Last weekend I braved the blustery weather to visit one of Cornwall's best spring gardens. Caerhays Castle is nestled in a sheltered valley between Truro and St Austell, overlooking Porthluney Cove. With more than 100 acres of informal woodland garden, it is home to one of Britain's best collections of camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons as well as a wide variety of spring flowers such as daffodils, primroses and bluebells
This was my first visit but I was already familiar with the castle from the 1979 BBC adaptation of Rebecca. Although Manderlay itself was inspired by another Cornish estate, Menabilly, Caerhays is in many ways the perfect stand-in. The nameless narrator in Daphne Du Maurier's novel is overwhelmed by the gardens at Manderlay where 'Rhododendrons stood fifty feet high'.
But it was the magnolias I particularly wanted to see. Some of the trees are enormous. More than 100 years old, they tower over the path. I've never seen anything like it. Some of their flowers are the size of dinner plate, others are spidery and delicate. As I meandered along the path I gawped at the sheer variety and beauty on display.
There has been a house at Caerhays since the Middle Ages but the current building, although it looks at first glance like a Norman castle, was designed by John Nash in 1807. Nash, who is best known for his work on Buckingham Palace and Brighton Pavilion, didn't come cheap. The cost of construction bankrupted the owner, John Bettesworth Trevanion, and his debts eventually forced him into exile. After several years of neglect, Caerhays was bought by Michael Williams in 1854 and has remained in the family ever since.
The Williams family are responsible for the extraordinary gardens which include more than 450 magnolias. They sponsored plant hunting expeditions to China, Burma and Tibet in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, laying the foundations for the gardens as they are today.
J. C. Williams, who succeeded his father in the 1880s, worked closely with plant hunters, Ernest Wilson and George Forrest and introduced a programme of plant breeding and hybridisation that resulted in many new varieties. Current owner, Charles Williams, also founded the wonderful Burncoose Nursery and continues the work of his forebears.
The gardens at Caerhays are open every day until mid-June but now is the best time to visit the. Visitors can also tour the castle from Monday to Friday. For more information www.caerhays.co.uk