Lost Gardens of Heligan | Go Behind the Scenes
The Lost Gardens of Heligan is a popular private botanical garden outside the fishing village of Mevagissey in Cornwall. The place name “Heligan” comes from the Cornish Helygen, meaning “willow tree.” If you are an admirer of great gardens, then Cornwall is a destination you’ll love–there are more than a dozen historically and horticulturally important gardens in Cornwall.
The design of the Lost Gardens of Heligan follows the 19th century style known as “gardenesque”, a type of design that emphasizes a formal or artistic presentation of plants, versus a naturalistic display. The concept was introduced by John Loudon in the U.K. in the 18th century.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan has an intriguing back story involving a family whose roots in Cornwall date to the 12th century, nine men who died in the trenches of World War I, and a Dutch-born record producer and his pair of Vietnamese Pot Bellied pigs. Today, the Lost Gardens of Heligan has a timeless yet very contemporary message about conservation and sustainability.
Let me share with you the history of the Lost Gardens of Heligan, and introduce you to the team of gardeners who tend to its 200+ acres of productive gardens, pleasure grounds, woodlands, meadows and even a jungle. As you meet these stewards of a piece of Cornwall’s history, another story will be revealed, about the cycle of life and two families with deep roots in Heligan’s soil.
“I walked in here with a machete in the company of John Willis and we talked about it for so long but it seems a remarkable thing that two people who knew nothing about gardening should arrive to what is now recognised as probably the most romantic garden in the world.”
~Sir Tim Smit, co-founder of the Lost Gardens of Heligan
I spent a full day exploring the Lost Gardens of Heligan and recommend that you give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the ambiance. Heligan’s James Stephens gave me the lay of the land, and introduced me to each of Heligan’s main areas and the people involved in its care and tending. I know you’ll enjoy learning about their roles at Heligan and their insights on its diverse ecosystems!
James Stephens on the History of Lost Gardens of Heligan
Since 1659, Heligan was the ancestral home of the Tremayne family, who lived in the manor house. They were one of the richest families in Cornwall and they liked to show off their wealth. They sent plant hunters around the world and they’d come back with these magnificent species of tree ferns, and Gunnera, and Monkey Puzzles, New Zealand Yews and other species that you might not expect to find in South West England!
Heligan is referred to as the ‘Lost Gardens’ for a variety of reasons. In 1914, the gardeners of the Heligan Estate went to fight for our country in World War I. There were 13 Heligan men who went to war, and sadly, only four returned, meaning that nine passed away in war. This sparked the demise of The Gardens, and over time, brambles took over, and they were almost derelict.
Interestingly, the estate is still owned by the same family. It was passed on to one of the descendants, John Willis, and we lease it from him. There is a story of how the Lost Gardens came to be discovered and reclaimed.
The Thunderbox Room
In 1990, Heligan’s co-founder, Tim Smit had been gifted a pair of Vietnamese Pot Bellied pigs, Horrace and Dorris, and he was looking to start a Rare Breeds Farm Project. On his quest to find suitable land somebody suggested that he enquire about what might be available at Heligan.
Tim came to Heligan and met John Willis. John explained the land Tim was interested in was now a campsite but that he had some other land on the estate that might fit the bill.
Tim and John battled through the undergrowth and soon realized that Heligan was a window onto the past and that it could be so much more than a farm.
In the very early days of restoration they stumbled upon a little room, and it was what they call “The Thunderbox Room,” which is actually the Gardeners’ toilet. On the wall, they found written “Don’t come here to sleep, nor slumber” dated August 1914. Under the saying were the signatures of the gardeners, which really sparked Tim.
Tim’s wife Candy embarked on a research project and visited local war memorials and was able to find out a little more about who those gardeners were. Since then we’ve met family members, been provided with photos and learnt so much more about these men. It’s been an amazing journey and a window onto the past.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan Today
The rediscovery of the Gardens began in 1990, and then in 1992, the Gardens were opened to the public. No one really knew that we’d be here this long, and it’s been such a success. We continually win awards, and we currently welcome around 365,000 visitors a year.
Staff members have obtained or are obtaining various qualifications in various ways. With Heligan being such a well-known garden, to be trained here really is an asset for the future. A level 2 diploma in horticulture is a nationally recognised qualification. This method of education is partly funded by the government and partly funded by Heligan.
There are so many different elements to Heligan with 200 acres of gardens and estate to explore. There are 60 acres of woodland, with pathways initially created 200 years ago for the Tremayne family. Then we’ve got the Jungle, which is the UK’s only outdoor subtropical jungle. The Pleasure Grounds were originally created both for enjoyment and as a status of wealth. There are the Productive Gardens where we grow over 300 varieties of heritage fruit and vegetables. With the Rare Breeds Farm Park, we’ve gone full circle to Tim Smit’s original vision.
Wildlife at Heligan
Bird spotters–or twitchers as they’re known–love Heligan. They have a checklist of birds that they’ve seen throughout the year. The rarer the better! It’s a real passion for some people who will travel for miles to see a specific bird to check off their list for the year.
In 2010, hundreds of bird spotters visited because a Green Heron had been spotted. One visitor had even flown down from Scotland especially! We almost had to have security there, because the spotters were three-deep with their cameras trying to get a photo of this Heron. I think they increased our visitor figures for the month by 11 percent. It was that popular.
We had a Kingfisher spotted down here. There’s an otter, which comes up through the valley, goes into the Jungle, and tucks in our fish there. For a time he was visiting the Italian Garden pond, where we kept some goldfish. For a while we were wondering, “Where are our goldfish going? They’re just disappearing.” So, we put a motion sensitive camera out, and there was the otter!” It was almost like we were feeding it, and the otter was getting the fish, and it was almost like he knew the camera was there and saying, “Now, I’m waving for the camera!”
Valentines Field, Heligan’s Wildflower Meadow
This is Valentines Field, which throughout the summer was home to 11-acres of glorious wildflowers and massive numbers of bees and butterflies. Heligan is all about pollinators, so this whole field, and the next field over, were carpeted in wildflowers. It was absolutely stunning. Now, we have a team who are going to be scything this area of the land. Then all of the wildflower seeds will be dried, and then we’ll reuse them for next year, and we’ll sell them to our visitors.
We have planted several tons of seeds in the last few – you can see the finches really enjoying it.
The ‘Lost’ part of The Lost Gardens of Heligan also refers to gardening techniques and methods which are or are threatened to be lost to the history books.
For example, the productive garden uses plants specific to a heritage year, ours being around 1910. There is a heritage seed catalogue we use for sourcing some period correct plants, and when they are grown we save the seed, and send some but to the catalogue people. We also carry on old varieties of potatoes by in house propagation.
Importance of Conservation Gardening
Some of the heritage ways of gardening are also linked to conservation gardening. Seed saving protects and conserves old plant species from dying out. Double digging and the use of manure and seaweed improves and conserves the viability of the soil. Using bio controls as opposed to chemicals is good practice and helps conserve and protect wildlife, as does conservation planting to encourage and help with biodiversity. Another one of these methods is the ancient art of scything.
With over 15 acres of wildflowers to harvest, it would have taken the whole gardening team several labor intensive days to harvest this year’s crop so a combine harvester was brought in to harvest the majority of the seed.
We do try and look after these lost skills, and lost trades. Kevin Austin is from the Eden Project, and he’s a world master of scything. He’s here today with the Heligan Garden Teams, and they’re learning this kind of lost trade. Kevin comes in, and he shares his years of accumulated wisdom.
Thanks to Kevin, we now have a team of Heligan gardeners who can keep this traditional method alive. Kevin will join us in future years to share his knowledge with others but our gardeners will also use their new skills in scything on small patches of wildflower and grasses next year.
Read: Enjoy learning about Cornwall? Check out the Charlestown Shipwreck and Heritage Centre!
Kevin Austin, Head of Estates Team, Eden Project
I’ve lived in Cornwall for about 20 years. I’ve got a small holding, 10 acres, and the scythe for me it’s the most convivial tool for managing that holding. We got sold this story as the machines came in, and we all thought that was going to be the best way to go. Then, there was a realization that it’s not always the case. The old tools, and the old traditional ways often were the best.
We have a bit of a laugh with competitions where scythers race against modern strimmers–what you might call weed-whackers or brush cutters. We race, and the scythe will always outstrip a machine like that when you’re opening up a big space. The machines have their place, little intricate areas, maybe going around up against walls, and around little obstacles. But when you’re meadow mowing, and mowing large areas, strimmers won’t keep up with a scythe, and the scythe does a much better job. It’s brilliant for establishing wildflower meadows, and for managing wildflower meadows.
Most wildflowers, you want to strip the nutrient out of the soil, and a scythe will cut it nice and low in one slice. You remove the arisings and that nutrition is taken away. So, slowly, the nutrients are depleting a little bit, and the more rampant grasses that can end up choking out the more delicate wildflowers start to subside, because there’s not enough fertilizer, nitrogen, in there for them.
How long that takes depends on soil types. Sometimes it’s very difficult, because it’s such rich soil, there are other ways – soil stripping or deep soil inversion are possible, but that’s very extreme. In most cases, you’re better off to let nature take its course. In some cases, it could take four or five years. In other cases, just within a season you can establish rich diversity very quickly with that method.
Often you can use yellow rattle in the early stages, and that can actually help to get on top of some of the more rampant grasses. It is known as a semi-parasitic plant. Its roots are structured where it actually winds, and attaches to other root systems, and draws the nutrient out of that plant. So, if you’ve got a lot of grasses, if you can establish yellow rattle, then that will help to actually diminish the intensity of the grasses, and then open up little niches for other wildflowers to start prospering. In the Autumn grass needs to be cut short then scarified and seeded.
I actually did scythe as a youngster with the old English scythes. By the time I had got onto the scene in the ‘60s, they were getting forgotten about, and even now, the old English scythes are found left up in the corner of barns, full of woodworm, and rusted out blades on them, a great shame. There are old English specialists within the country. At the moment, you see us using Austrian set ups. Austrian blades have helped the whole renaissance of scything in Britain. On the continent, indeed, it’s a sport. I’ve just come back from the European Championships, which was in Austria. The speed that they can mow at is out of this world.
Check out our clip on scything lessons at the Lost Gardens of Heligan!
But going back to the old English scythes, they are a lot heavier. I think these were specifically for the older grasses, the Timothy and Cocksfoot, and things like that, and they can power through these tussocks of grasses. These more delicate scythes, now, which are a lot more ergonomic, and user-friendly, can be well adjusted with adjustable handles, and are a lot lighter, about half the weight, and anybody can scythe, anybody from the age of eight to eighty-eight.
I get great pleasure in teaching people who have issues with their health. They might have a bad back; I myself have got an artificial hip. I don’t mind saying it, but I find scything very good for my health, and it benefits me. Your core stays strong, your flexibility, and you only push it as much as you feel capable of. So, it’s for anybody.
Scything as Meditation
You don’t normally like to scythe all day. At the end of the day, it’s a repetitive motion, and also, as you get into the afternoon, the material that you’re cutting normally gets harder to cut as the day wears on and it dries. Most scythers will get their scything done in the morning. Yes, I can scythe all day, but I just keep myself at a nice steady pace. And I can do it, and I almost feel as though sometimes I can feel more energized at the end of a scything session. You get the sun on your back, and then I feel like I’m getting charged up.
There are a lot of people who actually talk about the Tai Chi style of scything, and it can become very meditative, indeed. And yeah, an average scythe, if you’re scything well in good conditions, there’s no reason why you couldn’t push out an acre a day.
Kevin on Conservation Gardening Practices
Our countryside is a sterile blanket of mono-cultured crops because of the onset of the industrial revolution, the removal of hedges to increase field size, and the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Our endemic flora and fauna fragmented up to survive on the remnants. Hence, gardens have a huge value as enclaves for our wildlife, this is why I feel passionate about conservation gardening on this level.
I encourage gardeners to allow native plants to thrive and to incorporate pollinator friendly planting and avoid all the fertilizer, pesticides, slug pellets etc.
Leave areas wild and undisturbed and don’t rush to tidy it all up, in fact leave log piles, compost piles and uncut grass. Small shallow ponds of any size are great for diversity.
I also encourage people to sell that ride-on lawn mower and create a wildflower meadow, winding paths and clipped social areas can be cut within the meadow to create magical engagement.
I see this natural gardening style as conservation gardening, stepping stones or sanctuaries for our wildlife, waiting for their return to the wilderness as hopefully our land heals.
Toby Davies, Lost Gardens of Heligan Staff Member
I’m 20 years old, and I’ve been working at Heligan for about five years. I did my work experience here in year eleven with school. I was here one day a week when I was at Duchy College. I’ve just finished my foundation degree in conservation. Heligan offered me a job at the end, and I’ve been here ever since. I’m quite into conservation and wildlife conservation.
My great, great grandfather was one of the original Heligan gardeners. When he went to war, he was in his forties, so he joined later than some of the younger Heligan staff members. My nan’s got all the letters that he sent home to his wife, even his last one when he was on his deathbed. The letters were about what he was doing, how much he was missing them, about how he loved them.
He worked at Heligan was for most of his life. According to the old workbooks, he was classed as a road man, so, he used to look after, and maintain the drive to the Heligan house.
I’ve done a little bit of scything before, in college. It’s a technique you can’t master in five minutes. Kev is the leading scyther in the UK, so, it’s learning from the best, really. Everyone at Heligan is good in their field. I’ve learned a lot from being here, and it’s been quite nice.
More Than Just a Gardner
I’m on the Estate Team. People say, ‘Oh, you work at Heligan, you’re a gardener.’ But there’s quite a bit more to it than just the gardens, as it were, because you’ve got the wider estate, and the Jungle. I have learned a lot from everyone here, they all have their part.
It makes me feel proud to say I’m part of Heligan, and help to maintain it. Even these wildflowers we’re cutting with the scythe now. we’ve all had our part in that. And it’s nice to say that I’m doing my bit, as it were.
It’s quite nice from a family perspective. My family still lives in this area. I feel proud, because not everyone can say they have heritage here, and I’m part of the history in a sense. It’s exactly 100 years after my great, great grandfather died that I started working here. They say things happen for a reason, don’t they?
In the field over there, we’d had a memorial tree planted for him. All the lost men that went have had trees planted for them around the estate. It’s a weird feeling, because I can say that tree was planted for my great, great granddad, and a lot of people couldn’t really say that, could they?
All my life I’ve always been into nature. Even when I was a youngster, I was always out on walks with my gran, and we just loved the outdoors. Living in Cornwall, you can’t not!
Cindy Maddison, Lost Gardens of Heligan Jungle Supervisor
I’ve always loved gardening since I was a kid. It’s just a progression, really, although I did go to college on an RHS course, as well, which gives you a lot more knowledge. I’ve been working at Heligan for 17 years now. By working with the plants, you get to grow them well.
The challenge in the Jungle is the terrain, but that’s good for our microclimate. And we do go for the most exotic plantings, which are sometimes tender, so the challenge is keeping them going if we ever get hard winters, which is rare down in Cornwall, but obviously, sometimes you do. You’ve just got to be aware of that.
The climate in Cornwall is in the winter we have ‘mizzle’, a commonly used Cornish phrase, which is like a drizzly rain or a mixture of mist and drizzle when you get that grey sky. So, we’ve got a moist atmosphere, a lot of coastline, with the sea breezes coming in. It’s usually very mild in Cornwall. We rarely get frost, and if we do, it’s very surface level and gone quickly. My son didn’t see snow until he was 11 years old!
The Gulfstream is a massive factor. It keeps us warm. It hits part of Scotland, as well, so they have a similar little patch up there. Without the Gulfstream, I think we’d be in Russian territory, weather-wise. It would be a lot colder.
A plant that really thrives here that has come from abroad is the tree fern. The tree fern loves it down here. We’ve got some big old ones from the 1890s, and we’ve got baby ones. They spore. They self-seed. In fact, we’ve had so many, we’ve had to dig some up, and move them. But they love this. Down in the Jungle we’ve got four lakes and we’re in a protected valley and that’s perfect for them. It’s like a little eco-climate.
We’ve enhanced the lakes, and made them slightly bigger. They’re spring fed. But holding that volume of water in here creates that moist ecosystem, and we’re very sheltered.
The design of the Jungle was planned by looking at the area and seeing what it can give you and what should be there. At the top, when it was just bamboo, and it felt like there should be a view down through, so we opened that up, and then it became a path. We were creating a path, but it was almost like we were being led to to do it. We looked for potential beds or paths that when you’ve done them look as though you’ve uncovered them, rather than created them.
Some of the more tender stuff that the Heligan gardeners wouldn’t have had back in the day, like brugmansias and more modern day plants, are used to carry on Jack Tremayne’s vision of an exotic jungle area. We continue to preserve and look after plants from over a hundred years ago, species that were new and exotic in their time such as the rhododendrons, the tree ferns, and some of the bamboos, as well.
Adapting to Cornwall Climate
We don’t worry about the bamboo becoming invasive, as long as we’ve got loppers. We do have to go around snipping away at it because it does move, but we just keep it under control.
We had a beautiful bed of proteas from South Africa. They were flowering, king proteas. Then about eight years ago, we got those three unusually cold winters, and that did knock them right back. But we are going to do them again because hopefully, that kind of cold weather won’t happen again for a while.
Like I say, my son didn’t see snow until he was 11-years-old, but we have had more snow in recent years, not loads, but we’ve had more. We have had later frosts, like in March that I would never have noticed before. We have noticed a change, but you wonder if it’s a big cycle, or whether it’s due to climate change.
A Day in The Life of The Jungle
A day in the life of the Jungle starts with doing checks, walking around to make sure everything is fine. We could be doing some strimming/brush cutting early in the morning, because we get any noisy jobs out of the way before visitors come. Strimming is using a strimmer, knocking grass, brambles back. We’ve still got lots of areas where we’re pulling brambles, and weeding. That’s a big part of it, planting, clearing bamboo. We dig out our own paths using cornish shovels and matocks. We’ve got some beautiful big benches we’ve made out of storm-damaged trees from the valley.
We’ve been in the pond clearing weed, which is quite exciting. You have to mind the eels, and the fish that are around. We put in weed control that is environmentally friendly.
It’s quite good doing the checks in the morning when it’s really quiet, because that’s when you might see the kingfishers coming through. I’ve seen the otter once. He’s really shy. And there’s usually a heron, as well. We do see fish in the ponds. They would have been introduced at some point, but they’re indigenous fish. They’re like Rudd and Roach, and there’s some Sticklebacks. Another wildlife we have there that scared me to death the first time I saw one was the grass snakes. They’re not that thick but they’re about 3-foot long. They breed here. They are not poisonous but if you pick them up, you stink for a day. They have a smelly fish-like slime on them, which is hard to wash off.
There are four of us that look after the Jungle. It keeps us busy, but it’s really good, varied work. You feel really tired at the end of the day, but you feel good, and relaxed. There’s definitely a healing quality in gardening. You look at the end of the day at what you’ve done, and it gives you a sense of achievement and well-being. You adapt to the garden, don’t you? Or it adapts you? You’re one with it.
Take a 3-minute wild walk on Burmese Rope Bridge of Lost Gardens of Heligan!
Chris Kersey, Lost Gardens of Heligan Ornamental Gardens Supervisor
I’ve been at Heligan for five years now, starting out as a gardener then becoming a supervisor for the Ornamental team. Working here has actually been my first job in horticulture, as I had a career change in my mid to late 20’s, having previously worked in graphic design and signage/branding.
I’m originally from West Yorkshire, but studied at Falmouth University in my early 20’s, then moved back up to Yorkshire for work, but after several years realized I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing, so my wife and I decided we needed to make the change and both quit our jobs and moved down to Cornwall to re-train – her as a teacher and me as a gardener.
I’ve always known in the back of my mind that I love working with plants, being outside in the natural environment, and our cultural history in Britain, and working in a historic property encompasses those things. Being outdoors and in the garden for most of the time has also vastly improved my well being and health, both physical and mental. I found my previous career made me a lot more lethargic and tired from being stuck in an office or driving around in towns and cities.
Working in the gardens gives me a constant connection to the history of Heligan and to horticulture. Our plant collections date back to a turning point in gardening and plant collecting. I am always talking to visitors and other gardeners about plants, where they come from, their significance to local culture, and their link to history.
The Pleasure Grounds
The families that owned these gardens would often swap these new creations with other Cornish estates. Heligan, like other Cornish gardens, is really all about the plants, the location, the atmosphere, and the people that tend, and tended the gardens both past and present.
The historic ‘pleasure grounds’ are really the bones of the garden, as they encircle the productive gardens at the heart. The pleasure grounds give Heligan it’s atmosphere through the scale and structure of the Rhododendrons and Camellias, which contrast with the highly ornamental individual garden areas. We use the natural form of the Rhododendrons, which are of great size, scale and historic importance and unique to Heligan, to create areas that feel quite natural which then open out into areas of neatly tended, highly ornamental planting.
This is something we strive to maintain and nurture, and something we have really tried to showcase and embellish during my tenure. These two types of aesthetic highlight and complement one another, and blend Heligan’s atmosphere and intimacy with its history. The plants and structures themselves represent the story of Heligan’s peak, gradual decline, and subsequent reawakening.
Location Offers Unique Climate and Aesthetic Feel
A lot of gardens in Cornwall share a common thread, often based in and around woodland valleys and also being near the sea. This gives our gardens both a unique climate, allowing us the opportunity to grow a variety of sub-tropical, more tender plants. It also fosters a more naturalistic aesthetic and feel, combining native woodland with exotics. Cornwall’s gardens are also steeped in local history and linked to local growers and importers of plants. There is still a local nursery run by the Treseders, which has been growing and importing plants for over a century, and they have been instrumental in planting up most of the great Cornish gardens.
Heligan, like other Cornish gardens, also partly funded trips of prolific plant hunters such as Joseph Dalton Hooker through the mid 1800’s. These horticultural adventurers secured new and exciting plants which they could grow in the mild Cornish climate. That made possible experimenting with hybridizing to create their own unique treasures, many of which survive to this day and form the basis of the Ornamental Gardens.
Exotics and Natives
The planting is a mix of exotics and natives. This blend of plants is quite typical of Cornish woodland gardening, with native trees and ferns complimenting imported exotics like Camellia, Hydrangea, Magnolia and Rhododendron, and locally grown hybrids of Rhododendron. In the formal areas we grow a mixture of herbaceous perennials, shrubs, trees and ferns. We try to use the 1920’s as a cut-off date as far as what we plant, as we are a historic garden. We have restored Heligan to represent its heyday, which was just before the First World War. When many of the gardeners never returned, the last squire of Heligan Jack Tremayne eventually retired to Italy. The House was then tenanted out, and the gardens began their slow decline.
Any plants within the Ornamental Gardens should have been historically available to western horticulture before, and up to the 1920’s. By using this ‘period correct’ methodology it gives Heligan an authenticity, both in atmosphere and aesthetic.
From a practical standpoint when gardening here at Heligan, it takes a certain approach to achieve the look we want. When I first started it took me a while to ‘get my eye in’ so-to-speak when tending the more naturalistic areas of the garden. You often have to be quite selective when weeding and not ‘over garden’ so as not to look overly manicured. Sometimes fight your horticultural instinct.
Henry Welch, Lost Gardens of Heligan Horticultural Apprentice
I actually live across the road, about a five-minute walk. I roll out of bed, and I’m here. I’m just coming to the end of my first year out of two. I spend four days here, and then one day at college, which is down in Rosewarne, which is in Camborne.
I’m doing a level two, it’s all on the entry thing into horticulture, because I didn’t know anything about horticulture before. There’s an online multiple choice exam, which is worth 30 percent of the course, then the rest 70 percent is all practical-based. You’re asked to do a job, and then they’ll assess you on the job you’re doing.
Life As An Apprentice
I have been working here just under a year. I got started in October. My contract is for two years. Because I’m an apprentice, I’m lucky. I get to do a rotation. I do a month in Productive Garden, then I do a month, say, in The Jungle. Then I jump back here to Productive Garden for a month, and a month in Ornamental, and then just back, and then it’s just like that all the way through.
This gives me diverse experience and a broad view and experience for one type of horticulture. It’s beneficial because you get to see all the different parts of it, and I have a more rounded experience, and practice.
I want to go off, and have a bit more experience in other gardens, and get higher qualifications. And my dream would be eventually to come back here and be in charge of the Jungle one day. That’s my favorite part of Heligan. I just love the plantings they have down there, and I just love the whole area. Some are exotic, and things you don’t really tend to see as much. The whole vibe down there is a bit more relaxed. Everyone that’s up here is interested in the veg, all the hustle, bustle, looking around. You get down there, and all the visitors have slowed down a bit. They’ve gotten to the shade, out of the sun. They’re seeing the work you’ve put into everything, and it’s just really nice, really, seeing the visitors’ faces.
Olivia Vassilika, Lost Gardens of Heligan Staff Member
I’ve only been here a year. I started last September. Before that I did an apprenticeship in Devon, where I’m from, in a little Victorian garden. Then I went to RHS Rosemoor, and did a general course. It’s a rotation for a year. I went to Kew last year, and they offer specialist courses. I did one in fruit and veg, because that’s my thing.
But Rosemoor did offer other courses. If you were interested in orchids, you could do that for a year. If you were interested in arboriculture and forestry, you could do that. They had loads of options. When I finished at Kew, I knew I wanted to come back down to the southwest. I was looking for a kitchen garden that was going to have jobs available at the time. It’s quite a niche thing. Luckily Heligan had a space at the time.
My day can vary from one day to the next. Some days I’ll be just gardening, perhaps weeding and dead-heading perennials in the herbaceous borders, another I could be giving a tour in the morning and driving the tractor in the afternoon, or it can change from bright sunshine to torrential rain so we need to change our jobs from maybe weeding a bed to cutting back shrubs or mowing to mulching.
Getting Something Back
I’m from the southwest, which to me means Cornwall and Devon, but Devon is definitely not considered Cornwall. I like it down here. It’s a bit more like tame. After working in London for a year, it’s quite different. Even the visitors are quite different down here than they are up there. It’s just a bit more friendly down here, which is exactly what I wanted.
Heligan is nice because it’s such a massive garden, which is a bit different than the much smaller scale I’d worked in previously. You’ve got a massive 100-foot beds, so you do thousands and thousands of seedlings, and then reduce it down.
I’m interested in kitchen gardens personally, just because I’m a bit selfish. I like to get something back. I like growing, and in veg production you see all of the stages. If you’re working in Ornamental, you get full plants, and things that are already kind of going. You haven’t propagated them. Veg is quite good because you literally start everything, and you see it all the way through to the end. So, that’s what I like about it.
Sarah Redman, Lost Gardens of Heligan Volunteer
I have an opportunity to work in the Productive Garden, or in the Jungle, or whichever part of Heligan I want, really. That’s the beauty of being a volunteer is that I get to choose. I worked in the Jungle this morning, and the Productive Garden this afternoon. I have harvested Roma beans, and learned a lot about the ideal sizing, which goes to the kitchen to be eaten by the visitors.
So, that’s a beautiful circle, and now it’s wonderful to be working on the asters, so, I feel like I’m getting to know the garden a bit intimately, bit by bit. I think Heligan means healing, and it’s just very healing to be here, and looking at all this wonderful color and beauty. I felt the same in the Jungle, just being surrounded by all that really primeval fernage. It’s a wonderful space. It’s also a wonderful community of people that work here.
I lived in the south of Japan in the ‘80s, and I’ve met two people who work here that are connected to that part of Japan. It’s a very international kind of community working here. And I think they’re here for good reason. It’s like a magnet. It’s like a force field pulling everybody in, because it’s just beautiful, and so productive. It’s a great sort of template for any other garden in the country.
I love it. All the people are here because they love Heligan. To me, it feels very open, and like a reprieve for people. Being in a place like this makes people happy and relaxed.
Laura Chesterfield, Lost Gardens of Heligan Livestock Experience Manager
My history with Heligan goes way back. My father Tim and some friends were part of the original restoration. They came across the Gardens with John Willis, who inherited it. I was eight-years-old then. It’s been almost 30 years, the anniversary is next year. So, I have memories of Heligan from the day it was ten-foot in brambles, and truly a lost garden, up to now. I have a huge history with it, but in terms of working here, it’s been for about three years, properly.
I started off here in the Livestock department, because animals are my love. I worked to get us what is called the RBST Farm Park accreditation. Here in the UK, we’ve got a Rare Breeds Survival Trust. That’s a charity that focuses on the conservation of rare breed and heritage native breed animals and conservation breeding programs to save those breeds. We work towards getting all of our rare breeds in placement.
Animals Have a Job, Too
The animals that we have here happen to be rare breeds anyway, because they are the best for our landscape. These breeds have died out over the years, because of having much more different farming methods that use animals that grow quickly to produce meat quicker that are easier to keep. For us, our primary goal is not to grow animals for the kitchen. We use our animals to all do jobs around the estate. We use traditional methods.
We use our pigs all the way around the estate–clearing brambles, digging up the flowerbed, and all the wildflowers come back, and that increases wildlife, and it’s all part of increasing biodiversity here. So, the pigs have a job, the same as our cattle, and our sheep. They are all breeds that are from this area, so they’re well-suited to grazing in this area, and we have a conservation grazing program here. They’re here to do a job, and meat production is sort of a second part of that.
Because we already have a lot of rare breeds here, it was a nice way to get the accreditation to really put into place breeding programs. And it was nice to get that sort of acknowledgment for the work Heligan is doing, and for people to get behind the work of looking after the rare breeds in this country. That’s been my job for the past two years, which has been great. I’m very cold at times, I’m very smelly. [Laughter] Its lots of hard work. I’ve loved it.
Special Events at Heligan
Part of my role within that was bringing in some events to Heligan that were focused on the rare breeds. We’ve had two years of a successful Heavy Horse Weekend. At these events we showcase horses working around the estate in the old way they would have been used, pulling carts, and plowing fields, and logging in the woodlands.
We’ve had Rare Breeds Weekends, just showing off the weird and wonderful types that we’ve had. We’ve had a Rare Breed Poultry Show. We had Pig Weekend, where we had all 11 native breeds of pig all in the same place at the same time. We’ve worked on lots of events to sort of in a fun way to bring the animals and the real stories of them to people in different ways.
The Rare Breed Survival Trust has what’s called a “Watch List,” that they produce every year. I’s put together using data from all the breed societies of different animals that are bred, and then registered to count the numbers. There’s different “conservative statuses,” levels that determine how at risk the breed is, which is based on how many numbers of that animal there are.
There are different classifications. If there are 100 to 200 of a certain animal left, they would be endangered. If there’s 300 to 800, they’d be at risk. If any are in the five risk categories, then they are seen as rare breeds, so they get much more attention put to them. Then there is an effort to promote those breeds, raise awareness, and help to save the breeds with the genetics, saving DNA, all that sort of stuff. So, it’s really interesting.
Rare Biodiversity At Risk
We look at rare breeds as a whole, that’s part of Heligan. We look at rare plants, and rare trees, and rhododendrons. Everything that’s here was all brought in by the plant hunters years ago. We look at rare wildlife, with a goal of raising awareness of wildlife, and increasing the habitats for them.
All of these things, sadly, are becoming rarer, and there is rarer biodiversity in our countryside. We’re looking to protect all of it, but our rare breeds project focuses specifically on livestock – pigs, sheep, cattle, goats, poultry, horses.
Our livestock manager is a vet, and we have other members of staff with different levels of training, and understanding, and experience with animals.
Every day is different. I think probably every member of staff would say that. We’re a really good team, and everyone sort of pulls in with everybody. Each individual team is reasonably small, so there’s certain tasks where you need other people to help. My job has changed in the past six months a little bit now I’m responsible for the visitor experience over the entire garden and estate.
Laura’s Love of Horses
I’m still doing stuff with the livestock, and that’s even more varied now. For example, the first thing this morning we worked with Courage, who is our enormous Shire horse, who we’re training.
He’s only four-years-old, so he’s only just starting his education. We’re taking him out, just leading him around, getting him used to the estate, because we need him to be bombproof, basically, to be able to work at times of day when visitors are here. We are leading him out, and doing something called “long-reining,” which is having reins attached at the front that go behind him, and steering him that way from behind. Eventually he will pull a cart, or he will pull logs out of the estate. It’s all part of an education program for him.
I went to Duchy College, which is an agricultural college, and I studied horses there. I had a horse for many, many years, but not a heavy horse. They’re a different beast, and they are worked in different ways. A lot of my study was to do with riding, riding instruction, and as an equestrian. And horse care. We work with the Cornish Heavy Horse Society, who are expert here in Cornwall. They give lessons to us with Courage, and are supporting his education, which is fantastic.
A Dying Practice in Farming and Gardening
Shire horses, and most of the heavy horse breeds, are rare breeds. Years and years ago, before we had so many transport modes, horses built the roads, horses transported people to war, horses did all sorts of things in history that now have been taken over by increases in other modes of transport. Horses being used on farms is not as quick as the other methods that have now come in. Farms need to be more efficient, so they use a lot more machinery.
We’re very keen to use traditional methods here, because it’s less invasive on our environment, and on our fields. There are other farms that do use horses, but not many because it’s not as an efficient way to harrow your fields. You can bring a big machine in and do it in a day. With a horse, it might take three days, and more manpower, and so, it’s a dying art, really. That is such a shame, because there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing a horse at work in our fields in the estate. That’s what our yearly Heavy Horse Show promotes, and we showcase that. The whole estate becomes alive with horses working, and doing those jobs, which is fantastic.
Local people have been really keen to get involved. We’ve become a platform to be the voice of smaller people – small holders, farmers, local breeders that are just doing it because they love it, and don’t necessarily have the platform to then shout about it, and talk about it. We love that we can be a hub for rare breeds, and for these traditional methods and practices, to showcase the people in our community that are doing these things.
Awareness of Cultural Heritage
We love that we can be a hub for rare breeds, and for these traditional methods and practices to then showcase the people in our community that are doing these things. We obviously have a big audience to then create that exposure and to hopefully get on board with that, and enjoy that, and to talk about it.
The objective really is awareness of cultural heritage, to recognize and honor that this is the heritage of the area. It’s getting people to acknowledge how important that is in terms of all sorts of things, such as keeping the DNA of these native animals. It is incredibly important, especially in this day and age, to have those original genetics that are native to our countryside in place. Looking after them is incredibly important.
It’s helping people make responsible choices. Let’s say, for example, people that choose to eat meat, it’s about encouraging them to think about where they get their meat from, how that animal was looked after, how it was bred. These rare native animals that are good for our countryside are living outside. They’re having great lives. They’re not pushed to be produced quickly. That’s a really great thing.
We hope to inspire people to make responsible choices. For example, where people are getting your meat from would be one thing. If everybody actually said to their butcher, “What breed is this pork chop? Where does this come from? What farm does it come from?” And then make choices about where they would like to get their meat from, that in itself would have quite a big impact. I think it’s encouraging people through education, not by pushing it in their faces, but through just allowing them to think about those things..
We’ve started saying, “Meat’s a treat,” and thinking about not having meat seven days a week, but once or twice a week. If people spent a bit more money on that meat to get it from somewhere meaningful, and sustainable, where there is a higher welfare for that animal, that would be a decision we’d love for people to be making.
Passion for Lost Gardens of Heligan
My father is still very much involved. He still takes such a huge interest. He comes to every event that’s put on here, and he always has any friend, family, or person he’s working with on other projects come and see Heligan first. It’s the family business, and it’s somewhere that’s very special to us.
I got married here. It means a great deal to me, personally, to my family, and to my children, who come here all the time, and think it’s their garden. I’ve learned more about it from working inside it from a business perspective.
I’m very passionate about the model we have because I’m a very outdoorsy madam. I do feel a responsibility to carry that forwards, not just because of my family connection. I believe in what we’re doing here. I think it’s beautiful, and I think it’s really special. I feel very lucky to work here.
Everything is growing and evolves in a very natural way. I’m definitely not a botanist or a gardener, but there’s a lot that I’d like to learn, and keep learning, about that side of things. There’s still so much to be done, really, with the animals, and the estate, and to keep doing what we’re doing. I’m hoping to stay here.
Barbara Palmer, Link Between Generations of Heligan Gardeners
I was born in Mevagissey. Leslie, my husband, lived in Caerhays, but he used to come down to Mevagissey at the weekend, on Sundays. We met on the harbor at Feast Week. I was 15. Leslie was 21. [Laughter] We’ve been married 54 years.
Everything changes. Mevagissey has changed a lot. It’s more commercialized than when I was growing up. It’s a lot bigger, a lot more houses built. We knew everyone when we were growing up. Nobody locked their doors. [Laughter] It was lovely, a lovely upbringing, really. There were a lot of fishing boats when I was younger, but it sort of decreased a bit. Now, they seem to be coming back again. Younger people are going in for fishing again, which is good.
My grandfather came from Gorran Haven. He worked at Heligan. He looked after the drive. When the war broke out, a lot of the young men were killed, and they started to recruit older people. He shouldn’t have really been there at that age. It was ridiculous, really, but he went over to France, and was wounded, and died in France. He was 42 when he was killed. He’s actually buried in France, in Étaples. He only had one child, my mother. She was about 11 when he died. My gran was left a widow quite young.
They call them “The Lost Gardeners of Heligan.” He was the one that went away, and obviously didn’t return. It’s quite sad, really, when you think about all these men going off like that, and not coming home anymore.
I’ve got several of his letters that he wrote. Some of them were written for him, because he obviously was not very good in the end. He was saying how he couldn’t wait to get back to Gorran, and go to the chapel with my mother, and my grandmother. It’s quite sad to read, but it’s nice to think that my grandmother kept all the letters. And that my mum did, too.
My mum was 30 before she got married, and she was married eight years before I was born. I can remember going to my grandmother’s to stay in the summer holidays, and other times. There was this big photograph of my grandfather at the bottom of the stairs in his army uniform. She never really spoke to me a lot about it; my mum didn’t say a lot about it, either.
Poignant History Preserved
This is the letter my grandmother received notifying her of her husband’s death. They used to say “In the interest of the economy, please write on both sides.”
This side of the letter says, “Your husband was recently brought to our hospital seriously wounded on the terrible battlefields, when so many have given their lives in defense of liberty. He prays for you constantly and tells me how glad he will be to have the privilege of going with both of you to the chapel once again. He is being well cared for, and every want is supplied to him. Psalm 46 may comfort you.”
And then you turn over the letter, it says, “P.S. Dear Mrs. Ball, I called again at the ward, where your husband was, before mailing this letter. I regret to have to inform you that he has passed away.”
The letter goes on to say, “I trust his dying wish is to meet you, and your dear child, again, and will be fully gratified in our father’s home of many mansions.” Then the chaplain had written where my grandfather was buried.
We often wonder which side Gran read first.
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These are some medals, ‘The great war for civilization.’ 1914, 1918. There are just photographs of the grave. That was all my mum ever saw, was a mound of earth, and a number on it. My gran wanted to go and visit him, and she was denied permission to go, because they said he was too ill. And it wouldn’t be nice for her to see him like that.
This is the widow’s penny that they all had. All the widows have one of these. It’s from the King at the time. It’s got, “Charles Ball. He died for freedom, and honor.” It’s quite heavy.
That’s his cap badge. That’s his tag that he would have had on. It’s rare. That’s a penknife he must have taken with him. And this was the little bag it was all in. They returned that to my grandmother and she kept all that.
My grandmother got about 5 shillings a week, a ridiculous amount of money. She used to take in washing and do things like that, any jobs, really, because my mother was quite young, so my grandmother had to bring her up on her own.
When Heligan had the 100-year centenary commemoration of WWI, they asked for anybody that had any relatives of the men that were lost from the area. I spoke to Candy, Tim Smit’s wife and said, “Yes, my grandfather was one of the Lost Gardeners.” She said, “Have you got anything from Heligan?” And I said, “Yes, I’ve got several things,” which she was delighted with, as you can imagine.
Family at Lost Gardens of Heligan
Toby, my grandson, is working over there as part of his university. He’s quite interested in it, he got involved, as well. The centenary was fabulous, what they did was very moving, oh, it was so real, wasn’t it?
Heligan is a very magical sort of place. It’s a very relaxing place, and you can imagine people living there, because everything is done so well. The gardens have been revived.
When we were growing up, we never went up there, obviously, because it was really shut up, and overgrown. It was a place you never visited. But then, when they started to reinvent it, it’s brilliant. It’s got a lovely atmosphere.
We’ve found out more ourselves since we’ve been involved with it all, because people have gone back into the history of it, and we’ve learned a lot more. We knew my grandfather worked there, but we didn’t really know a lot of the details so it has been quite an eye-opening thing for us.
It was funny, because they had the wages books, didn’t they? And the things that the gardeners did every day. They had certain jobs that they did. And that was interesting to see all that. My grandfather was working on the drive.
Keeping the Memory Going
All the men wrote their names on the wall in the toilet, and I never knew that was there before. It’s a job to sit and read it now, because it’s faded. Toby put his name on there, so in years to come, people will see that.
It makes me feel quite emotional, and quite proud, really, to think that my grandfather was involved in it, and that they’ve kept the memory going. I think young people should know what happened, because a lot of them don’t know about the war, and it was terrible, it was. I think it brings it to people’s memories more, and they think more about these things, especially on Armistice Day on 11th of November. It was quite ironic, really, because my father died suddenly on the 11th of November, as well, when I was 16. So, the 11th of November holds a lot of memories for us.
I’m very proud of Toby. He says it makes him feel good that he’s working there, because he can imagine his great, great grandfather being there, which is good for him. He does like researching it. He thinks it’s good, as well, that people keep this in their minds, and it’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. In Mevagissey, and the surrounding areas, 17 people to go and not come back again was a lot of people to lose in a small community.
For the Centenary, Toby planted an oak tree, didn’t he? They put them in all for each gardener, each one that was lost, they planted an oak tree. So, that’s a lasting thing, isn’t it, that’s going to be there forever.
Read: Continue your literary journey of gardens in our podcast interview with the Founder of Tofino Botanical Gardens, Vancouver Island.
Lost Gardens of Heligan & Cycle of Life
The Lost Gardens of Heligan offer a peaceful and relaxing way to immerse yourself in botanical beauty. It also presents a plethora of lessons on the history and cultural heritage of Cornwall. Last but not least, Heligan is a powerful reminder of our inter-connectedness.
There is probably no greater influence on culture than Mother Nature. Wherever people exist, their relationship with the environment around them shapes their beliefs, values, practices, traditions and daily life. Given the biodiversity of our planet, that means an abundance of richly unique and inventive ways of inter-relating with our earth.
Yet, there are universal truths that anyone who forges a connection with nature learns. The most basic of these is the cycle of life. The specifics of that cycle may vary from locale to locale, but anyone attuned to the ways of Nature knows there is a rhythm, and there are seasons of life, death and renewal.
The very name of the Lost Gardens of Heligan conjures up that truth–and that mystery. Is anything essential ever really lost? Doesn’t our innate curiosity mean we will continually seek…and eventually rediscover the same lessons?
As a passionate hobby gardener, the ways of Nature have taught me many things that I simply couldn’t grasp otherwise. Patience is certainly chief among the lessons my gardens have gently persisted in revealing to me. I’ve learned that nothing is wasted in the Universe’s economy; we all have our part to play. And what gardener doesn’t have to have hope to believe the seed will sprout? Certainly, a garden is a joy to behold and the day I spent at the Lost Gardens of Heligan was indeed a treat for my senses and spirit.
Planting trees is a venture into the future,
it is a hand held out to other generations.
~ Mirabel Osler, English Garden Designer, 1925 – 2016
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