The Minack Theatre Garden: Where Drama and Nature Flourish in Harmony

A horticultural haven in a wild clifftop setting and a worthy addition to the Great Gardens of Cornwall

 

Visit the Minack Theatre Garden and you’ll witness the harmonious union of stone, planting and performance, that enhances the magic and storytelling power of this space.

The Minack Theatre Garden is thoughtfully cultivated, in contrast to the untouched and wild landscape that borders it; yet not a petal feels out of place. The view towards Pedn Vounder Beach and Logan Rock looks just as it would have done 100 years ago, anchoring the creativity of the theatre and the evolution of the garden in the permanence of the open ocean.

Great gardens do not just happen, they are willed into existence by the strong personalities who have the imagination to dream them and the mettle to dig deep and create them. So to examine the story of the Minack is actually an exploration of Rowena Cade, the truly remarkable woman who conceived this wonderful project.

Eden Project Cornwall

📸 Minack Theatre

From Cheltenham Ladies College to the wild depths of Cornwall

 

As the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, Rowena grew up accustomed to a life of comfort and privilege. Until the First World War turned her life and that of her family upside down. Determined to escape the conventional, ladylike world of Cheltenham Ladies College, Rowena volunteered to work for the Remount Service, preparing horses to be sent to the Western Front in France.

Rowena’s father died in 1917 and when the war ended Rowena and her mother sold their house and lived a nomadic existence for a couple of years. They were drawn to the landscape of Cornwall and, after a brief stay in Lamorna, bought the Minack headland for £100.

Eden Project Cornwall
📸 Lynn Batten

It all started with Shakespeare

 

Rowena, an amateur dramatic enthusiast, offered her cliff garden as the venue for a community performance of The Tempest, a perfect setting for a story of storm and shipwreck. During the winter Rowena and her gardener, Billy Rawlings, cleared the scrub, raised the sloping ground with rock and earth, and turfed it to make a stage and terraces for the audience to sit on. At the back of the stage was a sheer drop. Luckily a wheelbarrow was the only casualty to take a plunge into the Atlantic far below.

The first performance took place on 16 August, 1932, lit by battery lights and a full moon. The first audience was as enchanted by the setting as the play. A reviewer in The Times wrote: Short of securing an island and wrecking a ship on its coast, there could be no more ideal setting for The Tempest than the cliffs a few miles from Land’s End.

Construction of the Minack was a true partnership. Billy taught Rowena how to work with stone, and she became skilled in creating structures from concrete, which she decorated with elaborate celtic designs, etched into the wet concrete with an old screwdriver.

Eden Project Cornwall
📸 Billy Rawlings
One of Rowena Cade's Minack Carvings in Stone

📸 Rowena Cade’s Carvings

Rowena Cade's Screwdriver
📸 Lynn Batten
Eden Project Cornwall
📸 Billy Rawlings
Eden Project Cornwall
📸 Cary Wolinsky

WW II comes to the Minack

 

Porthcurno was a site of great importance during the Second World War, due to the underwater telegraph cables that originated there. Communication between Britain and its allies was dependent on these cables, and it was unthinkable that Porthcurno could fall into enemy hands. The Minack headland suddenly found itself on the front line of the nation’s defences, its cliff top smothered in coils of barbed wire.

Rowena herself worked as a billeting officer, housing and caring for child evacuees during the course of the war, making the local community a refuge for many during this fearful time.

After the war, little was left of the theatre except a bare stage. Undeterred, she set to work to restore and rebuild, and in 1949 the theatre reopened. The public appetite for entertainment was undiminished, and as the Minack’s fame grew, and more companies wanted to play there, Rowena Cade and her helpers extended and improved the facilities, with a solid stage, dressing rooms and more seating and a lighting box – all made from stone and concrete, using sand brought up in sacks from the beach. Building the Minack took Rowena the rest of her life. She died in 1983 at the age of 89, some of her plans, including one for a second, covered theatre just round the corner of the cliff, still only a rough drawing.

Eden Project Cornwall
📸 Lynn Batten
Eden Project Cornwall
📸 Lynn Batten

The Minack Theatre Garden is as important to the visitor experience as the performance itself

 

The modern garden is only three decades old, but its connection to the theatre and the landscape make it feel timeless. Nature is all powerful here, and to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the Minack is to flood your senses and soul with everything a garden should be.

The theatre is now managed by the Minack Theatre Trust CIO, a charity established by the Cade family to ensure its future, and it is under this custodianship that the Minack Theatre Garden has matured into the Great Garden of Cornwall that it is today. Head Gardeners Claire Batten and Jeff Rowe, have excelled themselves to create a garden of distinction; there is nowhere else like the Minack garden in the UK, and its planting is equally unique. Due to its specific geological and climatic conditions, the Minack garden is home to a wealth of exotic plant species, many of which can rarely grow outdoors in mainland Britain.

The garden is virtually frost-free and has lots of succulents left in the ground all year round. Great curtains of Delosperma sweep down the face of the rocks, perfect for a theatre. The King Protea shines like a huge, improbable star among the foliage, and Spiral Aloes draw the eye with intricate patterns. Vibrant reds, yellows, purples, blues and pinks of sub-tropical plants catch your eye at every turn, which seem all the more exotic when viewed against the backdrop of the Atlantic ocean. The Minack is visited by many species of wildlife including Cornish choughs, and is a great place to catch a glimpse of seals and dolphins.

This is a garden that makes you feel alive. Visiting the Minack garden is a life-affirming experience, and the atmosphere exuded by this exotic and carefully managed space is one of sub-tropical calm, artistic freedom and wild beauty. If only Rowena could take a tour of the garden as it is today, sit perched in her wheelbarrow one last time, and marvel at the fruits of her labour. Surely even Rowena would be blown away by the magic of the interwoven performance and planting. The Minack Theatre and its glorious garden have come a long way since the maiden performance of The Tempest in 1932, and their story is far from over yet.

Eden Project Cornwall

📸 Jeff Rowe and Claire Batten

Eden Project Cornwall

📸 Lynn Batten

Malvolio amongst the thyme in the garden
📸 Lynn Batten
Minack Garden with Porthcurno Bay in the background
📸 Lynn Batten
Eden Project Cornwall
📸 Lynn Batten