The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Pentewan, Cornwall

Lost Gardens of HeliganThis is an attraction where they recommend you purchase the guidebook in advance, but even though we hadn’t done our homework (and still don’t own a guidebook) we were certainly wowed by Heligan. Thanks for that have to go to Graham, our tour guide, without whom we might have mistaken this place for just another pretty garden. It’s so much more than that.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan are the inspiration for the Eden Project with whom they share a founder, Tim Smit, and many people will tell you Heligan beats Eden. I had my doubts about that idea, wondering whether people got what Eden’s about and whether they’d been taken in by Heligan’s more natural feel. But now I’m not so sure.

Heligan’s story begins well before Smit arrived. For 400 years it was the seat of the Tremayne family, an estate of over 1000 acres (though the Lost Gardens take 180). A monument to aristocratic eccentricity, the gardens were enriched by leading botanists of the day who travelled the world collecting plants which they brought back to Cornwall. They didn’t have the ability to re-create ecosystems in domes, like Eden does, and their gardens were private, but the idea is much the same. So Heligan boasts a jungle, lost valley and pleasure gardens that include a little bit of New Zealand. They even offered the ladies of the family a chance to take a Himalayan walk after dinner.

Yet the big story is tragedy. In 1914 Heligan employed 21 gardeners. Fourteen left to fight the Great War. None returned.

The Tremayne family abandoned Heligan for a second estate in North Cornwall, loaning the house to the Ministry of Defence as a place officers could covalence. It barracked US troops in World War II. The gardens were abandoned completely and disappeared over the course of the next 75 years. It was left to 1990’s Burns’ Day storm to uncover the gardens and enable Smit’s rediscovery of them. Thanks in no small part to the BBC’s Gardeners’ World, the restoration was an incredible success and, with 350,000 visitors a year, the gardens are now a major tourist attraction. The eccentric vision is revived and there are now wonderful mud sculptures along that Himalayan walk. So it’s just like Eden, but with a richer history, a lot more eccentricity and a little less in-your-face science.
Uploaded: 14 July 2005

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