“The project took us back to the garden’s heyday. Trebah really belongs to its community and is part of a lot of people’s lives and a lot of people’s history. That’s something that we’re building on for the next couple of years with the Challenge Fund.” – Guy Watson.
Nestling in a tranquil 26-acre site in the depths of Cornwall near Falmouth is Trebah Gardens. The sub-tropical oasis is as far from the horrors of the Second World War as you could imagine. However, in 1944, troops from the US 29th Infantry Division embarked from its beach for the D-Day assault on Omaha Beach in Normandy, where they suffered appalling casualties.
In 2019 the decision was made to mark the 75th anniversary of this event and a successful application was made to the Challenge Fund to help realise this. The first of three years of funding brought to life the first of three ambitious projects: Operation Overlord. This consisted of a series of live events, exhibitions, workshops, outreach and schools’ programmes.
The biggest event of Operation Overlord was an outdoor promenade performance through the grounds: ‘Operation Neptune’. This brought together a core professional team of musicians and performers together with a specially formed twenty-strong community choir, and members of the Youth Theatre and Youth Dance Group from Truro’s Hall for Cornwall. The spectacular show was seen by nearly 700 people.
As co-producer and director Guy Watson explains, while the show itself was fictional, they used real life stories as inspiration: “We started the development of the project by talking to people who lived near to Trebah during the war. Lots of their stories featured in the performance, which was lovely when we got to show it back to them.”
As well as gathering memories from local care homes, 422 youngsters from 10 local schools were also given the chance to rehearse and perform their own version of the professional show in the gardens a few days before the event.
Guy says it was a chance to really build a connection with the community – particularly their neighbours in Helston.
“It certainly made a big difference. A lot of the children who came on site as part of the performance piece had never been here before – and they of course brought their parents with them to watch it. It definitely brought a lot of new visitors who aren’t very far away from us.”
A free display attracted more than fifteen and a half thousand visitors and featured footage of troops at Trebah, together with specially colourised photographs. The team also worked with Hall for Cornwall Youth Theatre on a series of virtual reality scenes filmed in 360 degrees.
However, Guy explains, one of the real success stories for him was working with a local author: “Catherine Ince had written books about Cornwall during World War Two, and we approached her to join the project as an advisor to help with the development of the script.
“She got really, really involved. She was just fantastic. One day her carer told me: ‘I don’t think you realise the impact this has had on her life – you’ve given her a reason to live.’ Feedback doesn’t get better than that!”
Jonathan Bray looks after Marketing and Business Development for Trebah and also co-produced and designed Operation Overlord. He says they wanted to try something new to attract visitors:
“We wanted to look at different ways that we could make better value of our offer here. We wanted to increase our educational work and introduce more performance into the garden.
The funding meant we could be more experimental and see what works and doesn’t work. It’s given us the opportunity to prove that by doing these events, getting more people involved and building a wider community, is a great thing for the garden.”
The garden’s Board of Trustees approved the match-funding for the project, and Jonathan says their faith in their ambitious plans has paid off: “It’s been really well received and it’s been better than doing any kind of advertising campaign. It’s touched lots of people and it is creating ourselves an audience for the future as well.”
He says the future is looking bright: “The Board were incredibly impressed with last year’s project and this year’s project’s going to be amazing. We’ve got this lovely momentum now that will really secure Trebah as a place that’s educational and interesting. It’s great way for people to engage with the arts – and nature.”
The project for the second of the three years of funding is called ‘Tevi’ – Cornish for Grow. This will explore the theme of Growth and will build on last year’s success, as Jonathan explains: “It’s similar in some ways, but very different in others. We’ve got a seven-foot high, eight-foot long lion puppet made by the people that made the War Horse puppet.
“The performance will again go through the garden but will take a different route. It’s a real family show with lots of youngsters involved. We’ll be working with the Youth Theatre and Youth Dance Group from Hall for Cornwall again as well as some of the same schools.
“We’ve cast the net a bit further this time and we’ve got children from the north of the county coming as well. They heard about the project last year and wanted to be involved. For the reputation of the garden and the team of people here, it’s been absolutely amazing. It’s really solidified that what we do is brilliant and what we do has got value and is worthwhile.”
He says he hopes the legacy of the Challenge Fund will help to secure a bright future for Trebah:
“Last year we really created a real community around the garden. Not just people in the villages next door to us who supported us and volunteered their time and memories, but people across Cornwall and across the world. People came from as far as America to see the performance.
“Hopefully in 20 years-time these kids will be great advocates for Trebah, and they’ll be back visiting with their own families.”