Discovering the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall
16th February 2020
The Lost Gardens of Heligan near Mevagissey in south Cornwall are more than simply one of the UK’s great gardens – they have to be one of the greatest garden restoration projects ever. Overtaken by and completely lost to overgrowth since World War One, the Lost Gardens of Heligan were only rediscovered about 30 years ago. Since that time, they have been restored to their former beauty and grandeur, and discovering the Lost Gardens of Heligan is a fantastic day out for both young and old.
Most people tend to spend around 3-4 hours here, but when the weather’s fine it’s easy to spend all day. It’s not quite as large as it seems at first glance from the maps, so it’s possible to leisurely walk every path during the course of a day.
Exploring the Lost Gardens of Heligan
‘Gardens’ is almost a misnomer for the Heligan Estate, though the 200 acres are typical of Victorian estates that were planted with areas of different characters and design styles. Part botanical garden, part working estate, there are ancient woodlands, meadows and pastures, as well as a ‘jungle’ and rare collections of plants and trees. There’s also a farm dedicated to rare animals, waterfowl and poultry, and beautiful gardens for both produce and pleasure.
I walked the entire central portion of the Estate, only missing out the far northeast and southeast corners. Though there’s some steep terrain throughout the Estate, it’s all very accessible. For me, though, the main areas of interest were:
- Woodland Walk – 3 x Sculptures
- The Jungle – Fern Gully and Burmese Rope Bridge
- Lost Valley – Charcoal Sculpture and Charcoal Kilns
- The Home Farm
- The Gardens
I began by exploring the Estate itself, heading straight out along the Woodland Walk. These woodlands are lovely and sheltered, with a peek of rolling green farmland to the outskirts of the wood.
These ancient woodlands are cool and green amongst the trees on a beautiful autumn day in September. There’s a wonderful section where children can explore through the trees and discover a natural play area called the Giants Woodland Adventure. You’ll also find three unique and delightful sculptures emerging from the woodland undergrowth.
The Giant’s Head peeps mischievously from the surrounding vegetation and it seems like his eyes follow you as you walk past.
Mud Maid sleeps in a patchwork of sun and shade, sinking softly into the earth.
Both were created by Cornish artists Sue Hill and Pete Hill in the late 1990s.
As you continue walking, keep a sharp eye to your right. Even though I was looking for her, I almost missed the Grey Lady. She blends so well into the woodland that I could almost imagine she is indeed the ghost of the Estate that the sculpture represents.
Can you see her?
Not sure if you can see in these photos, but what I particularly love about her is how the woodland greenery is slowly taking over her wire frame.
The Jungle and Fern Gully
From the Grey Lady I turned onto the left-hand path towards the Fern Gully and the Jungle. If you continue on straight instead, you’ll walk along the Georgian Ride. In the right season you’ll find the bee hives and insect hotels full of activity, and see livestock grazing the pastures and hay meadows.
The Jungle lies in a steep-sided valley that forms a microclimate up to 5 degrees warmer than the rest of the gardens. Fern Gulley is the heart of this Jungle, where steps lead you off the boardwalk path down the steep sides of the Jungle valley towards a large pond. You can see the reflection of both the valley slope and the private Heligan House in the first of the four ponds here.
The path down here weaves around the ponds among towering fronds of ferns and exotic plantings of giant rhubarb, banana, palm and bamboo.
Bright autumn flowers blossom everywhere amongst the greenery.
The Jungle is also home to one of the longest Burmese Rope Bridges in the UK. As you walk back up from the valley floor, you’ll see it stretching more than 30 metres (100 feet) above the ancient ferns and the Jungle below.
This was a first for me and crossing it was actually a little scarier than I thought it would be, especially as I was trying to take some photos while I was on the bridge!
On busy days there can be quite a queue to cross – there’s actually a sign as you come towards the entrance to the bridge warning of waits of up to 30 minutes – but there was barely a wait when I was there.
The Lost Valley
After crossing the Burmese Rope Bridge, I headed towards the Lost Valley. I really loved this part of the walk with its captivating ponds…
… and fields of wildflowers.
I was particularly delighted to discover Growth and Decay, the Charcoal Sculpture situated by a small stream as you come down into the beginning of the Lost Valley.
Created by Cornish sculptor James Eddy using wood and charcoal from the Estate, the sculpture moves upward towards the light to represent growth and is firmly rooted into the earth to represent decay. I love how the sculpture changes and crumbles over time, reflecting the transitory nature of all living things.
I was also fascinated by the working Charcoal Kilns and Charcoal Building, located deep in the Lost Valley up a steep rise, though it wasn’t in operation when I visited.
I find it endlessly fascinating that people everywhere feel compelled to leave their mark on nature. In this case, names carved into the wood logs that fire the charcoal kilns.
The kilns here produce charcoal for BBQs and artists, and you can buy your very own Heligan charcoal in the shop!
The Home Farm
I have to admit that I hadn’t originally planned to visit the Home Farm. I had intended to bypass the farm (I didn’t think it would be that interesting – how wrong I was!) and head straight to the gardens across the field.
But as I went through the gate, I saw the Home Farm up the hill to the right and was surprised at how big it was. So, I went to have a look and I am so glad I did! The entire Home Farm experience is so fascinating and so much fun.
It’s home to an extraordinary variety of traditional and rare breed livestock and poultry. This is just a small sample of the rare and endangered breeds protected here at the Home Farm:
British Lop Piglets
Berkshire Pig – the oldest recorded pedigree pig breed in Britain
Reggie (Exmoor pony) and Courage (pedigree Shire horse)
Kerry Hill Ram
All of these and other breeds are kept in large open pens and fields, and you can get really close to them. Some are even quite friendly and will come to the fence for petting. It’s not only wonderful for children…I absolutely loved it and spent so much time here. It seems strange when I thought about it, but even though I’d seen sheep before, I’d never actually touched one. I buried my fingers deep into the wool and it was quite an extraordinary experience for me.
There’s also a wild bird hide on the edge of the farm. Although I was there at the wrong time of day to see much bird action, it’s just really peaceful to sit and look out for birds and insects.
The Steward’s House is right next to the Home Farm and has a café and toilets. It’s worth a stop just for the gardens along the path, which were full of vibrant autumn colour.
It was actually getting quite late in the day by the time I made my way here from the Home Farm. I did a quick loop through the Flower Garden and the Sundial Garden – the latter a serene space with benches to enjoy the late afternoon sun. I then had a peek inside the Melon Yard into the Pineapple Pit, an invention by 18th-century Victorian gardeners that enabled them to grow pineapples in our colder climates. I couldn’t really see much, perhaps it was the wrong season, but I found it fascinating.
These are the original walls and doors to the Melon Yard, which had been so completely overgrown they were invisible before restoration.
And I have no idea what these alcoves are for, though I loved all the textures.
I finally made my way to the Kitchen Garden and entered through these beautiful arches.
These gardens once met almost all the needs of the Tremayne family throughout the year. Today, there are over 300 varieties of fruits, vegetables, salads and herbs that supply the Heligan Kitchen with fresh seasonal produce.
When I was there, there were all sorts of autumn pumpkins…
There was also a riot of colour in the flower beds the length of the garden.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan Story
The full story of the discovery and restoration of the Lost Gardens of Heligan is quite extraordinary. Unlike many of the great Victorian estates, Heligan has remained in the Tremayne family since being purchased as the family seat in 1590. The estate and gardens grew and thrived throughout the 19th century, until a large part of the workforce went off to fight in World War I. The majority never returned and – as the rest of the estate was rented out – the gardens were slowly overgrown and hidden. A chance discovery by a relative of the Tremayne’s led to the widely-publicised restoration of the gardens in the 1990s.
Today, the flowers, plants, trees and wildlife of Heligan are living links to the horticultural past of these magnificent gardens and estate, and are an important contribution to the diverse and beautiful landscape of Cornwall.
How to get There
Located just off the B3273 in Pentewan, Saint Austell (PL26 6EN), the Lost Gardens of Heligan are just a 10-minute drive from the charming fishing village of Mevagissey in south Cornwall.
I spent 4 nights and 3 days in this part of Cornwall, with Mevagissey as my base. It’s a fantastic part of Cornwall and I will definitely be back.
Tickets and times
I received a 10% discount by booking my ticket through my B&B in Mevagissey. So, it’s worth asking wherever you’re staying.
|Children (5 – 17)||£7.00|
|Children (Under 5)||Free|
|Family (2 adults & up to 3 children)||£40|
Garden & Estate Opening Times – open every day except Christmas Day:
|1st Oct – 31st Mar||10am – 5pm (last admission 3.30pm)|
|1st Apr – 30th Sept||10am – 6pm (last admission 4.30pm)|
You can find more photos in my Lost Gardens of Heligan Photo Album
And look out for my next post, coming soon!