T.he story of the rediscovery of Heligan’s Lost Gardens just over 30 years ago has all the ingredients and romance of a modern Sleeping Beauty: A brave prince fights through impenetrable thorns to awaken a beautiful princess who has been asleep for nearly 80 years. He wakes her up with a kiss and they live happily ever after.
The princess, Heligan, was once one of Cornwall’s finest estates, whose exotic gardens had been “lost” in 1914 when the workforce of the estate’s gardeners left for the war, many of whom never returned. The prince was Dutch-born archaeologist and musician Sir Tim Smit who would later found the Eden Project. But it was an unlikely series of events that led to Tim’s role in awakening the famous Heligan Gardens, filled with magnificent artifacts of plants from the far reaches of the globe and, in its heyday, renowned as a ‘ Victorian plant and engineering firm.
In 1987, Tim had moved with his family to a farm near the fishing village of Mevagissey, where the locals were filled with stories of treasures buried in the tropical valley that connected it with Heligan. He was intrigued. At the same time, he had inherited some rare breed pigs and had harbored the idea of a rare breed farm. While searching for a location, he met John Willis, a member of the Tremayne family who had owned Heligan for the past 400 years. The house had been sold in the 1970s, but John had just inherited the land (with his sister) and was eager to see what damage the Great Cornish Storm had done to it the previous month, January 1990. Tim wants to explore it with he? Thus began a quest that would change Tim’s life and wrest these mysterious gardens from darkness.
Today, Tim’s memories of spotting ferns and palms erupting from brambles remain as vivid as ever. Pushing through a creaking door, they spotted the fin of a greenhouse gable. “It was at a crazy angle, like a sinking ship,” Tim recalls. They found themselves in a greenhouse. Looking up, Tim saw a vine leaf among the weeds and, hanging on the wall, a rusty pair of scissors he thought were used to cut grapes. Later experts will identify the cellar as probably the only surviving example of a greenhouse designed by Joseph Paxton in the mid-1800s.
But it was another discovery that would guide Heligan’s subsequent restoration. Wandering around with local builder John Nelson, Tim realized he had entered a thunder room, or toilet. Spotting the graffiti on the wall, the two prepared themselves for lighthearted toilet humor as they deciphered the scribbles. Instead, they read: “Don’t come here to sleep or sleep.” And below, the signatures of the men who had sat in that tiny dark corner, and the date August 1914. The gardeners, it seemed, had solemnly signed their names before leaving their little safe world at Heligan for the bloody battlefields of France and Flanders.
Only four of those 13 gardeners returned. Tim realized that this restoration would be unlike those of other stately homes and gardens, centered on their aristocratic owners. “Putting Heligan in tarp for posterity wasn’t what we wanted,” he says. “Instead, we would tell the story of those who worked here and rediscover their knowledge and skills in the horticulture industry.”
One day in May 1991, Herbie Knott, a photographer and friend from Tim’s musician’s time, passed by while he was at work. “Herbie had his camera with him, but he was out of film,” recalls Candy, Tim’s ex-wife. “I went to St Austell to buy some rolls of color film. Herbie shot them, but then he finished the movie again, so he asked me to get more. On the second visit, I was only able to find black and white. ”Many of Herbie’s pictures have been used in books, but the ones printed here have never been published before.
A space on restoration on BBC2 The world of gardeners that fall put the project on the national map and, finally, on a rain-soaked Good Friday in 1992, Heligan was officially opened to the public, despite still being a construction site with no properly functioning cafes or toilets. “There was a great deal of excitement when our first visitor arrived,” recalls Tim. “We were so happy to see him that we let him in for free!”
The work continued. The overgrowth has been domesticated to reveal rare camellias and rhododendrons, some grown from seeds reported from Joseph Hooker’s 1849-51 Himalayan expedition. Mrs. Tremayne’s flower garden – stated by The Chronicle of the Gardeners in 1896 for being “the finest herbaceous border in England” – it was restored to its former glory and renamed the Sundial Garden. The lands of the Heligan estate have been stocked with rare breed cattle and sheep, regeneratively reared to combat soil degradation and climate change.
The restoration of the productive gardens represented the greatest challenge. The manpower, skills, and glass that had been deployed were enormous, and no cutout planes had survived. Fortunately, as Tim and his crew excavated, they unearthed some of the original zinc plant labels, which provided clues to the types of fruit grown on its red brick walls. Planting vegetables, however, had to start from scratch, based on research that led to the discovery of historic varieties that would have been grown before 1910.
In its heyday, Heligan’s garden and estate would feed a family of around 30. Today, with over 350,000 annual visitors, it can only provide a fraction of what is used in the on-site restaurant. Now, though, Heligan has hired chef Nat Tallents, who regularly runs Lost Suppers by showcasing his produce, from pasture-raised Red Ruby beef to freshly harvested beans.
Even if you can’t make it to a lost dinner, walk through the gardens at the right time and head gardener Nicola Bradley could offer you a sun-warmed “Royal Sovereign” strawberry, a historic 1892 variety that was served at the Queen’s coronation banquet . “You won’t find it in stores because it has a short shelf life,” says Nicola. “But for the flavor, it’s amazing. It is the taste of a “real” strawberry “.
But Heligan’s most iconic fruit is pineapple, which, since the early 18th century, was grown in pits heated from readily available fresh horse manure. Upon rediscovering the gardens, Tim and his team were eager to see if they could get the only remaining well to work again. Using suckers from South Africa, Heligan eventually produced 20 pineapples per year. But the necessary quantities of fresh manure are hard to find and high-carbon to transport, so other heating methods are now being sought. “We want methods that don’t use fossil fuels,” says Nicola. His dilemma underscores the challenges Heligan faces as she looks ahead to the next 30 years. “We have to understand how to remain faithful to who we are, but also to keep up with the times”.
World War I, when Heligan was “lost”, also marked a loss of national biodiversity and connection with the natural world with the industrialization of agriculture and gardening. Now, many of Heligan’s ancient regenerative methods are being discovered once again across Britain. “Our priorities are healthy soils and biodiversity,” says Alasdair Moore, garden and estate manager. These, along with age-old gardening skills, are vital, he says, if Heligan’s awakened sleeping beauty wants to live happily ever after.
For details on Heligan’s visit, go to heligan.com
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