Heligan’s history is as rich and complex as can be expected from an old English estate. In a nutshell, it was the property of the Tremayne clan, who poured a lot of wealth, enthusiasm and innovation into the development of the gardens, which became famous around the region. World War I was the downfall of the great family – with almost all able-bodied men being sent off to fight and few returning, Heligan was left with no staff and only one, unmarried, descendant of the main family. The large house was eventually split into apartments and rented out, and the grounds were left to fend for themselves. In Cornwall’s perfect growing climate, this meant that they were quickly swallowed by a tide of wild growth. But underneath the smother of brambles and ivy, the gardens remained alive and breathing, trapped in time.
Enter Tim Smit over half a century later. Along with a few colleagues, he rediscovered the Heligan grounds in 1990, immediately recognized their special quality, and set about the monumental task of restoring them. The story of the restoration is as fascinating a subject as the gardens themselves, and I can highly recommend his book – after reading about the incredible passion, perseverance and resourcefulness which went into saving this garden, just about anything seems possible.
Current-day Heligan is probably best described as a magical porthole to the past. It’s like a storybook garden for adults. The restoration has been done exceptionally well, by a team well aware of the potential pitfalls of such an endevour. They’ve chosen to capture the spirit of the garden by balancing its wild character as a garden growing without human intervention for almost a century, with a glimpse of what it must have been like in its manicured Victorian prime.
The gardens seamlessly incorporate both ornamental and productive areas. The ornamental gardens, or pleasure grounds, include everything from grand rhododendron walks, to a formal Italian inspired garden, to romantic grottoes covered by ferns and mosses. Many of the ancient looking shrubs, especially the rhododendrons, are the only surviving specimens of some of the first plants brought over by plant hunters to the UK. Sudden Oak Disease is threatening some of them (as well as some incredibly grand oaks), but work is being done to save them - see this relatively recent article in The Independent (courtesy of Bob, thanks!).
One of my favourite areas was the appropriately named Jungle. It runs along a steep valley on the far side of the estate and is where Jack Tremayne experimented with exotic plants, a fashionable novelty at the time. The look is lush and tropical, but it actually feels like a perfect fit for this Cornish valley – it’s surprising and unusual to find these plants here, but not garish.
Further away from the Jungle is the woodland walk through ancient oaks and beeches, and the Lost Valley. At the time of our visit in late May, the picture was perfectly completed by the most English of things, bluebells.
In Victorian times, the productive gardens were absolutely central to the estate, and would have been the main focus of the gardening staff. At Heligan, there are no less than three walled vegetable and fruit gardens. The most interesting is the smallest one, which features several sheds and greenhouses, and was likely the central working hub of the gardening staff. It’s also the site of the famous pineapple pit, a special construction designed to grow pineapples using the heat of composting manure. Apparently, one of the snags of manure heating is that it’s quite unpredictable and requires constant attention. As a result, there is a small loft in one of the buildings where a junior gardener had to sleep in order to check on the temperature of the manure every 3 hours! All that effort so that the Treymayne family could be one of the only in the country to serve pineapple at their dinner table.
As a side note, the latrines were located right underneath the pineapple monitor’s loft, and there’s an interesting story about these as well – let’s just say that no good fertilizer was wasted at Heligan.
As part of the restoration effort, all productive gardens are now actually producing fresh fruit and vegetables using many of the same techniques and plant varieties used in Victorian times (minus the special fertilizer). That includes the pineapple pit – after some glitches in the system, the second ripe pineapple produced here was delivered all the way to Buckingham Palace (the first was used for tasting, just in case).
So in the end, what’s so special about Heligan? I guess it’s the same as all great gardens – a strong theme and spirit of place. An unforgettable place to visit if you have the chance.