Travel Story Lost gardens reveal secrets

Photo of Mark Thornton

An English national treasure lay hidden for decades.

In the far south-west English county of Cornwall, just 40km from Land’s End, stands a farm named Heligan, Cornish for “willow tree”, that was first created nearly a thousand years ago. Hundreds of years earlier Cornwall had been one of the last bastions of the ancient Britons who fought vainly with King Arthur against invading Saxons. Or so the bards tell us.

Over the following centuries the Druids and their magic disappeared as Romans and eventually Normans in turn conquered the rest of England. Through it all the Cornish persevered as they always had, preferring their native Cornish, a Celtic language, to the French or English of the newcomers. Through all these changes the farm continued working.

A manor house was built there 800 years ago and stood until 1569 when the Tremayne family bought it. In 1692 Sir John Tremayne built a new grander home and he and his successor Henry created 32ha of beautiful walled gardens around it.

The farm and its estate flourished for the next 200 years until World War I intervened. The farm’s workers volunteered but only six of the 22 who left to fight survived. 

With no one to work the gardens they fell into disrepair. Jack Tremayne, who had cared very much for his workers, couldn’t live with the ghosts of the place. Shortly after the war he left Heligan for Italy. The elegant house was rented out to a series of tenants until World War II when US troops were stationed there. In 1973 it was converted into flats. By then the gardens behind their 4m-walls had disappeared under brambles and weeds. There they remained like Sleeping Beauty, waiting...

All may have been lost but for a meeting in 1990 between John Willis, a descendant of the Tremaynes, builder John Nelson and Dutch millionaire, musician and record producer Tim Smit, who had moved to Cornwall for a sea change just three years earlier. Willis’ idea was to redevelop the property but how? The trio began hacking through the jungle of weeds and discovered a stout but battered door in the wall; what lay beyond?

Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy, who had visited the area in its heyday in 1870, described it as: “Pre-eminently a region of dream and mystery.” And so it was that on finding the door and prising it open, Smit was similarly enchanted. 

“Wild horses could not have stopped us opening that door,” he said. Inside were what became known as the Lost Gardens of Heligan, now restored to become the largest garden rehabilitation project in Europe and one of England’s national treasures.

First they had to organise a team of workers, gardeners and local artisans who still knew the old ways of restoring such a garden, including its intricate irrigation system that pumped water up from the Mevagissey River catchment. 

Smit was amazed that when they reconnected the pipes it still worked. There followed nearly two years of intensive effort clearing out bramble, ivy, rampant laurel and fallen timber and restoring stonework, artefacts and the greenhouse, which had collapsed as its timber rotted and glass panes splintered. 

By 1992 the restoration team was able to open the gardens for the public to share in the excitement of their discovery. In the northern gardens are 4km of footpaths, an Elizabethan mount, rockeries, summerhouses, a crystal grotto, an Italian garden, a fine set of bee-boles—cavities in the wall to house beehives—a wishing well and yet more walled gardens. Remarkably, under the brambles much of the original plant collection, including many exotic species from across the world, survived. 

The gardens now replicate the original designs drawn up for Henry Tremayne in the late 18th century.

In the southern part of the garden are the “Lost Valley” and the “Jungle”, a subtropical valley luxuriant with palms, tree ferns, bamboos, gunnera and numerous exotic trees and shrubs overlooking the picture postcard Cornish fishing harbour of Mevagissey. The valley creates a microclimate that is at least five degrees warmer than the Northern Gardens. It allows subtropical plants recovered from across the world, both by intrepid Victorian plant hunters and more recent collectors, to flourish.

There is even a small copse of Australian Wollemi pines, only discovered in Australia in 1994 in an ancient gorge in Wollemi National Park in NSW. Take the Woodland Walk and discover the Heligan sculptures that fit naturally into the landscape: the Giant’s Head, Mud Maid and Grey Lady. 

Find ancient rhododendrons from Sikkim, walk beside Maori-carved tree ferns from New Zealand and marvel at the Mediterranean garden filled with the hum of bees and flittering butterflies.

And don’t miss Heligan’s farm with its wonderful variety of traditional and rare breeds of livestock and poultry, all managed using sustainable, low- intensity farming practices just as they have been for centuries. 

To walk the gardens now it is difficult to imagine how they would have looked just 16 years ago when Willis and Smit hacked their way through, discovering the original plants hidden by 70 years of neglect. You have to admire the heavy physical labour and accumulated experience associated with managing the soil and working the seasons that restored and secured the previous glories of Heligan. 

The whole extraordinary history of the estate and its gardens and their recreation steep the place in romance.

Even the story of Smit, who studied archaeology and anthropology at Durham University and made millions writing songs and producing records for the likes of Twiggy, Alvin Stardust and Louise Tucker, is extraordinary. He has seven platinum and gold discs.

There he met Willis and was drawn into the Heligan exploration. But that wasn’t all. No sooner was Heligan under way than he created the Eden Project only kilometres away in an abandoned clay pit. He restored the pit, built a series of giant geodesic domes, or biomes, over the waste and created what he describes as “a cradle of life containing world-class horticulture and startling architecture symbolic of human endeavour”.

 He was knighted in 2011 in recognition of his work with Heligan and the Eden Project. Appropriately his first imaginings were drawn up on a napkin over a drink in the pub.

Since then the Lost Gardens and the Eden Project have contributed more than $2 billion to the Cornish economy. Take the time to visit both projects. You will be inspired.

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