The Lost Gardens of Heligan
Marc Harris is enchanted by a horticultural gem in Cornwall
IT was 2012, the year of the London Olympics, and I was in the middle of a cycling and walking holiday which would take me from Penzance to Liskeard.
Much of my journey was around the southern coast of Cornwall, and I would visit many stunning attractions and locations – sometimes cycling 30 miles per day, often following the steep and rugged coastal roads and cycle paths, before descending into quaint fishing villages which are so typical of the wonderful county of Cornwall.
I was about 100 miles into my journey, having spent the night in a small hotel in the delightful village of Gorran Haven, which is only a few miles south of The Lost Gardens of Heligan. The gardens, with their almost mythical history, were a place I had always longed to visit.
And so, to the sound of cows lowing in the distance of a mist-shrouded
morning, I cycled five miles inland to Pentewan, St Austell – the location of those gardens I had so often dreamed of, and heard so much about.
The Cornish translation of “Heligan” is “Willows”, and Heligan itself has been the seat of the Tremayne family for more than 400 years. Over the centuries various generations of the Tremayne dynasty had, after the building of Heligan House in 1603, begun to develop the gardens. Between 1766 and 1901, walled flower gardens and shelterbelts were constructed, and the main east and west pathways designed.
The shelterbelts were there to protect the gardens from the brutal storms which battered the area from the south-west. Links with exotic planthunters were established and the acquisition of new and exotic species nurtured the development of the Japanese and Northern Gardens.
At the end of the 19th century, Heligan was in its prime, but with the outbreak of World War I the gardens sank into a state of disrepair, with years of neglect to follow. Overgrown and forgotten, they simply disappeared, as if vanishing into the ether.
Heligan House, which had been used as a convalescent hospital during World War I and occupied by American officers in World War II, was converted into flats in the 1970s.
Perhaps by some miracle, a hurricane in 1990, which should have consigned the gardens to a footnote in history, actually revealed what lay beneath. Owner, John Willis, a descendant of the Tremayne dynasty, was showing the land to Tim Smit (who would go on later to also co-found the Eden Project). At the time, Tim was hoping to establish a rare breed farm park. Heligan’s lost gardens had been rediscovered.
On one of their visits, the two men came across a small building, newly exposed after it had been buried beneath a pile of masonry – and inside they found an inscription pencilled on to its limestone walls: “Don’t come here to sleep nor slumber.”
The inscription was signed by those who had worked on the gardens just before the outbreak of the Great War, presumably before many of them went to fight in the trenches, some of whom, without doubt, would never return to
work in the tranquillity of the grounds.
After two years of painstaking restoration, The Lost Gardens of Heligan re-opened to the public in April 1992. Builder and garden designer, John Nelson, began the clearance work and led the project working with many diligent and passionate volunteers. The Vegetable and Sundial Gardens were cleared, lakes in the Lost Valley restored, the New Zealand Garden was re-planted, and Heligan calves were born. The renovations and challenges faced by the gardening team were documented in two TV series, The Lost Gardens of Heligan and Return to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, which I can remember watching with utter fascination.
Grant aid, initially provided by various sources after the opening, has now ceased and the gardens are self-funding. As a viable business, they offer employment opportunities and obvious benefits to both the local and wider community.
With such a dedicated team, whose aims are to nurture and foster the relationship with the land, as it used to be, as it is now, and as it can be in future, this “sleeping beauty of a landscape” now sustains and provides a haven of some 200 acres to explore.
Here you will encounter ancient woodlands, a sub-tropical jungle, orchards, pioneering wildlife projects and sustainable farmland. The farm itself has now been awarded “Rare Breed Farm Park” status, and endangered breeds of sheep and cattle graze on ancient pasture, while nearby
bamboo tunnels, giant luxuriant ferns and banana plants flourish.
Many of the original developments that the Tremayne family made to the gardens in the 18th and 19th centuries can still be seen today. For example, the planting along the long drive to Heligan House, the ravine water feature and the Italian Garden.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Sleeping Beauty is wide awake, and she is thriving in the form of The Lost Gardens of Heligan!
During the 21st century the gardens have received many accolades, including a gold medal at the RHS Hampton Court flower show. They were also voted the “Nation’s Favourite Garden” by BBC Gardeners’ World.
In spring, Heligan is simply a delight to behold. The woodlands are a carpet of bluebells and wildflowers proliferate. After the dark, bleak days of winter the gardens become a riot of colour, alive with the sounds of birdsong, embracing the arch-pollinators – the moths, butterflies, bees, and all manner of insect-life which are so essential to the health of so many of the plants.
It seems a long time ago now since I visited Heligan, but my abiding memories are simply that the gardens were stunning. There were hides overlooking ponds where you could observe all manner of aquatic and non-aquatic life, which also included many interactive tools.
There were greenhouses, herb and flower gardens, and a wonderful variety of trees and shrubs from all corners of the world. There were specialist growing areas too where rare plants from countries such as New Zealand flourished in the temperate climate.
And it was great to discover those large ponds in the Jungle – where beautiful red-finned roach and rudd swam in huge shoals, overshadowed on the banks by great ferns and luxuriant water-loving plants, which would be quite at home in any “Lost World”– only the dinosaurs were missing!
The Jungle was a place of such tranquillity, and perhaps my favourite place in all the many acres of the gardens. Although I was highly reluctant to leave the confines of that lost world behind, I had to move on if I were to discover more of the jewels in the crown.
That day, I would go on to experience further areas in the gardens, including the Lost Valley, and admire many of the rare trees, shrubs and flowers – tended and cultivated both in special greenhouses and in the open air.
Before I left, I explored the visitor centre and enjoyed an ice-cream. I then cycled in the direction of St Austell – to continue my delightful, yet sometimes arduous, journey across this southern part of Cornwall.
Memories of the gardens will remain with me for the rest of my life. Home to over 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables, what we see today is the result of the largest garden restoration in Europe – in the words of The Times “The garden restoration of the century”. It is simply a remakable place.