Of the many wonderful things one might do when spending a few days in Cornwall, visiting the Lost Gardens of Heligan has to be put at the top of your list. Just the name conjures up something magical.
The gardens are only a 4-minute drive from my hotel so getting there couldn’t be easier. But better than that, my daughter was at her in-laws in Padstow and suggested meeting me at Heligan. As she’s down here quite often, she has membership and knows the gardens well. I therefore had my own personal guide!
The Lost Gardens of Heligan were indeed lost for many years. The Tremayne family have owned the 200-acre estate for over 400 years and during the 18th and 19th centuries it was a thriving community during which the gardens were developed. In 1813 John Hearle Tremayne married Caroline Matilda Lemon and established a link with plant hunters, encouraging the introduction of exotic and rare plants. In 1896 the Sundial Garden was described as having the ‘finest herbaceous border in England’. And a Japanese garden was created, which is now The Jungle.
The happy story of Heligan came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 when the house was taken over by the army, trees cut down for the war effort and the gardens neglected. The owner, saddened by events, left and the house was rented out and finally sold off in the 1970s. But all was not lost for ever. Rescue came in the form of a great and dramatic storm in 1990. John Willis, a descendent of the Tremaynes had inherited the overgrown garden and visited with archaeologist Tim Smit to view the devastation wreaked by the storm. What they uncovered was the start of Europe’s biggest garden restoration project.
One of the first things they discovered was the Thunderbox Room (gardeners’ toilet) where they found signatures of staff who went off to war in 1914 written on the walls. Most lost their lives and the restoration of the gardens was made in their name.
It’s essential to prebook and so we got a 10am entry to be first in. Quite a few people had the same idea but Nicola immediately decided on what route we should take and I was happy to have her guide me round. I felt I got so much more from the visit as instead of constantly consulting a map, inevitably feeling lost at times, and pondering on where to go next – I just followed my daughter and it was great.
Almost the first thing we saw were these huge tangled rhododendron trunks; the plants had been introduced to the gardens in the mid 1850s.
Heligan is known for its ‘jungle’ and it was easy to understand why. Great ferns, exotic trees and plants grew enthusiastically and hugely everywhere.
We explored the formal gardens first.
The Kitchen Garden was huge, the produce of which you can sample in their restaurant and cafe.
Inside the little Melon House small melons were growing and supported in mini net hammocks to protect them.
There was a wonderful attention to detail and presenting things in the most attractive way.
We of course had to visit the Thunderbox Room.
A plaque explained the significance of the room and nearby the potting shed was lightened up with a vase of flowers.
And next the Bee Bole Lawn, the old style hives in the distance.
The Flower Garden was a glorious sea of colour.
And then we were in the jungle. It really did seem like a jungle!
Then we came to the rope bridge. Nicola had warned me and asked if I was happy to cross it. Having never crossed one before, I just had to say yes. And she took a photo of me from behind.
We were nearing the end of our visit now and came to the beautiful Mud Lady sleeping in the woodland.
By now it was lunchtime and Nicola suggested we ate in their restaurant as the food was so good.
I chose lamb koftas made from the meat of the lambs on their farm and it came with couscous, micro salad and a tomato and a yoghurt sauce.
Nicola had sweet potato curry.
The food was excellent. Really fabulous and wonderfully tasty. I thought the koftas, which were so tender and delicious, may have been the best I’ve ever had.
It was a fabulous and special visit. The gardens were truly some of the most exciting and beautiful I’ve been to.