A tea plantation is the last thing you’d expect to find in the Cornish countryside but, sure enough, in our Audi A5 Cabriolet,
it’s just a few short miles from bustling Truro to Tregothnan and its business growing the leaves for Britain’s favourite beverage. While tea cultivation is a relatively new enterprise here, the estate is where generations of the Boscawen family have lived and worked since 1334. The house is private and its gardens are open to the public just once a year, but we’ve been invited to look around.
‘The gardens are famous for lots of reasons, but at the crux of the story are our rhododendrons and camellias – Tregothnan was probably the first to bring these plants to the UK,’ marketing manager Bella Percy-Hughes tells us as we walk the sweeping drive – the longest in Europe. These ornamental shrubs put on a spectacular display of pink and purple flowers when they blossom in March and April, which is when the estate holds its annual open weekend for charity, the most recent raising an astonishing £50,000. Private tours of the grounds are also available to book all year round, at £65 per person.
Tregothnan employs eight full-time horticultural staff, and it doesn’t take us long to bump into one of them. Head gardener Neil Bennett readily admits he has ‘the best job in the world’ – although looking after such prestigious grounds isn’t without its pressures. Like tending the Wollemi pine – a tree so rare it’s referred to as a living fossil. Or carefully pruning the mighty magnolia, the blooms of which signal the start of spring in the UK. And, of course, ensuring that the tea bushes are flourishing.
It was this experience of growing magnificent plants, especially camellias – of which tea is a type – that, in 1999, persuaded Neil’s predecessor, head gardener turned managing director Jonathon Jones, to try his hand at a new crop. ‘The first harvest, in 2005, produced just 28 grams – that’s enough for about 10 cups!’ says Bella. They’ve come a long way since then. Today, Tregothnan produces a core range of 12 luxury teas made using leaves and herbs from the estate, which are available to buy from the likes of Waitrose, Liberty and Selfridges, as well as its own online shop.
But back to our tour of the estate. Making our way past the rare tree ferns and 200-year-old cork tree, we come to the tea plantation. It’s quite a strange sight – as if a slice of verdant Sri Lankan hillside has been dropped into an English garden. We pick a few of the very freshest, light green leaves and leaf buds, inhaling their grassy scent. ‘Put them in your pockets and roll them around to release the oils and, once they’ve dried, you’ll be able to make the most delicious cup of tea,’ advises Bella.
The estate’s many black teas are made in precisely this way – the rolling helps the leaves oxidise naturally, giving the tea its dark colour (although it usually takes place on a larger scale, on vast tables, rather than in the picker’s pockets!). To make its green variety, the leaves are steamed instead, so they keep their vibrant hue. Tregothnan made history by being the first – and so far the only – producer growing tea leaves in the UK. ‘Putting the English into English tea’, as their motto puts it.
It seems extraordinary that tea can grow here in Cornwall, but, apparently, it’s all down to the estate’s unique geography. Located in a creek, it’s about seven miles from the sea, and it’s this combination, it turns out, that makes for perfect tea-cultivation conditions. The gardens are routinely bathed in mist, while the surrounding hills and valleys retain warmth, which means the tea bushes here luxuriate in conditions that are often warmer than Darjeeling in India.
It’s thirsty work walking even this small corner of the estate’s 26,000 acres, so a tea-tasting makes for a welcome interlude. We first slurp the Great British, Earl Grey, Manuka and Peppermint teas from a spoon in order to taste the layers of flavour – and they’re all delicious, of course. All too soon, we’re packing up the boot of the A5 with box upon box of teas and infusions and taking to the road.
Pasties and Poldark? One day, perhaps it’ll be tea that Cornwall’s best known for instead.
Words by Emma Barlow. Photographs by Alexander Rhind.