Caerhays, the Cornish estate, is as famous for its rhododendrons and magnolias as it is for its excellent shoot, say Neil and Serena Cross.


Charles Williams, the current owner of Caerhays Castle, on Cornwall’s Roseland Peninsula, is both a renowned plantsman and a dedicated game shot. He summarises neatly the allure of his family seat by recognising that “the history of any one house is often just that – the history of a single house. However, it is from that house that people have travelled the world, fought wars or enjoyed life. A part of the interest of Caerhays has been the long association which it has enjoyed with plant hunting and hybridisation.” Williams is now the guardian of a National Collection of magnolias, as well as a world-famous rhododendron garden and perhaps one of the best shoots in the West Country.

Caerhays Castle, home to the Williams family.

Caerhays: The Garden

The present garden traces its origins to JC Williams, who owned the estates of Caerhays, Burncoose and Werrington, in Cornwall, and bought his first 25 Chinese rhododendrons from the Veitch Nursery in 1903. By 1905, he was busily transforming the coastal scrubland behind the castle into a pastiche of the misty valleys of south-west China, with more than 350 new species of rhododendron planted out in tight clusters to replicate their native habitat. The swirling sea mists and damp, mild, maritime climate of the estate suited these plants perfectly and Williams, in true Edwardian style, began to push the boundaries of modern woodland gardening.

During this golden era, Caerhays employed more than 60 gardeners and, driven by Williams’ enthusiasm, dense shelterbelts and serried ranks of ‘novelties’ were planted out on the hillsides to the seaward side of the castle, where they thrived as they did in the mountains of Sichuan and Yunnan. The requirement for ever more new species and the sheer scale of the planting brought Williams into the adventurous world of the professional plant hunters. Men such as EH Wilson (1876-1930) and George Forrest (1873-1932) were every bit as intrepid and pioneering as their contemporaries who chose to cut new trails into the African bush to hunt ivory or collect zoological specimens.

George Forrest in Yunnan, China, circa 1905. © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

The plant hunters may not have captured the imagination of the British public in quite the same way as FC Selous or WDM Bell, but they risked their lives on their quests to secure botanic specimens hitherto unknown in Europe. By 1911, Forrest had become a close friend of Williams, who sponsored his third Chinese expedition in 1912 with an investment of £3,108 13s 6d; a colossal sum at the time. The drive to produce a unique and exceptional garden led to Williams sponsoring Forrest’s fourth, fifth, sixth and final expeditions to the tune of about £11,000. This would equate to roughly £2m in modern terms when the buying power of this outlay is considered.

The result was that thousands of linen-lined packets of seeds began to arrive at Caerhays while Forrest battled warrior monks, cannibalistic tribesmen and enormous physical peril in the unmapped mountains of south-west China. Although his single-minded application to specimen collecting and cataloguing prevented him from recording a thorough travelogue, some snippets from the vast amount of correspondence he sent back to Caerhays are telling: “I had a very hot and dusty journey up from Bhamo and with my usual luck just missed trouble on the way… Kangnan… had just been attacked and looted by a body of 400 brigands.” Despite soldiers arriving to defend them, “there was a right good scrap with 12 to 14 soldiers and two couriers lying dead on the road”.

Thousands of linen-lined packets of seeds began to arrive at Caerhays. © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Scrapes like this were part and parcel of daily life in these remote areas and Forrest’s single-mindedness was recognised and admired by Williams, who wrote to Sir Isaac Balfour, Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh: “Where Forrest serves us well is in the iron way in which he battles to get the seed when most men would abandon the task as hopeless. His capacity, his energy and his knowledge are what we shall hardly see again in anyone.”

Forrest often had to hide up by day and travel by night, sometimes disguised as a Tibetan to avoid robbery and murder. He contracted a plethora of tropical diseases and very nearly starved to death on more than one expedition. The insect life alone was considered to be “both vigorous and troublesome; creatures with inconveniently long legs plunge suddenly into one’s soup. Great caterpillars in splendid but poisonous uniforms of long and gaily coloured hairs arrive in one’s blankets with the business-like air of a guest who means to stay, while other undesirables insert themselves under one’s nether-garments.”

The battery of automatic fowling pieces, repeating rifles, self-loading pistols and other weaponry that features on the inventories of these expeditions provides a clue as to the perilous nature of Forrest’s treks into regions with “roads of no kind, deep jungle and choked, panther-haunted gorges, bounded by break-neck precipices and dense forests in this land of eternal mists”. He records notable incidents, such as the shooting of his first wolf, with his third shot from a Winchester repeater at a range of 685 metres, and the narrow escape from tribesmen who cut out and ate the hearts of a less fortunate party, but he saved most of his ink for the exhaustive cataloguing of his plants and seeds. In total, he recorded more than 31,000 plant species.

The gardens are open February to June.

What is clear from the boxes of letters stored at Caerhays — more than 340 pages in one box alone — is that Forrest and Williams became very close friends. This friendship would endure until Forrest’s death, out snipe shooting in the wilds of south-west China in 1932, when he fell dead “before the last snipe he shot had hit the ground”. The two men shared similar passions, not only for botany but for open spaces and wild sport. Williams was a prodigious stalker and wrote often to Forrest (a Scot), recounting his outings on the hill at his Scottish estate in Ross-shire. Both men shared a dislike of London, agreeing that “not for gold untold would I live in such a city”. This bond and the common goal of amassing an unrivalled collection of novel species provided a foil to the pain and horror of World War I, which cost the lives of two of Williams’ sons. Despite the war, plant hunting continued and by 1916, Forrest was promising more than 100 new species for the gardens at Caerhays from his latest expedition. Many of these specimens survive to this day in the sheltered and mild Cornish landscape; and while the gales of January 1990 decimated many of the older trees, some of the larger plants are now more than 100 years old.

Outstanding rhododendrons in the woodland garden.

The legacy left by Forrest and JC Williams is not only a breath-taking and unique 140-acre woodland garden with an English Heritage Grade II* rating, but also the foundation of some truly spectacular pheasant drives. It is perhaps poetic that the ancestors of today’s Caerhays pheasants originated in the same misty jungles of Sichuan and Yunnan as the coverts that now hold them. Dense plantings of old rhododendrons, interspersed with taller magnolias and mature, deciduous trees allows birds to be shown over the valleys below with a stiff sea breeze in their tails. As Williams puts it, “during the winter, the estate adopts a duality of purpose: to maintain a world-famous garden and, in shooting terms, to show outstandingly high birds over a picturesque woodland garden”. He is always delighted when teams of guns visiting in December remark how unusual it is to be standing on a peg, surrounded by exquisite blooms along the main drive to the castle. This colourful backdrop to the day’s sport is entirely normal here and provides one of its unique features, as many of the magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons flower well before the end of the shooting season.

Rhododendron ‘High Sheriff’ (top) and R. ‘Sir Charles Butler’ with R. ‘Saint Tudy’ (left)

Caerhays: The Shoot

The current shoot traces its roots back to the Victorian fashion of shooting enormous bags with three guns, each bearing a trio of guns and two loaders. The bags were so extraordinary that they were printed in the local newspaper and Caerhays competed with Heligan and Werrington for the record bag. A family game card records the heaviest bag of rabbits shot at Werrington over two days in October 1897, when five guns accounted for 2,656 rabbits. Under groaning game carts, this arrangement survived until World War I denuded the estate of many of its keepers.

Before the advent of the modern incubator, rearing volumes were limited to about 1,200 birds per keeper. The birds were all hatched under broody hens and fed on a mixture of boiled eggs and rabbit (of which there was clearly no shortage). With up to nine keepers in full-time employment on the estate, this allowed for about 10 drives, which formed the nucleus of the shoot, mostly within the old deer park, which dates back to Elizabethan times.

Caerhays offers challenging birds across 40 drives.

Today, Williams runs about 80 days’ shooting a season, with several retained for the family. The old laurel plantings, combined with about 350 acres of mature woodland, allow for superb variety and 40 named drives now present the guns with a startling array of challenging birds. Each drive is only visited once a week during the season and Williams is particularly proud of what is perhaps the signature drive at Caerhays: Rookery. Standing beneath the castle walls, with the lake to one’s back and facing up the hill to where 120ft tall magnolias rise above the sea, it is hard to imagine a more picturesque spot. However, woe betide the gun caught snoozing or sightseeing after too much claret at lunch. Williams places every gun personally and brooks no sluggishness along the line. His bellowed “Wake up!” frequently echoes down the Luney Valley and out to sea from beneath the Rookery. Not even former prime ministers are spared his rebukes if lunching inhibits shooting. This dedication is shared by Williams’ wife, Lizzy, who works her team of labradors expertly behind the line on every shooting day and hosts visiting teams in great style.

Guns on the Rookery drive, with the castle forming a backdrop.

Above all, this is a family affair. The castle, the gardens and the shoot coexist in an Edwardian symbiosis, underpinned by the application of modern rearing and planting techniques. The sheer beauty of the landscape leaves every bird printed on the retina to savour later and that magical light that only Cornwall can produce picks out the myriad shades of Asiatic blooms. It is testament to the vision and the passion of the Williams family that such a place should exist and it is not difficult to imagine JC peering down from a battlement, with a glint of pride in his eye as the birds sail over his beloved magnolias below.

Writers Neil and Serena Cross enjoying a shoot day at the estate.

To arrange shooting at Caerhays Castle, call 01872 501310 or email: The gardens are open from 14 February to 13 June 2021.