What comes to mind when thinking about holidays in England? Surely you’re thinking of London with its Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace, or even Cornwall with its impressive coastlines or the enchanted filming locations of the Rosamunde Pilcher novels.
Well, are you also thinking of the magnificent gardens in England? I guess there is no other place in the world where so much homage is paid to horticulture than in England, and accordingly, there are numerous beautiful gardens in England. As your holidays in England are probably limited in time, here is a tip I have for you. I visited THE garden which is absolutely worthwhile seeing.
My name is Miriam Pieck and I am Vice Head of Contracting at SR Travel. I manage the buying activities of various hotel and other services in Great Britain. During one of my trips to England I visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan and I was immediately enchanted. So what exactly is it that makes these gardens so special and why exactly should you be looking at this garden in England? I am happy to share this with you.
When visiting the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the German Heimke Moll showed me around the gardens. Heimke has lived in Cornwall since 2012 working as a tour guide and welcome steward; prior to that, for many years she had spent her annual autumn holiday in Cornwall. Being a German-speaking guide, she looks after the German-speaking guests and takes them to the unique spots of Heligan. Heimke’s enthusiasm is contagious, and she can probably fill the biggest “garden grouch” with enthusiasm when it comes to the gardens of England. And what is truly fascinating: Heimke had no professional knowledge about the topic of gardens when she started to work at Lost Gardens of Heligan. Thanks to her private interest in healing herbs and their effect she learnt the ropes of the various garden subjects very quickly.
The gardens are situated in Cornwall in the South West of Great Britain, close to the town of St. Austell. Well signposted and with most major roads leading to St. Austell, the gardens are very easy to find.
For more than 400 years, Heligan was the residence of the Tremayne family and is one of the most mysterious country estates of England. The 400-hectare sized land had its heyday at the end of the 19th century. Only a few years later, wild overgrowth and climbing ivy made Heligan fall into a deep sleep. Many of the gardeners working there were forced to fight in WW1 and were killed in action, with Heligan eventually being completely forgotten.
It was serendipity and coincidence that the gardens had been slowly coming back to life. Many deserted properties and estates were sold after WW1. Heligan, however, hadn’t been sold for a long time until the 1970s. In 1990, a hurricane unveiled parts of the overgrown estate. A small room was found which was buried under the crumbling brickwork in the corner of a walled part of the garden. On the limestone walls the names were engraved of those who once had worked there – dated August 1914!
Since this discovery much care has been taken to restore these splendid gardens. The objective of most English gardens is to tell the stories of lords and ladies. Not so with Heligan. Here, the stories of persons are told who, before going to war, had made the gardens a real beauty in the 19th century. This is one of the unique specialities of the Lost Gardens compared to other gardens in England.
Heimke told me:
“Most of the other gardens have always been there since their beginning, and, to a smaller or lesser degree, were always taken care of during the centuries. The Lost Gardens of Heligan have simply been in deep slumber for almost 70 years – simply non-existent! Rediscovering the gardens was a slow but continuous journey and continues to be exciting. Also, the reason for this is different to that of many other gardens. It was rebuilt in memory of the gardeners of those days gone-by.“
Today, a large team works in the gardens. The restoration work is award-winning and internationally recognised. The amount of land leased comprises about 80 of the former 400 hectares of the outdoor terrain, and therefore the completion of the restoration work, the full resurrection of the estate is not yet in sight. The objective of Heligan is to create an extraordinary example of the outstanding work of earlier generations which today reveals interesting insights to the public. Since 2002, the doors of Lost Gardens of Heligan are open to the public, and this year it celebrates its 25th anniversary!
Heimke describes the current status of the gardens as follows:
“Heligan is not maintained because it is old and beautiful, but is growing and thriving because our gardeners and everybody working here is creating a place which aims to keep up the memory of the work of those people. There is also a desire to pass the craftsmanship – the philosophy of gardening, of growing, of old times and its heritage – to the young people. It is not a museum garden. Heligan is a horticultural farm with flower, kitchen and landscape gardens, with farming and breeding and is a tourist attraction to delight people and to show them new things which had often been forgotten.”
A statement which I can fully subscribe to after my visit. The gardens are not only typical traditional English gardens with rounded or squarely-cut trees and shrubs as we usually know them. Enter the gardens, and you’ll discover something new behind every corner. At the entrance, the happy “Ginger Head” is greeting you, around the corner a huge rhododendron and a gorgeous magnolia tree are waiting, which was already in full bloom with pink flowers during my visit at the end of February.
Close to the rhododendron and the magnolia tree is a large meadow, which is a favourite place especially for the more senior Cornish people to wind down and relax. For those who have no interest in sitting down on one of the many benches there are picnic blankets to hire.
After you’ve enjoyed the panorama and continued with your walk, you will soon come across a splendid kitchen garden. Follow a path under an apple tree forming a roof and arrive in a garden section with many small greenhouses. Here, a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables are grown and harvested.
For those seeking an adventure there is a jungle to discover for both grown-ups and children. All in all, this makes Lost Gardens of Heligan an exciting place for everyone to visit . And besides being a great experience and discovery, the priority of every visit is to learn more about the traditional work of the gardeners.
I particularly remember the story about the specifically cultivated pineapple. Because this is something I would have expected anywhere except in Cornwall. And it’s an amusing story too, so I’m happy to share it with you.
I learnt from Heimke that serving a pineapple in a banquet was something very special in Victorian times. It was a sign of the wealth of the family, and naturally so with the Tremayne family which used to live in Heligan. To find out how to grow pineapples was one of the enormous challenges of a gardener, and this is how the story goes:
Using very moist horse dung, the necessary warmth was provided for the pineapple to grow. When reinstating the pineapple greenhouse, the gardeners of the nineties were faced with the same challenge as the gardeners in the early 20th century.
After many, many attempts they finally succeeded in harvesting the first pineapple once again. That year, Prince Charles visited Heligan and came up with the idea that Heligan could send its mother Queen Elizabeth II a pineapple from Heligan as a gift for her upcoming golden wedding.
In principle, this was a great idea; but what would happen if the pineapple would taste of horse dung?! Up until then, nobody had tried the pineapple. Eventually, the first fruit was cut up for the gardeners to try, and the second was then sent to London 🙂 I guess there is no need to emphasize that the pineapple was delicious and did not have a horse dung flavour at all!
All guided tours through the gardens are German- and English-speaking. In contrast to many other English gardens, the Lost Gardens are open for visitors throughout the year. Depending on the season, Heligan offers specialised tours with one of their gardeners, providing the opportunity for you to receive first-hand information. This includes, for example, tours for children with the theme of “wildlife”, and also tours for adults about “edible wild herbs”.
The range of guided tours on offer changes with the season. Depending on your areas of interest, you can spend two or four hours or a whole day in the gardens.
I personally enjoyed a two-hour guided tour with Heimke and was thrilled. A tour like this is absolutely recommendable to gain a first impression of how versatile and unique the gardens are. When I visit next time, I will certainly plan in more time to return to the places which I remember most, and to discover new areas such as the jungle. Because there are two of Heimke’s favourite places which, of course, I am looking forward to see:
“There are two places in the jungle which I deeply love – one is on the eastern, upper corner and one is deep in the jungle.”
I guess there is no need for me to repeat the many surprises and special things that Lost Gardens of Heligan has to offer in comparison to many other gardens in England…
Heimke is exactly getting to the point when saying:
“Another reason why I identify myself with Heligan is the wonderful work climate. Everybody contributes to the well-being of everybody else. […] and that the employee’s ideas and wishes are taken into consideration demonstrates the great love for Heligan. […] I am proud to be part of Heligan, and we are proud of what we are doing regardless of our pay cheque!”
You will surely create your own image soon, or have you already done so? If so, what did you experience in the gardens? What do you remember most?
As far as I am concerned, I bought myself a pair of garden gloves in a local shop directly after my visit, and a few weeks later I planted my own herb garden. You see, my visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan has turned me into a little gardening fan. 🙂