• Robert Blake

the lost gardens of heligan

Christine Bennett gave a talk to the Club about her visit to The Lost Gardens of Heligan, situated some two miles north west of the fishing village of Mevagissey in Cornwall.

The Heligan estate was originally purchased by Sampson Tremayne in 1569 and subsequent members of the family were responsible for Heligan House and the still private gardens that immediately surround it. The present 200 acres of gardens, which are open to the public, were mainly the result of the efforts of four successive squires, starting with the Rev. Henry Tremayne (1766–1829) and his descendants up until 1914.

By the early 1800s the main shape of the gardens had been established, a walled flower garden had been created and a surrounding shelter belt of trees planted to protect against SW gales. Henry’s son, John Hearle Tremayne became the squire in 1829 and achieved many improvements over the next 22 years, such as the ornamental plantings along the estate’s long drive. His wife, Caroline came from a plant hunting family and many seeds and specimen plants were brought back from abroad, including rhododendrons from Nepal and Bhutan. Pineapple Pits were constructed whereby underfloor ducts filled with 15 tons of horse manure generated the heat to grow the fruit in a glazed building. Heligan competed with other local estates for the biggest pineapple! 40 Bee Boles (recesses in a wall) were built to house straw skeps for bee colonies.

John Hearle’s son, also named John, ran the estate from 1851-1901 and oversaw the planting of the Northern Gardens and the final project of the Japanese Garden using imported exotic plants. Many species of trees were planted including the Sequoia, Blue Cedar and the Great Redwood. Before the First World War the garden employed 22 gardeners but the war led to the deaths of 16 of them, and by 1916 the garden was being looked after by only 8 men. By the 1920s Jack Tremayne was the squire and his love of Italy led him to move there permanently and lease out Heligan. The house was tenanted for most of the 20th century, used by the US Army during WW2 and then converted into flats and sold, without the gardens, in the 1970s. All of this resulted in the gardens falling into a serious state of neglect and subsequently being lost to sight.

Jack died childless and the estate came under the ownership of a trust, benefiting several members of the extended Tremayne family. One of these, John Willis, lived in the area. In 1990 he discovered the derelict gardens and, together with a group of fellow enthusiasts, decided to restore them to their former glory. The work has included the larger-than-life iconic sculptures of the Mud Maid, Giant’s Head and Grey Lady to be found in the Woodland Walk. The restoration has been a great success and revitalised the local economy by providing employment. It is nice to think that the visionary work of John’s forebears can now be enjoyed by so many people.