A Look at Cornwall (5): The Lost Gardens of Heligan

We visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan in the afternoon of the second day of our holiday in Cornwall in June 2016. After spending a full Monday morning and early afternoon at Tintagel (the subject of A Look at Cornwall (4)) we decided to stop off on our way back to Newlyn for a quick look round this fabulous site. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon and we could have done with many more hours there.

This map shows where Heligan is located in Cornwall. (X marks the spot). The site is a mile and a half from Mevagissey and six miles from St. Austell. It’s also only ten miles from another famous Cornish attraction, The Eden Project – which we haven’t visited since 2003.

X marks the approximate location of the Lost Gardens of Heligan, near Mevagissey, Cornwall UK

There are many wonderful gardens in Cornwall, all of them well worth a visit, but as the name suggests, the Lost Gardens of Heligan are particularly special. Not only are they amongst Cornwall’s finest gardens but – as you might guess – the word ‘Lost’ is the reason why they’re special. The story of how they were ‘found’ again – in other words, restored – is interesting as well as being an incredible feat.

At Heligan today there are over 200 acres of Victorian walled gardens, working buildings including bothies, a potting shed and a tool shed. There are exotic glasshouses, pleasure gardens, lawns, lakes and ponds and many acres of orchard as well as a farm (Home Farm, where lovely old breeds of cattle, sheep and pigs are reared) 22 acres of subtropical jungle and a 30 acre ‘Lost Valley’. But for many years following WWI, the beautiful gardens lay neglected and overgrown, the glasshouses broken and useless. So what is the story behind all this?

Heligan House was built by William Tremayne in 1603. It was the home of the Tremayne family who controlled over 1000 acres in the area. It is still privately owned and not open to the public.

Heligan House. The house is in private occupation and not open to the public. Source: geograph.org.uk Author: Neil Clifton. Creative Commons

Before WWI, the estate was completely self-sufficient, having its own quarries, woods, farms, a brickworks – the earliest in Cornwall – a flour mill, sawmill, brewery and productive orchards and gardens. Apart from luxury goods, the only imports were lime for fertilisers and coal for heating.

Most of the gardens and ornamental woodlands were created during the 19th century by the successive efforts of Henry Hawkins Tremayne, John Tremayne and John Claude Tremayne, all noted botanists and horticulturalists.

Henry Hawkins Tremayne (1766-1829) in black coat and waistcoat with aubergine lining, white coat, powdered hair. Source: Christies. Author: Henry Bone (1755-1834) Public Domain

By 1900 they had amassed a wonderful collection of trees and shrubs from all over the world. Follies and temples were scattered throughout and walks and rides were created. The local community depended on the estate for income: it was the centre of the community, with 20 house staff and 22 garden staff.

But the First World War changed all this, just as it did with most stately homes at that time (as shown in the fictional Downton Abbey).

In 1914, the male staff at Heligan ‘signed up’ for active service, most being sent out to the trenches on the Western Front. Heligan House was taken over by the War Office and became a convalescent home for officers. The house was returned to the family in 1919, but after the war, only 6 of the 22 garden staff returned, the rest having not survived the battles in Flanders.

The following picture is from an information board at Heligan…

…accompanied by these notes:

We know the names of 13 outdoor staff who served in World War One and have sown a field of Flanders Poppies in thankful memory of all of them, including 4 who served and returned. (Individual photos were given by relatives of those brave Heligan men.)

During the Second World War, the house was allocated to the US army (practice landings for D-Day took place a mile away at Pentewan Beach). The gardens remained with the Tremaynes, but for many years after the war the gardens were simply neglected, remaining in a time capsule – efectively, ‘lost’. But, in 1990, a chance meeting between John Willis, a Tremayne family member, Tim Smit (an archaeologist) and John Nelson saw the start of an amazing journey of restoration. When Smit and Nelson discovered a tiny cubicle at the bottom of a small, walled garden (since known as the Thunderbox Room – yes, the toilet) and saw the pencil signatures written on the flaking plaster walls, evoking past lives, they knew that the restoration project must be undertaken in the names of those former Heligan workers.

The Thunderbox room at Heligan (far doorway, through which the child has just emerged).
Fading, pe-WWI pencil signatures on the flaking lime walls of the ‘Thunderbox’ at Heligan. Photo from the same information board as the one of the servicemen above.

Before I share some photos of the parts of Heligan we managed to see in the short time we had, here are a few images (from information boards again) of what the site looked like in 1990, i.e. before restoration started:

And this photo shows what the head gardener’s hut looks like now, after careful restoration:

And these are the bee skeps now, on Bee Bole Lawn, which we passed on our walkabout:

In the following photos, I have tried to show things we saw along the way as we walked round. We had no particular, pre-arranged  route, and just went where the fancy took us.

This is the Entrance:

From the ticket office, we set off along the paths towards Flora’s Garden:

Next we spent some time investigating the different walled gardens and outhouses:

From the walled gardens we headed along the Woodland Walk, where we found some great woodland sculptures, all created by local artists.

This is my final set of photos before this post becomes ridiculously long. They are of an area of Heligan known as the Jungle. It covers an area of eight acres with what is described as ‘a watercourse’ running along the floor of the valley that links four ponds. The ‘big house’ looks down the valley, which winds its way to Mevagissey. It houses a collection of sub tropical plants and was created a hundred and fifty years ago when a craze for collecting exotic plants swept the country. Cornwall’s mild climate is ideal for such species. Visitors follow boardwalks along the valley.

Eventually we headed back to the entrance, with Louise being disappointed at not having found the one place at Heligan we all remembered from 2003. It was simply some stone steps that Louise had taken a photo of. Some years later, she created a very lovely painting (acrylic on canvas) of the image – a huge one that stands on an easel. As we got closer to the cafe and shop we saw an interesting-looking opening between some rocks and decided to investigate. And there we found the steps – which we all duly photographed again.


Although we managed to see a lot of the gardens, there were areas of the site we didn’t have time to get to – including the Lost Valley and Home Farm – so they’re now at the top of the list for our next trip down to Cornwall. And next time, we’ll get there in plenty of time to enjoy a Cornish cream tea in the cafe. On this occasion, it had already closed. 😦