Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Lost Gardens Of Heligan, the One for me!

Although it's really hard to try and single out one of England's gardens as a favourite, for me it must be The Lost Gardens of Heligan. They don't have the grandeur of Blenheim Palace or Hampton Court, but what they do have, for me personally anyway, is an atmosphere and character that always takes me back to a day when gardening was a true vocation in life, and not simply a career choice. 
Although now pretty much fully restored, there was a day back in 1990 when Tim Smit discovered traces of what was once a magnificent garden, and with the help of John Nelson set about uncovering this gem.
 As a couple, this reminds us of the many garden clearances we have had to undertake since starting Four Seasons, but one particular place always comes to mind. Although only about three acres, nothing on the scale of Heligan, this was a garden in the heart of the very 'well to do' area of Canford Cliffs. A rather large but ordinary red brick house stood in the middle of the site, and on first going to see the owner, we walked up one side of a circular drive, the only part clear, and were met by a very intelligent doctor from India. The only visible areas of the interior were the two front rooms, bare floorboards covered in masses of paperwork, some in piles, but most just strewn. The other room was around the back, and was some sort of laboratory. He was very private, and all the windows had blinds down most of the time. The garden was quite literally more overgrown than in the Heligan picture above, and as we set about clearing, wondered if there was some sort of Chimera project going on inside this mysterious house. It took us months to clear the back and front, and in the process we uncovered old timber and brick greenhouses, paths, rockeries and even an apple orchard. The place came together quite nicely, and just at the point that we could lean on our spades and think 'Yes', he sold the place to a developer, who bulldozed the lot and built a futuristic house on the whole place. It's a strange feeling when one puts heart and soul into such a thing, and actually invests not just physical effort, but emotion as well, just to have part of ones life eradicated from the face of the earth. Anyway, mustn't get gloomy. He moved to another, much bigger house on the clifftop, and we went with him to clear the garden in this one. We even uncovered an underground bomb shelter along the way. That was ten years ago, and we left that job for new pastures, but he is still there, in another shuttered laboratory. What IS he doing I wonder?

Unlike many gardens now, Heligan has a relatively large gardening workforce, and follows old working practices, uses varieties of plants from when it was a working estate, and exacting methods in how things are carried out. Absolutely everything is dug over by hand, using tools from years gone by, and in my mind is the perfect place for anyone starting out in this field to gain experience.

As we walked around, my mind continually drifted to what it must have been like to work here all those years ago, and how exciting it would have been to be on the team that uncovered it so many years later.

Paths lead into all manner of different places, sometimes vistas, sometimes enclosed gardens, but always to another peaceful setting.

Early on in it's restoration, two works were commissioned, 'The Giants Head'.....

....and 'Mud Maid'. She is my favourite because she always seems so restful and at peace.

A tiered series of ponds were found amongst what is now the jungle area, and these were laboriously cleared and reinstated. Trying not to sound like an old man on a hill, the thought of this takes me back some thirty years, when the ponds of Compton Acres Gardens were emptied and cleaned for the first time since the 1920's. During this time, the gardens were still wrapped around the original Georgian house, lived in by the owners Mr and Mrs Brady, and were governed by the head gardener Bill Collins, who was a strict taskmaster. The Japanese garden was first, and during the draining of the water, the massive Koi carp were temporarily placed in holding tanks in the Italian Garden, and netted to prevent the local herons coming to the buffet. Frogs and toads were taken to other pools on the estate. To say there was mud would be an understatement, tons of it precariously wheelbarrowed up slippery planks out of the pond and into the borders of the sub tropical glen. We found cameras, coins, spectacles, and the original 10kg bronze plug for draining the pond, but the drainage hole and pipe had long since ceased to function. It was a long, wet, cold and muddy winter that one, but once everything was scrubbed, new concrete supports to replace the rotten oak that had been supporting the tea house were in place, and waterside plants renewed, all looked fabulous the following year. The winter after saw the Italian Garden pool get the same treatment.
Heligans pools are lovely, and cut through the jungle in a natural way. Most of the Rhododendrons are original and very large as you can imagine.

The apples trained over this are a work of art, skill and patience.

Some of the first pineapple pits in England.
The tool shed was both interesting and scary, as I showed Amanda some of the tools that I once used, that no longer are.
The very small and personal Italian Garden.
And Rhododendron petals looking just as beautiful in the shade of their bushes.

This lady toiled for hours digging over the soil using one of the original types of fork that would have been used. One thing that came to my mind while watching the half dozen or so gardeners working in this area, was how content and deep in their own thoughts they looked. Never a hot and agitated word said between any of them, as I quietly watched for quite long periods of time from a distance.

It's a good life indeed!

Fruit trees ready to come out for the summer sun.
And the head gardeners office, so much like the one that I had to enter when seeking a place at Compton Acres Gardens all those years ago.

 Around another corner, a greenhouse filled simply with loads of varieties of Geraniums.
An elderly volunteer, almost lost from sight as she quietly kneels and weeds away in a border. I wonder what she was thinking about?

A rather effective use of some randomly sized pots.

Large lawns and Rhododendrons in the Northern Gardens.

And Gunnera manicata. They look prehistoric, and will grow much, much larger.

I think the leaves are quite something special, especially with the sun shining through them.

And so dear bloggers, just as this fellow bade us a farewell from Heligan, I must draw a close at some point. It is a special place for me, and brings to my mind so many tales of my own that I could tell.

Thanks to all for taking a look, normal service shall resume in the next post.


  1. Even I can appreciate this. It looks a wonderful garden.

  2. This was a wonderful post. My heart really ached for you and Amanda as to the garden that you worked so hard on and lovingly restored, only to have the place sold and bulldozed.

    Thank you for sharing. It's like going on mini vacations when you share the beauty there in your country. Gardens that you take care of, including your own.


  3. Wonderful tour! This garden seems like a lovely place to get lost in. Your story about restoring that lost garden, only to have it sold and bulldozed, broke my heart :(

  4. I moved to the US in 1971 so missed out on this gem. I love the old ways of gardening and all the hand tools. I still do all my gardening here at Menagerie Manor with hand tools passed on to me from my grandfather and a great uncle.

  5. Nice post, life is unfortunately full of working hard at something, all your dreams thrown in, hopes, expectations...and then it is gone ...out of nowhere , randomly, with no good explanation.I like your nosey goose picture.

  6. That was amazing. To think they uncovered it. What a variety of gardens in the garden. Never seen the people built with soil like that before. So interesting. Thank you for taking us on the tour. You have many amazing gardens open for visits.