Have you ever been away on holiday and returned to a garden of knee-high grass and thriving thistles? However, neglected your garden may have seemed, it would not have compared with the Lost Gardens of Heligan. These gardens, west of South Cornwall’s St Austell, and glorious back in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, had been abandoned for seven decades.
When Sir Tim Smit, a songwriter and music producer, first came across the overgrown gardens in the 1980s, looking for a patch of land for his pigs, he needed a machete. He had to hack his way through acres overgrown with brambles, towering trees that had set themselves and thick screens of ivy. As a former archaeologist, Smit was drawn to the prospect of uncovering recent history.
After an epic restoration programme, The Lost Gardens of Heligan opened to the public in 1992. Ever since, the romance of stepping into the past appeals to visitors to Cornwall. Every year around a third of a million people pass through the gates to learn of a remarkable story. For Heligan tells not just of a garden lost to time but also of ways of life lost to change and progress.
The discovery of the Thunderbox Room, the garden staff toilet in the kitchen gardens, helped to partly explain why the gardens had been lost for over seven decades. In August 1914, the gardeners had signed their names in pencil on the wall, committing to join the army to see off the Germans in northern France. Many of the men who had worked on the Heligan estate died in the trenches and no-man’s land. When the First World War was finally over, not one of the original gardeners returned to Heligan. The house was converted into apartments, the gardens forgotten.
Now, in a steep-sided valley nicknamed The Jungle, the plants brought to Heligan by Victorian explorers thrive again. Warmed by the Gulf Stream drifting across the sands to the west of St Austell, The Jungle has a microclimate usually five centigrade warmer than the gardens above. Sub-tropical temperatures encourage bamboo, banana plants, ferns, giant rhubarb and palms to thrive. Walking more than 100 feet across a Burmese-style rope bridge, visitors look down on a luxuriantly flourishing jungle, struggling to believe that they are still in Cornwall.
After the First World War it was not just Heligan’s Gardens and its gardeners who had been lost. Short of manpower and food, Britain had turned to fertilisers to feed itself during the hungry war years. Steadily attitudes to the soil and farm animals had changed. The welfare of the land was forgotten.
Restoring what had been lost is a key theme for Heligan. Returning ancient breeds of animals to the land, grazing is rotated. The Berkshires spend time in their Pigs Palace to ensure that grasses are not overgrazed and that they are able to establish deep roots.
The kitchen gardens are a reminder that the past is another country and that they did things differently there. There was a time when pineapples were prized as a status symbol. Even hired out by the hour for display. Consequently, estates aimed to grow their own. Heligan has recreated the pineapple bog where tons of decaying horse manure creates the heat, under glass, to propagate pineapples.
The pineapple bog is just one of the many attractions. With the Productive Gardens, Home Farm, The Jungle and plenty of woodland, the 300 acres of The Lost Gardens is a place where comfortable walking shoes are essential. Also you need to use the map of the estate and a day’s plan that includes stops for morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea to make the most of The Lost Gardens.
Lost Gardens of Heligan fact file
Book your visit at Heligan.com.
Thunderbox Memorial Listing at Imperial War Museum.
For information about things to do in the wider area, see Visit Cornwall.
If you enjoyed my tour of the Lost Gardens of Heligan, you might be interested in my review of Penmarlam Lodge Retreat at Fowey, which was my base for this trip.Tags: Heligan Last modified: June 19, 2023