Imagine what it must be like to discover something lost to living memory.
Rather like Mary Lennox stumbling across her secret garden in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, the Lost Gardens of Heligan were discovered accidentally having been forgotten some 80 years previously.
Generations of the Tremayne family, who owned the Heligan estate in Cornwall, poured years of love and attention into creating and maintaining magnificent gardens from 1766. The gardens were added to until 1914 when the Great War broke out and forced the gardeners to leave to fight in the trenches.
The large house on the estate was used as a hospital during the war and then tenanted out in the 1920s and 1930s. The gardens were neglected, and then forgotten. When the house was split into flats and sold in the 1970s, the land was left to the wider Tremayne family, and it was not until 1990 that descendants of the Tremaynes happened upon the gardens.
The project of clearing and restoring the gardens took years and you can see why when you visit. There are several different gardens (all spread out), woodland, a farm and fields that are used to host various events. Now, the gardens have been lovingly resurrected and have won numerous awards. We visited whilst staying in nearby Fowey.
The gardens are extensive and unless you rush, you probably won’t see everything in a single visit. Upon arriving we chose to walk towards The Jungle at the far end of the gardens. The path took us through woods where we picked our way past bluebells and sculptures, among them a beautiful statue of a woman asleep on the ground, covered in moss and ivy. Emerging from the woods there is a gorgeous view over fields down to the sea.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Jungle section; surely it couldn’t feel that tropical in Cornwall? But I was surprised at the sort of plants that can grow in this area; we saw bananas, palms and bamboo among others. The valley is so sheltered that it has its own microclimate; 5 degrees warmer than its surrounds, enough to allow these tropical plants to thrive.
The paths snake through the foliage, past several ponds, up and down sections of steps. The Cub had a great time scampering about and loved being carried across the huge rope bridge, as she was too small to cross it herself. Don’t miss this bridge – the kids will think it’s brilliant. You really have to wonder at the effort that the Tremaynes put into their estate all those years ago – everything carefully planned and looked after so that many of the plants were still growing decades after they were last seen.
After leaving the jungle we continued on the path up the hill towards the entrance. We stopped for lunch at a cafe before heading towards the other gardens, but the Cub was flagging and so we barely had time to poke our heads into the Productive Garden and Pleasure Grounds. From the looks of it, these would deserve another visit. There are some absolutely enormous rhododendrons that have been growing in the garden for aeons, and make the one in the below photo look like a sapling.
Slightly older children will have a blast exploring the gardens (the Cub was not quite 2). There is a Family Trail which includes insect hotels, bird hides and farm animals, and more. Pick up the map at the entrance. Check Heligan’s website for details of events that might be on when you visit – they have plenty tailored to families.
Parents of young children need to be aware that the Jungle area is not suitable for prams as there are far too many steps. We took our sling to carry the Cub in when she was too tired, or when daddy’s shoulders were not acceptable.
Try to visit in late May if you can as it’s the perfect time to see the rhododendrons in bloom. We also managed to avoid half term holidays so the gardens were quiet. Even if you are bound to the holidays we would still recommend Heligan as a great family day out.