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The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall, UK

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The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall

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The Lost Gardens of Heligan near Mevagissey in Cornwall, located only six miles away from the town of St Austell, are one of the most popular botanical gardens in the UK. The style of the gardens is typical of the nineteenth century, with areas of different character and design.

The gardens were created by members of the Cornish Tremayne family over a period from the mid-18th century up to the beginning of the 20th century, and still form part of the family’s Heligan estate. The Heligan estate was originally bought by the Tremaynes already in the 16th century. Earlier members of the family were responsible for both Heligan House and the (still private) gardens which surround it.

Before the First World War each member of the Tremayne family made significant contributions to the development of the gardens, including the ornamental plantings along the estate’s Long Drive, the Jungle, the hybridizing of rhododendrons and their planting around Flora’s Green, and the creation of the Italian Garden. So it’s no wonder that sometime the gardens required the services of 22 gardeners to maintain them.

But the First World War led to the deaths of no less than 16 of those gardeners. And by 1916 the gardens were being looked after by only eight men. In the 1920s Jack Tremayne’s love of Italy, which had earlier inspired him in forming the Italian Garden, led him to set up permanent home there and hire out Heligan.

So the house was let on a lease after his relocation and used by the US Army during the Second World War. In the 1970s it was finally converted into flats and sold, but without the gardens. Against this background the gardens fell into a serious state of neglect and were lost to sight.

After the childless death of Jack Tremayne, the Heligan estate came under the ownership of a trust to the benefit of several members of the extended Tremayne family. One of these, John Willis, who lived in the area, was responsible for introducing record producer Tim Smit to the gardens. He and a group of fellow enthusiasts decided to restore the gardens to their former glory and eventually leased them from the Tremayne family.

The restoration, which was the subject of a six part Channel 4 television series in 1996, proved to be an outstanding success, not only revitalising the gardens but also the local economy around Heligan by providing employment. The gardens are now leased by a company owned by their restorers, who continue to cultivate them and operate them as a very popular visitor attraction.

text via flickr

images via: heligan, leconfident

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  • Laureen Lessels February 17, 2017

    I always wondered how they got the estate. I grew up on one of the estate farms and it annoyed me intensely that we couldn’t buy it. I worked in my student holidays in his restaurant in Pentewan and accidentally dropped some hot potatoes in his lap. I was mortified but he was v gracious and said don’t worry, these things happen, just go back and get some more. I still got a very good tip. I once asked Damaris, his sister, what would happen to the estate and she said Oh, I’d keep it as one never knows if one’s nephews might need it. So now it’s all flats, if I ever retire from my little farm, perhaps I could rent one. The gardens were never ost to me. I used to clatter round there on my pony hoping I wouldn’t be caught and sent home.

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