Last month we went on holiday to Cornwall. I’ve wanted to go for a while, and had read that, with its mild climate, Spring comes earlier to this part of the country than anywhere else so there is lots to see at this time of year in the many Cornish gardens open to the public.
The Cornish climate also allowed some of the keenest plant collectors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to build impressive collections of exotic and tropical specimens in their sheltered gardens, so they really are spectacular.
None more so than the garden of Heligan House; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this was developed into one of the most beautiful estate gardens and parklands in the country, covering over 200 acres. It included walled vegetable and cut flower gardens, open lawns, walkways lined with hundreds of camellia and rhododendrons, a ‘jungle’ ravine of ferns and bamboos, stone grottos, Italian’-style enclosed gardens and a working farm. The garden employed up to a dozen men and boys from local villages.
Then in 1914, when war broke out, the staff of the Heligan gardens downed their tools and signed up to fight, probably with no idea that none of them would return to work in the garden.
Social and economic change after the war, and the ending of the direct bloodline of the Tremayne family, which had lived at Heligan House for 400 years, saw both the house and garden fall into disrepair. In the 1970s the house was sold off to be turned into flats, but the garden was placed in trust for two relatives of the Tremaynes, who inherited what was now a totally overgrown wilderness overtaken by cherry laurel and rhododendrons.
Then in the early 1990s, while looking for a site to open a rare breeds farm, Tim Smit, Rob Poole and John Nelson were introduced to the site by one of the two siblings who had inherited it, with the vague notion that somewhere under the overgrowth there lay the remains of a grand garden.
They found the walled gardens, the remains of the glasshouses, and the tree ferns, and they set about clearing the site. Early on, they found where the former gardeners had inscribed their names on the wall of the gardeners’ toilet or ‘thunderbox’ on the final day of work their before going off to war. As part of their restoration they researched the stories of these men, and they set about restoring the garden, over many years, in their honour.
Visiting Heligan was all I’d hoped and more. The gardens themselves are so impressive, the range of different types and styles of garden is fascinating. But what’s even more touching is the way they invoke the spirit and memory of the people who lived and worked there and the era when these gardens were at their heyday.
There are three main areas of walled garden containing most of the glasshouses; the melon garden, the kitchen garden and the flower garden. Around the outside of these are the rhodedendron-lined walkways and the pleasure gardens:
Further away from the house in a naturally occurring valley is the ‘jungle’ of tree ferns, bamboos and a wide range of trees from all over the world.
And around the edge of the estate is farmland and native British countryside, which provides a lovely walk and some stunning views out to sea.
Finally, as you come to the end of the circular loop around the edge of the estate, you come across the sleeping giantess, and the iconic mud head, right near the entrance to the gardens.
Heligan was the highlight of the week in Cornwall for me. I was totally swept up in the wonder of the scale of the restoration and the magic of the atmospheres of the different gardens. I can only imagine how stunning the sun dial garden and the walled flower garden would be in summer, though I bet the crowds are just as impressive in school holidays! Highly recommended for a visit at any time of year.
All photos were taken by Dave Musson my very patient (and not remotely green-fingered) husband who allowed me to drag him around many a Cornish garden without a hint of complaint, and who happens to have an enormous talent for (among many other things) taking photographs.