Saturday, June 30, 2012

Heligan - Lost & Found - Part 1

Well guys - I'm home in Nottingham now but my head still awash with horticultural highlights from my West country trip. Three days ago I went to the 'Lost Gardens of Heligan'. With the number of tourists attending even on a wet day, its hardly 'lost' but the name sticks! When I first visited Heligan in the early 1990's it had only just been found and I remember being shown around by Philip McMillan-Browse.  At that point I was running a nursery called 'Brockings Exotics' from our home near Launceston and I was there delivering plants. There was some clearance but little restoration and the buildings and glasshouses were still derelict. Whilst the job of restoration and replanting that has been done is commendable, the gardens have lost the magic and mystery of that early desolation. Although I only spent a couple of hours there this time, I'm going to write my blog in two chunks. I should have allowed more time but there was another garden to see that day. The garden splits quite easily into the Northern  areas around the house and the further Southern reaches of the jungle which I'll add separately. So be patient exotic fans!

First views - the West Lawn on a misty morning!
The visit started in drizzling rain and some photographs were taken one-handed, the other holding my umbrella, so apologies for the quality and some shadows. For those that don't know the story, Heligan was a traditional estate with a big house, extensive grounds and huge walled kitchen gardens to support the household. Sometime after the First World War, the house was rented out and the gardens were abandoned,  almost  forgotten until they were discovered by Tim Smit and restoration began in the 1990's.

Tim Smit & Jim Nelson - Heligan as it was early 1990's
Similar view as it is today

The main walled garden is laid out traditionally with long rows of fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. No modern gimmicks just maximum production. The walls are clothed with trained fruit trees and the central walkway is covered with apple arches and lined with flowers. Traditionally a 19C family would have visited the gardens after church on Sunday, before lunch and whilst they would walk through the vegetable garden, there had to be flowers to make it presentable! Cabbages hidden well from view!

Cordon fruit trees in the kitchen garden

Serried ranks of vegetables growing to attention!
Heligan scarecrow or is it the ghost of a past gardener?

The apple walk

The walls show hundreds of holes where long gone vine eyes were used to train fruit

Next to the main walled garden is a smaller enclosure known as the melon yard, containing a restored glasshouse and numerous frames. Just look at the size of these huge 'lights' used to cover the frames. Tough guys these old gardeners - no need for the gym after lifting these. The glasshouse was traditionally used for melons and cucumber. Some of the frames or pits, as they were called, were used for growing pineapples, once regarded as the king of fruits. This skilled exercise involved heating with fermenting stable manure. Resurrecting this practice has been challenging, partly because of the need for large quantities of fresh manure! The yard also contains a toolshed, the original potting shed and the 'Thunderbox', the gardener's original  toilet, complete with names scrawled on the wall.

The melon house and pineapple pits - poor pic - such a dull day!

Heligan melons - internet pic - growth  much slower this year!
Heligan pineapples maturing - internet pic
Frames for early vegetables and seedling production

Just look at the size and imagine the weight of these 'English lights'

The toolshed

The potting shed

The 'Thunderbox'

A further walled area, known as the flower garden is a sheltered enclosure originally used for early vegetables as well as flowers and containing vineries, a citrus and a peach house. All of these were of course totally derelict until the 1990s. The glasshouses are of a type known as a Paxton patent house, a sort of 'flat-pack' greenhouse to a standard design that was assembled on site. These greenhouses have been faithfully reconstructed and are once again in use.  The adjacent boiler house  still contains the original cast iron Britannia boiler, dug out from years of accumulated rubbish, not surprisingly defunct but the cast iron piping is still present. The same building houses the Head Gardener's office. He must have been very cosy, not only having the heat from the boiler but also his own wood burning stove!

The Flower garden and its greenhouses

The flower garden and citrus House

The vinery - typical Paxton house
Before rebuilding

Inside the vinery
Cast iron heating grilles

The original Britannia Boiler
Head gardener's Office

Inside the peach house
The Pencalenick Greenhouse - from elsewhere - authentic Victorian but not a restoration, complete with 19C pelargoniums

Beyond the walled gardens there are the wider ornamental gardens with a huge collection of mature trees, immense rhododendrons and vast camellias all of which were disentangled from years of bramble, sycamore and other weed growth. Specific areas include the Italian Garden, the Ravine, New Zealand and the North Summerhouse. The Sundial Garden seemed rather in need of attention, with rather poor planting competing with a lot of weed. The rhododendrons had finished flowering but it was still impressive to see the size of some of these monster plants. Amazing to realise that some had been growing here since first imported as new introductions from Joseph Hooker's Himalayan travels in the 1850's. The collection has been documented and by means of micro-propagation has been secured for the future.

The Ravine

Sundial garden
Typical pathway under 19C rhododendrons

Italian Garden

North Summerhouse

Rhododendrons on the West Lawn

What a sight they must be when in bloom - just an internet pic for a taste of colour
Loved the pic - clay pots and architectural foliage but a real hazard - this is giant hogweed a VERY dangerous plant that causes severe skin irritation. Shouldn't be in a public area like this! Not a 19C greenhouse behind - just a production area! I put my officious hat on and told them what they were harbouring!
What an exciting morning! I loved it but still more to come, my visit ended with a trip to the jungle - I'll tell you about that next time!


  1. Really lovely tour of the garden, not been in ages, but its well worth the time.

  2. It is a lovely garden, worth seeing at least once! I remember how in awe we were when we first visited, especially jungle and ravine gardens.