The Lost Gardens of Heligan

There's many a gardener who will be looking out the window over the next few months wishing they were somewhere else. As snow falls and the piles beside the driveway grow ever higher, I know I'll frequently be daydreaming about my visit early this summer to the lost gardens of Heligan. 

The name alone conjures up evocative images of a romantic past. The place is stuck in my memory now as it must be in the minds of the thousands of other visitors that have made the trip through space and time to the most visited private garden in Britain. It is unforgettable.

The story goes something like this: Early in the final decade of the last century, a couple of explorers, Tim Smit and his friend John Willis, made an expedition to the outer reaches of southwest England, Cornwall precisely, where they made an astonishing discovery. While in the tiny fishing village of Mevagissey, they heard rumours of a vanished garden in a tropical valley far above the village. 

Cornwall isn't tropical, but it is lush, wet, rugged country with a long history of pirates and smugglers, the kind of place where things can easily go missing, even a garden. Villagers on the Cornish coast have always been focussed on the sea, rarely venturing inland, except perhaps for a little quiet poaching occasionally, but no one would admit to that. 

By blabbing over a pint of cider in the Ship Inn about lost temples and wishing wells up the valley, a poor fisherman might just as well admit that he'd been out chasing game on the estate of the local Squire. Instead, the stories were whispered.

But these hints and whispers gained a life of their own, as rumours do, and intrigued, Tim and John, following the hidden paths of poachers, set out to explore the valley. They were amazed to discover palm trees and bamboo, and as they pushed upwards through tangled undergrowth and overgrowth, they soon found themselves crawling on all fours beneath huge, overgrown shrubs and laurel hedges, their way blocked in places by massive brick walls, derelict stone structures and broken glass. I imagine their strained conversation was along the lines of, "I say, Tim, aren't those thingies the gnarled branches of the extremely rare Rhododendron prunifolium, native to the Himalayas, and what the Dickens is it doing here in Cornwall?"
Rhododendrons untended for 80 years

On that day, February 16th, 1990, our two sunny afternoon explorers had discovered the gloomy ruins of Heligan Gardens, lost in time beneath seven decades of rampant growth. Acres of themed gardens, grottoes, and a treasure of Victorian follies awaited them. 

Over four kilometres of footpaths would eventually lead them to a hectare of walled kitchen gardens containing the melon frames and pineapple pits that had supplied the estate with exotic fruit. All about were hundreds of rare plants from around the world, overgrown specimens from the original collections of the garden's founders, the Tremayne family.

The area had been under the stewardship of the Tremaynes since the mid 17th century, although the first true gardens were largely created during the 19th century. They became one of the finest in England of the period, with 23 hectares of planted gardens, around 40 hectares of ornamental woodlands, and riding trails crisscrossing an area of 120 hectares. It was a remote oasis of tranquility.

But when war broke out in 1914, the outside world forced its way in. One by one, the large staff of gardeners joined the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and left for the trenches on the battlefields of Europe. Most never returned. Their names can still be seen today, scratched into the walls of Heligan. By 1920, fortunes had changed for the Tremayne family. The house was leased, the land neglected, and the gardens of Heligan simply rolled over and slept beneath a blanket of ivy and bramble until the day Tim Smit and his friend arrived to awaken this idyllic place.

The restored Italian Garden
Thus began the largest garden restoration project in Europe. The result is a time capsule of a forgotten era, faithfully restored to its original majesty. A gardener visiting the Gardens of Heligan today can indeed travel through time and see this wonder almost exactly as it existed over a century ago. I did and I can't forget it.


Originally published in the Waterloo Region Record November 2005
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