The Lost Gardens of Heligan: Rediscovering a Centuries-Old Paradise
The Lost Gardens of Heligan is one of the most popular botanical gardens in the United Kingdom, yet for decades it was abandoned and forgotten. Today, many people go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan to see the beauty of the changing ‘living sculptures,’ but these are only part of the site’s appeal.
Developed over the centuries by several generations of a Cornish family, the spectacular gardens fell into disuse when World War I broke out, only to be re-discovered in 1990, restored, and opened to the public in 1992. The recent lockdown caused the owners to close their doors once again – only the second time in 260s years – but following the creation of some new rules to follow social distancing regulations, people can stroll through the beautiful landscapes once again.
A Family Project
The gardens of Heligan are located near Mevagissey, in the southwestern English county of Cornwall. In the Cornish language, the gardens are known as Lowarth Helygen , which means ‘Willow Tree Garden’. The gardens are associated with the Tremayne family and are still part of their Heligan estate.
Heligan House. (Dr Neil Clifton/CC BY SA 2.0)
The family’s history in the area is traced all the way back to the 13th century, when Heligan Manor was first built. It was, however, only during the 18th century that the gardens began to be built by the Tremayne family. Each generation made additions to this ‘family project’ and the gardens grew.
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‘The Jungle’ at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. (ZoeM /Adobe Stock)
The expansion of the gardens meant that more manpower was required to maintain and improve them. To achieve this, the Tremayne family hired many local gardeners. Just before the First World War broke out, there were as many as 22 gardeners in the service of the Tremaynes. By 1916, however, only eight men were left to tend to the gardens. The rest of the gardeners had gone to fight in the war and never returned.
Resurrecting the Lost Gardens of Heligan
The gardens fell into further neglect when the then owner, Jack Tremayne, left Cornwall for Italy when the war was over, and had his estate leased out. Thus, the Heligan estate, including its gardens, was occupied by different tenants over the next few decades, including the American Army, who used the house as a base.
The Italian Garden at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. (Chris Wood/CC BY SA 3.0)
The gardens continued to deteriorate, and would have been lost forever, had it not been for two men - John Willis and Tim Smit. When Jack Tremayne died, the estate went into the ownership of a trust that was associated with several members of the extended Tremayne family. One of these was John Willis, who lived in the area, and introduced the gardens to Tim Smit, a record producer.
The collaboration between the two men resulted in the re-discovery of the gardens in 1990. Soon, the gardens were restored and the restoration work was made into a six-part television series in 1996.
An Award-Winning Tourist Destination
In 1992, the Lost Gardens of Heligan were opened to the public. Since then, it has become a popular tourist destination, stimulating the economy of the area. The gardens have been improved by its trustees on a regular basis and reached various landmarks over the years. In 2010, for instance, the gardens recorded its four millionth visitor, while 2013 saw the completion of an ‘insect hotel’ on the Georgian Ride.
Numerous awards have been won by the gardens, including the Cornwall Tourism Awards – Garden of the Year – Silver Award (2013), and the Cornwall Tourism Awards – ‘Winner of Winners’, ‘Garden & Country House of the Year’ & Silver in the Wildlife Friendly Business category (2014).
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Oak "Georgian Ride" in the Lost Valley. (Copyleft)
Main Features of the Lost Gardens of Heligan
The gardens are notable for various attractions. Arguably the most unique of these is its pineapple pit, which is a method of growing pineapples in a colder climate. This technique was invented during the Victorian era, though it became obsolete following the introduction of steam ships, which made it cheaper to transport the fruit from abroad. It has been said the pineapple pit is the only remaining one in Europe today, and in 2009 it produced its first fruit in three years.
Another highlight of the gardens is the floral arts commissioned when the gardens were being restored. These include the Giant’s Head and the Mud Maid. Of course, the Lost Gardens of Heligan are also known for the different gardens that were created by the Tremayne family. These include the Northern Gardens, the Flower Garden, and the Melon Yard, all of which were built during the time of Henry Hawkins Tremayne (1766 – 1829), as well as the Italian Garden, which was built between 1906 and 1907.
Mud Maiden at Lost Gardens of Heligan. (robynmac /Adobe Stock)
Top Image: I n the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Source: Christoph /Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
Updated on June 23, 2020.
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