today’s gardens are the result of landscape gardening carried out by the Tremenheere family who planted the beech, oak and sweet chestnut woods in the 19th Century. Rhododendrons also create a stunning array of colours from late Spring.
Unfortunately, I arrived on one of the wettest days of the year, but even the weather couldn’t dampen my spirits. This place is a joy for everyone from horticulture fans to art lovers.
There was never a big country house at Tremenheere which means there’s no ceremonial drive and intimate formal gardens. Instead the landscape design is unrestrained and takes on a life of its own.
The pathways around Tremenheere follow the natural shape of the land whilst intriguing vistas frame picturesque views at every turn.
Arriving at Tremenheere, you get the immediate feeling that you’re going to have a good time. It’s not over-commercialised and there’s a sense of calm and relaxation.
There are intriguing objects everywhere you look, some more surprising than others. One that caught my eye in the car park was a strange, silver skip which reflects the landscape in its shiny mirrored surfaces.
Artist Ian Penna’s Skip of Light is highly appropriate. Even though Tremenheere opened in 2012, there’s still work going on to build and develop its art collection and gardens. This is a work of art in progress.
Given the torrential downpour, there was only one thing to do – head for the cafe. This proved to be an inspired choice as the home-made cakes were a sweet treat.
Looking out across the landscape from the cafe’s covered seating area, a new art installation was springing up outside. Part Greek temple, half Eiffel Tower, this work – called The Restless Temple – is an intriguing sight.
When the rain subsided, I took a walk over to this strange modern monument which is perhaps intended as a reflection of Europe’s current identity crisis.
The Restless Temple is the work of artist Penny Saunders. The 14 columns are balanced beneath by pendulums connected to an articulated framework, allowing the pillars to dance with each other harmoniously whether there’s a light breeze or raging gale.
The artist says the art work is about flexibility “in the face of the mighty forces of nature” with plenty of experiments in gravity thrown in for good measure.
It also taps into the theme of political insecurity, a symbol of a western civilization teetering on the edge. Whatever the message, it’s an astonishing sight.
Pathways to art
Tremenheere means “place of the long stones” so it’s appropriate that one of the first works you’ll see is called Long Stones close to the visitor centre.
Further into the garden walk, you’ll see this stone object which also evokes the ancient landscape around Tremenheere. Surrounded by lush vegetation and a sheltered microclimate, the country park feels like somewhere with a semi-tropical climate.
There are also stunning views over to St Michael’s Mount on a clear day. On my visit the rain and mist had descended so the view was sadly obscured.
The visionary team at Tremenheere have aimed to create a naturalistic, arcadian space which blends the elements of landscape, planting and art to create a place for contemplation and wonder.
It is certainly wonderful and inspiring. It’s easy to lose yourself in nature here. The art trail starts at a low-key entrance with a stream before opening up into a grander, expansive landscape.
The landscaping has a sub-tropical theme which means that the gardens retain their appeal around the seasons of the year.
The art also reflects the garden design. A striking installation by Japanese artist Kishio Suga features a scaffolding cage enclosing bamboo poles. It’s supposed to represent repressed energy, inspired by a phenomenon in Japanese society where young men take to their bedrooms because they find modern society daunting.
Nearby you can also see the real thing – an amazing bamboo plant with its wall of greenery and exotic textures.
Art in the park
One of the things I love about Tremenheere is how well the art works blend with the landscape.
A favourite is artist Ken Gill’s cleverly located Skhimza, an installation which uses a large shard of glass to celebrate an ancient fissure in a rock face.
Blink and you could almost miss it. It is perfectly at one with the landscape which is what all the works at Tremenheere are trying to do in their different ways.
Elsewhere you’ll stumble upon a series of sculptures throughout the woods including one piece which reminded me of a strange origami creation.
Keep your eyes open because it’s easy to miss a few of the installations. I had to double-back more than once during my walk.
But don’t take things too far. At one point I nearly mistook a wooden cutting machine and logs for an art work!
One piece that you won’t miss is Minotaur by Tim Shaw which comes raging out of the woods like an angry beast that has just been disturbed.
This work is about the nature of the human psyche. It has a certain primordial presence especially on the misty day when I encountered it unexpectedly lurking behind a clump of trees.
The work was originally unveiled by Sir Harrison Birtwistle at The Royal Opera House in 2008 to celebrate the opening premiere of the composer’s opera, The Minotaur. Now, it has found a new home at Tremenheere.
Another powerful work near the Minotaur is David Nash’s Black Mound which looks like an aggressive tribe of woodland people in a sculptural huddle.
This collection of charred oak shapes is sited to resonate with the surrounding mature oak woodland and bluebells in spring.
I’m a big fan of David Nash so it was a treat to see this imposing piece in a surprising location where you encounter it unexpectedly as you stroll through the woods.
Look closer and you’ll see the subtle textures of David Nash’s art work.
Rather than being one amorphous mass, it takes on a different character as you see the textures and cracks in the wood.
I enjoyed sitting looking at the piece from a nearby seat – a strangely contemplative experience.
In the spring these woodlands are covered with stunning bluebells which evoke the spirit of the Romantic poets like Keats and Shelley.
The micro-climate in the oak woods seems to create the perfect conditions for carpets of these gorgeous wild flowers.
On the not-so-clear day when I visited, the mist provided an added atmospheric touch evoking the story of Little Red Riding Hood lost in the woods.
Delve deeper into the woods and you’ll find Tony Lattimer’s impressive, new art installation called Companion.
I was amazed to discover that this work is made with coiled ‘worms’ of clay, joined and smoothed. It looks so smooth and tactile that the art work makes you want to touch its beautifully glossy surface.
The pieces were fired in a kiln to 1300º C and have a matt glaze which makes the final art work look like stoneware. This is a really clever effect and it’s one of my favourite of the woodland installations.
Land and sky
Two of the most spectacular works at Tremenheere are by the leading international artists, James Turrell and Richard Long.
Long has installed a strong line of tall exotic grasses on a slope in the upper gardens to create the effect of a long plane of vegetation. Tremenheere Line has a strongly contemplative feel which takes us on a journey across the landscape into the far distance.
The grasses are designed to ripple with any air movement creating a moving curtain of foliage.
On a clear day you can see to St Michael’s Mount but the mist rolled in during my trip, making this a wet and wild experience!
It does have a certain elegant beauty – in common with all Richard Long’s works – but the overall impact is marred by the low fencing that has been added to protect the grasses from foraging deer who know a good art work to nibble on when they see one.
Further into the heart of the garden site is James Turrell’s unmissable ‘Tewlwolow Kernow’ or ‘Twilight in Cornwall’, an elliptical domed chamber.
James Turrell is one of the world’s greatest contemporary artists so it’s a privilege to encounter one of his installations at Tremenheere. It’s one of a series of skyscapes which the American artist has made in different places across the globe.
He has transformed an underground Victorian tank, originally designed for storing water, into a natural light projection space. A kind of artistic light box.
Skyspace is located on a prominent site at the high point in the valley, entered from the bottom of the hill through an underground corridor. A rising passageway leads into an interior space, a chamber with Turrell’s trademark open ceiling framing the sky.
The shifting balance between the interior and exterior light provides a contemplative and hypnotic transition. You can sit here and gaze at the sky for a very long time.
The space is quietly inspirational, a bit like sitting in a chapel and contemplating nature in solitude.
It’s best seen at sunrise or sunset when the sky’s colours are changing and the light is shifting between dawn and dusk.
Even on a dull, wet day the effect is radiant and strangely hypnotic. Look out for special evening viewing sessions when this installation is at its most interesting.
Tricks of light
There are more visual tricks at Billy Wynter’s Camera Obscura which is located at a pivotal point in the main gardens. It’s approached along a pathway and looks a little like a surreal public toilet from the outside.
Once inside and acclimatised to the darkness, you can start to make out a 360° view of the gardens. It’s a strange and sensory experience.
It’s a bit like looking at an old oil painting of the landscape with smudgy edges and impressionistic brushstrokes and blocks of colour.
On the way out of the main gardens, look out for a series of sculptures by Tony Lattimer close to the Cafe including Pregnant Silence, Waterfront and Highwater.
Garden with a difference
Tremenheere is a garden with a difference – a perfect combination of art and outdoor spaces.
The natural world is brought to life through the art installations across the park – and it’s a very relaxing place to spend a couple of hours.
It may not be top of my list of blockbuster gardens in Cornwall but it is unusual… and I love it.
It’s no surprise that it was picked by The Times as one of the best ‘off the beaten track’ wild places with arts in the landscape in the UK.
Despite the bad weather, I enjoyed the trip immensely. Perhaps I need to return on a sunny day? Next time I’ll take my sun hat and flip flops.
Tammy’s Guide to Tremenheere Gardens
Tremenheere Sculpture Garden is located at Gulval a mile east of Penzance in south-west Cornwall.
The gardens are open for most of the year (apart from short break in January). Tickets cost around £8 or £20 for a family ticket. Kids under 11 go free. An annual ticket at £30 is good value if you’re planning return visits.
Take a break and drop in to the high quality Tremenheere Kitchen for coffee, lunch or a light snack. I can recommend the cakes.
Don’t miss the charming nursery run by ‘Surreal Succulents’ with its fantastic array of plants. Why not take one home with you and re-create your own arid garden in miniature.
Look out for special evening visits when you can experience the transformation of the Turrell’s ‘Twilight in Cornwall’ as dusk falls.
Why not combine a trip to Tremenheere with the nearby St Michael’s Mount or Penzance? If you’re staying longer, perhaps head further into Cornwall to see the remarkable Eden Project near St Austell.