No Cornish weekend would be complete without a visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, especially if you’re engaged to a gardener by trade. But the Lost Gardens of Heligan are no ordinary veg plot, they have an extraordinary tale of love, abandonment and rediscovery. Once the seat of the Tremayne family for more than 400 years, it was lost for decades and consigned to the overgrowth. Until a trepidatious Tim Smit, of Eden Project fame, hacked through the undergrowth revealing the garden’s secrets.
This is the sort of place where every visit, over a lifetime, would reveal something different, with over 1000 acres to explore. At the end of the 19th century, the Treymanes, who were keen horticulturists had cultivated an Eden. Yet, with the outbreak of WWI, its gardening workforce, all 22 members, were called up to the trenches, many of them never to return home – in fact only 3 would return. Like many grand houses in early 20th century, Heligan never returned to its former glory.
The team at Heligan sum up its fate pretty well…
Unlike many other estates, however, the gardens and land at Heligan were never sold or developed. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Heligan House itself was eventually sold and split into private apartments. After decades of neglect, the devastating hurricane of 1990 should have consigned the now lost gardens to a footnote in history.
It was the 1990 hurricane that brought John Willis, a member of the trust with whom the gardens fell under their care, with Tim Smit, a record producer to the gardens. Here started a new passionate love affair to restore the garden over the next 20 years.
When you first walk through the entrance at Heligan you’re presented with quite a comprehensive map and it can seem a bit overwhelming with where to start. But the Giant’s Head, a sculpture created from vegetation and organic matter, quickly lures you down the Woodland Walk. It’s quite impossible to see the whole site in one day, so I’d pick two or three priorities and head for those first, so we headed past the Giant’s Head towards the Mud Maid, created by same local artists Pete and Sue Hill and on to the Grey Lady, a representation of the garden’s resident ghost.
The Jungle is Cornwall’s only outdoor jungle garden and home to the longest Burmese Rope Bridge in the UK. As it sits in a steep-sided valley, the garden has its own microclimate that is almost five degrees warmer than the other northern gardens and is the ideal place for many exotic species – many would be the envy of the Victorian plant hunter. Tom’s become rather obsessed with bamboo, with ideas of growing our own bamboo screen at the bottom of our garden turning it into some sort of meditation spot. At Heligan they had an impressive bamboo tunnel with stems so thick you’d need two hands to reach round – they were just missing a giant panda.
Over 300 varieties of heritage fruit, vegetable, salad and herbs are tended to in the Heligan Productive and Kitchen gardens. The gardens also include the walled Flower Garden and Melon Yard filled with glasshouses used to grow exotic fruit. Impressively, Heligan has the UK’s only working Victorian pineapple pit which uses manure to heat the environment to create the perfect growing conditions. It was discovered in 1991 and took three years of anxious nurturing before the first pineapple was grown and the second pineapple was sent to the Queen on her 50th wedding anniversary.
Heligan’s Thunderbox Room has been recognised by the Imperial War Museum as a Living Memorial to the Gardeners of Heligan House, who went off to the fight in the Great War. Their names are faintly etched into the wooden struts of the lav and dated August 1914 – shortly before their departures for the trenches. Smit commented to the Telegraph’s Christian House that moving from lush Cornish pastures to the trenches was “about as extreme as it gets.”