For those who enjoyed our interview with John Lucas last edition, a very different John Lucas greeted me in his home surroundings of Sitio Litre - the Orchid Garden.
- Gone was the general director of Ten Travel, as John pottered about polishing photo frames and stuffing his pockets with stray dead leaves.
Not a formal garden, here nature is aided, but not tamed. The entrance gate gives on to the first of a series of five terraces with ramps and numerous built in benches set with antique tiles. Together with the over 350 orchids, “all in flower, all the time”, there are over 150 other plants and trees, Koi carp and a small aviary. This botanical garden with a difference, stocks thirteen palm trees, over twenty creepers and a handful of Canarian varieties, a profusion of colour and scent. This is the oldest garden in Tenerife, the first to possess a lawn and it has a long and interesting history.
It is thought that it was originally built as a convent, but it was acquired in 1774 by the English merchant Archibald Little, who built the garden. The Spanish couldn’t pronounce Little, so the house became ‘Sitio Litre’ (Little’s place). As John proudly informed us “Sitio Litre is the oldest continuously owned British property in Spain. It’s continuously owned from 1774 right through to the present day non stop, by three British families – the Littles the Smiths and now yours truly.”
1774 - It was another era, a colonial era, when honoured guests to the islands would be entertained by local high born or well to do residents. The first documented visitor to the house was the Doctor sailing with Lord McCartney on his visit to Peking in 1792. (McCartney was later to become the first British Ambassador in Peking). “A group of the travellers wished to go up Teide and were advised by the Consul to consult Archie Little, who organised guides and donkeys for them. Doctor Gowan returned with altitude sickness and was taken care of in Sitio Litre. It was recorded at the time, he was said to be ‘recovering in the comfortable house of Mr Little’.”
The next brief visitor was the famous Prussian scientist Alexander Von Humboldt. John takes up the tale… “There’d been a big famine in Puerto de la Cruz in 1795, it was only a tiny village then. This bloke Archibald Little had a lot of money - he had his own fleet. He sailed his ships across to Morocco, bought a whole lot of grain, brought them back to Puerto de la Cruz, unloaded them here and gave whole village enough food for a long time. Spain joined France in the war against Britain in 96. He thought ‘now I’m going to be executed, put under house arrest, or I’ll be thrown out of the island and all my properties will be taken off me’. In fact none of that happened. The military commander, Gutierrez, who one year later defeated Nelson in Santa Cruz in 97 and seems to be quite a good mate of his, gave him a pass to travel freely around the island. His properties were respected, he wasn’t put under house arrest and he wasn’t thrown off the island. That is the reason, he was able to host the party for Alexander von Humboldt in 1799, when Britain and Spain were at war. Here was an Englishman in Spain, giving a party for a Prussian, while his country and the host country were at war.” This is why Sitio Litre is the longest owned British property in Spain.
“Our Humboldt bust is the only bust in the whole of Spain to Humboldt. It’s in an Englishman’s garden in Tenerife, paid partly by the Englishman, to this Prussian explorer scientist etc. Humboldt went to Madrid to meet the King with letters of credentials that he’d brought from Berlin. Cadiz was completely blockaded, so they took him up to La Coruña and they put this ship ‘the Pizarro’ on for him and his mate, a Spanish Naval ship and they sailed for the Canaries. Then the Royal Navy appeared on the horizon. They hid in the little stretch of water that they call ‘El Rio’ between Lanzarote and Graciosa until the Navy had gone. Humboldt actually went ashore in la Graciosa, so of course the Graciosans are very proud about that, the only two Canary Islands that Humboldt set foot on were Graciosa and Tenerife.
“Humboldt spent five days here. They docked in Santa Cruz, then he came to Puerto and from here he visited Teide. Archibald Little gave a party for him on the evening of the 23rd of June, which is the eve of Saint John, the Canarian bonfire night, and he writes about how enjoyable it was and the views he had from the house and how he saw the bonfires up in the hills and the mountains. We know definitely that he was here because he writes about it and he mentions the garden and how pleasant Mr Little was. In 1999 the bust, by Marta Von Poroszlag, was unveiled on the eve of Saint John at the same hour, two hundred years after Humboldts visit.” At the time of Humboldt’s visit it is reported that he fell on his knees and thanked God for the beauty of the Orotava valley. He also claimed that the sunset from the gardens of Sitio Litre was almost as lovely as Naples and described the drago tree. He wrote to his brother at the time, stating that he wished he could always live in Tenerife and in his book Cosmos, written on his return from his travels he said of all the marvellous lands he had seen, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru etc. his favourite was Tenerife.
Queen Victoria’s physician, William Wilde, who was Oscar Wilde’s father lived in the house in 1837 for two or three months, the in 1856 the Little family sold the house to Charles Smith, ex Rector of Bristol college, who was an astronomy buff. “He changed the original sloping roof and put in the cupola. We believe it was probably for his telescope.” In the same year he invited a fellow enthusiast and famous astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth to stay. He is credited as discovering the advantages of the Cañadas for astronomy. He was the first to take a telescope up Guajara and the slopes of Teide at Altavista.
The explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Burton, discoverer of Lake Tanganyika, but better known in England as the translator of the ‘Kamasutra’, ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘The Perfumed Garden’, was a visitor to Tenerife in 1860 and 1863 and it is very probable that he visited the house. “Burton was British consul on Fernando Poo in Equatorial New Guinea, known as the white mans’ graveyard, and he spent some of his holidays on Tenerife with his wife.“
In 1875 Marianne North, the famous botanic painter, stayed for a long visit. “When she died in 1890 she left all her paintings to Kew. It was only by coincidence that we went to Kew and the Marianne North Gallery and we saw all these very pretty paintings of plants and of trees. We saw Africa, India, Australia, America and then we saw Canary Islands – and we thought well that’s funny. So we went up to see what she had painted in the Canaries and we saw the garden. That was before we actually bought it, but obviously we knew it well because the original owners of the house were very good friends of ours since the early 1950’s.” In her autobiography Recollections of a Happy Life she wrote ‘I never smelt roses as sweet as those in Mr Smith’s garden.’ Copies of her works are displayed in the garden in special cases. It is interesting to contrast the Drago tree as it was almost 130 years ago to how it is today. “The largest and oldest in Puerto and the tenth or twelfth oldest in the whole of the Canary Islands, It’s the only tree in the garden which was there before the Spanish conquest.”
Of the Smiths, John told us, “Molly – she was a very famous personality here in Tenerife. Some of the great parties on the island were given in Sitio Litre both in the house and in the garden. As a private house, I would say that there was more wine and whisky flowed in the house and garden of Sitio Litre in the last 50 years, than probably anywhere else on the island. She was ahead of her time - she was one of the first women to drive a car in Puerto. It was Molly who confirmed to us that Agatha Christie and her daughter Rosalyn visited here. She remembered it clearly - that was in 1927. She was so inspired by the garden that she based one of her short stories ’the man from the sea’ in Puerto de la Cruz.”
With Mollie’s declining health, the house and garden was also allowed to deteriorate. John and his wife bought it in 1996. “We bought the house as a ruin, just the walls and the floor. It was in a very bad state it hadn’t been really renovated for over a hundred years. The gardens have never been open to the public until we bought it. We worked six months on the garden, the whole of the summer of 96 and opened them on the 1st November. Obviously all the big trees were here and probably one of the oldest bougainvilleas on the island, but it was in such a state:”
The effort has been well worthwhile. This glorious garden still draws people from all walks of life to paint and sketch, they even choose to celebrate weddings here! Wander through the enchanting terraces and sit in the open air café, created from the old garden shed on the lower terrace. Have a drink and a nibble, watched over by the giant drago tree and drink in the atmosphere that so much history has infused in this unique Puerto de la Cruz corner.
Access from Puerto de la Cruz town is via the Camino de Sitio Litre off the Calle Valois, near the Martianez Commercial Centre and from the top road, down the pedestrian walkway off the Carretera Botánica, in front of the Texaco Petrol Station. Parking can be a problem on the top road, but it is only a short walk or two euros taxi ride from the Botanic Gardens and Hipertrebol.
The garden’s open Monday to Sunday, 09.30 – 14.30, entrance fee only 4.50€ per person. For more information telephone 922 382417.