Years ago, as a young child, my family stayed in a converted barn on a farm in Lancashire. The farm is part of a large estate that included a vast wooded area. Exploring the undergrowth, we discovered a lost garden with sweeping stone steps, a lake and archways of rhododendrons. There’s something truly magical, and strangely romantic, about discovering a secret or lost garden, as exemplified by the book The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. For a while, you don’t want anyone to know about it. A location known only to yourself, and place to hide away. But like many secrets, eventually it has to be revealed or lost forever.
The rebirth of a lost garden takes time, dedication and plenty of volunteers.
Heligan (pronounced h’LIG’n is derived from the Cornish word for willow tree), near Falmouth, was the seat of the Tremayne family for 400 years. By the end of the 19th Century, the gardens extended to over a thousand acres, then it seems in a blink of an eye, the gardens were gone, lost. The First World War caused the estate’s demises when its gardeners left for the trenches, many never returning. In many places up an down the country such gardens were sold for development, but not at Heligan. The house was eventually turned into apartments in the 1970s.
A hurricane in 1990 should have been the final nail in the neglected garden’s coffin, but it wasn’t. The overgrown sleeping gardens were awakened by a group of gardening enthusiasts who discovered in the corner of a walled garden, buried under masonry, a tiny room and etched onto its wall, a motto ‘Don’t come here to sleep or slumber’. The date of the writing – August 1914. In memory of those people who once worked hard in the gardens and failed to come home, Heligan was reborn.
In 1990, Tim Smit, who later developed the Eden Project, and John Willis, a descendant of the Tremaynes, started the restoration programme which would eventually become Europe’s largest, and was featured in a TV series. Grants came in, along with money from the council, and the first project was the Italian Garden, then the Northern Summerhouse. In 1995 Country Life awarded Heligan Gardener of the Year, and the project went from strength to strength.
By 2008, the Lost Gardens of Heligan were granted National Collection Holder status by Plant Heritage for their camellias and rhododendrons. There are 350 plus ancient rhododendrons, the earliest plantings date from 1850. The seeds were collected by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker in India and the Himalayas.
Heligan is home to Europe’s only Pineapple Pit, which is warmed using rotting manure, a Burmese rope bridge that crosses the ‘jungle’ and two figures, the Mud Maid and Giant’s Head, which were created in 1998 by two local artists.
Perhaps being found wasn’t such a bad thing for Heligan.
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