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Indiana Jones and the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Lost Gardens of Heligan

Cornwall, it has to be said, is quite magical sometimes. Mrs B sometimes disagrees – as a long-term resident of Cornwall, she’s painfully familiar with the challenges of living in the South West.

The shortage of housing for locals. The deprivation in some areas. Grim, windswept winters. The fact that the nearest Uber Eats is in Bristol. All that sort of jazz.

But for me, Cornwall has always held an unreal air of Disneyland-style magic. A natural beauty that nearly surpasses the natural beauty of Mrs B. I’m not sure why.

It might be that should you wish, you could gorge yourself on cream teas, cider and Cornish pasties all day long and not look out of place. It might be the fact that it takes so long to get there, you really do feel you have been transported to a different country. Or it could be the funny accents.

But every time I’ve been, it’s always been slightly magical, with its hidden beaches, coves to explore and fudge to be consumed in generous quantities.

The view across Mevagissy Bay

Cornwall has rightly inspired generations of thinkers, artists and creators as a result. Agatha Christie famously wrote several novels that are set in Cornwall, including “Five Little Pigs” and “Dead Man’s Folly” and brought a holiday home there, despite her being a proud Devonian. 

Thandie Newton (you know, her from the telly. She’s been in “Crash”, “Mission Impossible 2” and “Westworld”) was brought up in Penzance. The novelist Daphne du Maurier lived near Fowey and managed to knock out classic books such as “Rebecca”, “Jamaica Inn” and “Frenchman’s Creek”.

And you can see why when you visit. There are places that are so teeth clenchingly lovely it makes your soul hurt.  Mrs B has previously written about Polperro and it is proper chocolate box pretty.

Fistral Beach in Newquay should really be a wonder of the world, with its seemingly endless expanse of golden sand and surf. And St Ives, if you can avoid the men with seven wives taking up all the parking and causing huge tourist crowds, is well worth a visit.

So last time we were in Cornwall when Mrs B suggested a trip to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, I knew we would probably be in … for a bit of a treat.

Lost Gardens of Heligan

The entrance to the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Now, to be clear, I am not a fan of all things garden.  Gardens, in my experience, involve trying to keep a lot of mysterious green things alive through a combination of regular watering, weeding and swearing, and I do not have time for that.

Gardening is something best done by firmly retired people with a lot of time and dirt on their hands. It should be avoided by anyone under 60. I can just about push a mower over the lunar landscape that is our lawn, but beyond that is a dark, mysterious art, known only to holders of pension books.

So, I was very much looking forward to looking at the enticingly named Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Why were the Gardens of Heligan lost?

The path through the jungle at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

So the first question is – why “lost gardens”? How do you “lose” an entire garden? It’s not like your car keys or your second-born child, it’s an entire garden. Seems quite hard to lose, right?

Well, Heligan Manor was first built in the 1200s, and by all accounts thrived. Between 1766 and 1914, the associated gardens were developed to cover nearly 200 acres, bit by bit becoming fancier at each stage, with pineapple pits, working areas to grow over 300 types of fruit and veg and pleasure gardens being added as the years rolled by. It’s a pretty big place to lose.

Well, the answer lies in the outbreak of the First World War. The gardens obviously needed quite a lot of manpower to keep them all spick and span and on the outbreak of the war, the country mobilised in a way that I guess is quite hard to comprehend from the safety of the modern day.  

pink dahlias at the lost gardens of heligan

Struggling County estates were commandeered for the war effort and Heligan House was no different, being pressed into service as a Convalescent Hospital for wounded officers. The men who faithfully worked in the gardens were conscripted into the Army.

The majority were, tragically, never to return and with that, the corporate memory of the Gardens was lost. Over time, the gardens of Heligan became overgrown and reverted to nature. A series of tenants took over the house, further fracturing the interest and knowledge of the gardens. Once the Second World War rolled around, the House was used by the US Army as a base before eventually being converted into flats and sold.

Basically, from 1914, the gardens were left to rot because the people who tended to them were all dead, which is a depressing thought. It wasn’t until 1990 that two lads, Tim Smit and John Willis, looked at the pile of overgrown weeds and shrubs and thought “Hang on a minute, wasn’t there once some nice gardens here?”.

And I assume by dressing as Indiana Jones and getting out some machetes, they hacked their way into the undergrowth and found out they were right.

a fountain in a courtyard at Lost gardens of heligan
Definitely one of the best gardens in Cornwall!

Slowly, years of neglect were removed and, bit by bit, the gardens were restored. The Melon Yard and the Eastern and Western Rides were restored that year. A restoration of the Italian Garden followed in 1991 and Cornwall County Council gave planning permission to open the gardens to the public.

By 1998, thanks to an incredible effort, volunteers had replanted the garden shelter belts, restored the Northern Summerhouse, restarted the Vegetable Garden and Flower Garden and reopened the Lost Valley.

Again, I can barely mow my own lawn so to think some people removed 109 years of neglect is pretty impressive stuff. They should have a bash at my garden.

Getting to the Lost Gardens of Heligan

palm trees at the lost gardens of heligan

Oh man, this is always the hardest bit of any Cornwall blog to write, because Cornwall, while absolutely lovely, suffers from years of underinvestment in public transport.

Once well served by miles of railway line crisscrossing the county like a spider web, nowadays, if you’re car-less I admit it’s going to be a struggle getting around. Pulling up at a nearby, convenient, railway station is now nothing more than an erotic thought in the mind of a trainspotter. 

The nearest railway station to the Lost Gardens of Heligan is at St Austell, over five miles away from the entrance. Nonetheless, if you’re a determined sort, you could get the train there and jump on either the First Kernow 24 or Go Bus Cornwall 23 services for the remainder of the journey, or there’s a taxi rank outside.

If you’re reluctantly coming by car, head towards the B3273 towards a place called Mevagissey and follow the brown tourist signs to The Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Under no circumstances listen to your Sat Nav. Follow the brown signs. Sat Navs have the habit of taking you the most direct route to your destination and let me be clear – the most direct routes in Cornwall often involve terrifyingly narrow single-track country lanes where you will crash into tractors coming the other way, and you will die. Or at least end up with trousers as brown as the tourist signs you have just ignored. Follow the signs to the Lost Gardens.

What to see at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

the old gardens of heligan

The gardens are subdivided into 3 main areas. Depending on your interests, there are the Productive Gardens – i.e. the gardens that grow fruit and veg and contain such gems as the Kitchen Garden, the Melon Yard and Pineapple Pit and the Flower Garden.

There’s the Pleasure Ground area, which contains summerhouses, greenhouses, a wishing well and the stunning Italian Garden amongst other things.

Finally, there’s a Farm area, which contains a working sawmill and workshop as well as a wildlife hide and the amusingly named Poultry Orchard, which makes you think of chickens growing in trees, but is disappointingly, more chickens running around trees.

The Productive Gardens

the potting shed at lost gardens of heligan

The productive kitchen gardens of Heligan are pretty incredible. Meticulously recreated, they give a really good idea of how a working kitchen garden must have looked back in the day. They once met the food needs of an entire working estate, although these days the produce can be found in the onsite cafés or local shops.

You can see how fruit, veg and herbs are cultivated in the same way as the Victorians did and, if you’re feeling suitably inspired, the gift shop sells a variety of seeds so you can try and recreate your very own veg patch at home. 

The Potting Shed is well worth a nose around to try and get a feel for how the Victorian gardeners plied their trade and for those of you who enjoy toilet humour, the Thunderbox room is well worth a peek – I won’t spoil any surprises about what you might find inside!

The Pleasure Grounds

Rhododendrons at heligan

The Queen of the Lost Gardens is the Pleasure Grounds. Magnificent, impressive and then both magnificent and impressive in turn, it’s a testament to the hard work of the volunteers and staff who uncovered Heligan and the beauty it contains.

Gardens themselves have a history of being a display of wealth of the aristocrats back in the day; anyone who had so much land they didn’t need to farm it was obviously worth a few quid back in the day, right?

Going by the Pleasure Grounds, the original owners of Heligan were not short of a few bob, that’s for sure. There’s sumptuous amounts of rhododendrons (try saying that after a drink) everywhere and the views from the higher parts of the gardens are absolutely breathtaking.

The mightily impressive jungle in the Gardens of Heligan

If you push out a little further, there’s also the impressive jungle area – I believe it’s the UK’s only outdoor jungle (yes, there are a few indoor ones, including the equally impressive one at the nearby Eden Project).

The jungle area has some huge plants and the kids spend a happy hour running riot around the banana trees and demonstrated that I was very much not Indian Jones by rocking the rope bridge as I tried to stumble my way across it.  

The Farm Area at Heligan

Everyone likes a farm. Country air, amusing animals and a bit educational, the farm area at Heligan has this in spades. With chickens running free through the orchard, and cows, sheep, horses and goats pottering about, it’s a real education to learn how farms can run in a sustainable and environmentally sound fashion.

I, shamefully, knew nothing about land rotation before my visit, and now I get it and why it’s so important. Food doesn’t just turn up on my plate – to learn about how animals are reared, bred, rotated and managed is a genuine education to any town dweller – it’s a bit like Clarksons Farm but with less swearing.

Play Areas at Heligan

If you’ve got younger children with you, you absolutely must make time for the Heligan Play Meadow – Cornwall’s largest outdoor playground. There are two football fields worth of swings, a slide and a hugely exciting jumping pillow to burn off any excess energy your children may have – I was exhausted just watching them.

Bonus Areas

the mud maiden at the gardens of heligan
Mud Maiden

The Gardens of Heligan is a full-on day out, and once we managed to drag the kids away from the Play Meadow, we visited the far-flung corners of the Gardens of Heligan including the Mud Maiden, the Grey Lady and plenty of fun activities to keep your kids entertained.

Food and Drink at the Gardens of Heligan

There are 2 main places to grab some refreshments at Heligan; the Heligan Kitchen which is open from 9 am – 4:00 pm (breakfast is from 9 am -11.30 am, lunch is from 12 pm-3 pm) and as you would expect from a seasonal garden, the menu changes frequently but can be found online here before your visit.

Reassuringly, about 85% of their meats and veg come from the gardens themselves and very tasty they are too. I can recommend the breakfast.   

The other option is the Steward’s House, open from 10 am to 4 pm and is more of a snacky place, selling the normal array of sandwiches, salads and jacket potatoes.

Both places have a decent choice of children’s options, although the much-desired chicken nuggets are conspicuous by their absence. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on how terrible a parent you are.

Closing Thoughts

the jungle and pond at Gardens of Heligan

A bit like the Tank Museum down in Bovington, the owners have played a canny trick here, because what’s clear as you wander around is that it’s not the plants that are the stars of the show here, even though they are mightily impressive. It’s all a living testament to the people who have created – and then recreated – such a magnificent space.

I mean, if you like flowers you are undoubtedly in for a right good day out, but what really comes through is the care, the knowledge, the dedication, of everyone who has ever worked in Heligan to make the gardens so stunning.

Once again, I am reminded that I struggle to maintain a small-sized garden lawn so the effort and organisation it takes to tender to 200-odd hectares of garden is simply mindboggling.

The history of the gardens of Heligan is everywhere and it’s with an occasional pang of sorrow that you recall the original gardeners marched off to war in 1914 to do their duty to the Country and they never returned.

Now I’m not a spiritual person, but it’s nice to see that their effort lives on in the revamped gardens and as long as the gardens remain, their efforts live on to be enjoyed by future generations. So, go, it’s well worth the visit.     

The Lost Gardens of Heligan are open all year round (Except Christmas Day and Boxing Day) and is open from 10 am to 5 pm. Tickets are £18.50 (Adults), £8.50 (Children 5 – 17) and £48 (2 Adults & up to 3 Children). Allow about 4 hours for a visit. Website: https://www.heligan.com/

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