Heligan: History, Romance & Adventure

Forget Hallmark movies for the Holiday feel-good factor. I've got a better story for you: The Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Once upon a time, there was a vibrant estate in Cornwall, England called Heligan. The original Heligan Manor had been built in the 1200s, with Heligan House built in the Jacobean style in 1603, then rebuilt in the William and Mary style ninety years later.

The extensive gardens, developed between 1766 and 1914 were managed by a team of gardeners – until they were called up to fight in World War 1. Sadly few returned, and the gardens were lost under a tangle of blackberries until 1990 when the derelict gardens were discovered by chance and a massive restoration began.

The Thunderbox Room was discovered in a corner of a walled garden beneath decades of fallen debris. Etched into the walls in barely legible pencil are the words "Don't come here to sleep or slumber" together with the names of those who worked there in August 1914. This poignant, living memorial to the gardeners of Heligan is marked by a plaque, Cornish shovel and WW1 helmet.

Today it has been crowned as the UK's top garden for visitors – which for a nation of avid gardeners says a lot.

To me it is a garden that has something for everyone and totally captivates the imagination of all. It is both historically significant and wonderfully romantic.

Peering into a potting shed brought back so many memories of my childhood. I still have many of my grandad's garden tools (with English oak handles) and handmade terracotta pots

It's a garden with spaces for children to run wild and free, for families to visit the rare breeds animal barn, for plant lovers to enjoy the exuberance of a subtropical jungle (the only one in the UK) and for contemplative walks along the mossy trails of the woodland to see the iconic sculptures.

The Giants Head waits to be discovered in the woodlands. These pathways were first created over 200 years ago

I visited Heligan at the end of June and was so entranced that I knew it was a 'must see' for our 2024 Great Gardens of Devon and Cornwall tour. Here are some of the areas that I especially enjoyed.

The Productive Garden

Stepping back in time – I could almost hear the gardeners talking as they worked in the walled garden

Described as a living window to the past, the award-winning restoration of the Victorian Productive Gardens connect the visitors of today with the lost gardeners of yesterday. These cold frames are used year round with a focus on heirloom varieties.

Take a few moments to enlarge this image and read the plaque. This manure-heated pineapple pit was unearthed in 1991. After much research and restoration the team harvested their first pineapple in 1997. After assuring themselves it tasted delicious – and not of manure – the second harvest was presented to the late Queen Elizabeth 11 on her 50th wedding anniversary

I was fascinated to read how pineapples and other exotic fruits were grown here.

I was also entranced by the restored stone buildings, water troughs and well worn tools. Truly a living museum

Love the stone water trough fed by the downspout as well as the herbs growing alongside the old barn

This rustic wheelbarrow is still used today – it isn't just for display

I could have sat here for hours just running my hands over the wooden handles of these tools.

The Jungle

Cornwall is known for its mild climate – but did you know there was a jungle here?! While this is a contemporary introduction to the garden, it follows the concept of the Victorian plant hunters who loved to bring back exotic species from their world travels. It was so much fun to be dwarfed by towering bamboo, explore water courses and traverse the Burmese rope bridge.

The rope bridge at Heligan is considered to be the longest in Britain

Design Ideas and More

Honestly we spent hours at Heligan – there is so much to explore and experience. Yet is was also a garden that offered practical take-home ideas such as ways to use prunings to support sweet peas, using symmetry and a long axis to draw the eye,  and the use of portals to draw you into a space. Here are just a few photos that capture some of those ideas.

Symmetry, an inviting archway and a long axis combine to draw you down the path

Breaking up a long axis with a focal point – in this case a small pond, adds intrigue

Repurposing prunings to support annual vines such as sweet peas

Learn more

The garden website is filled with fascinating information about both the history and modern vision for the garden and is well worth a few minutes of your time to read.

Come with me!

Better still – visit yourself! There are just a handful of places left for my tour to this and other Great Gardens of Devon and Cornwall in July of next year. We'd love to share with you "our England".

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