The Lost Gardens Of Heligan

In August of last year, I visited my brother where he lives in Cornwall England. Because of my fascination with Victorian gardening, a visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan was at the very top of my list of places I wanted to visit.  I don’t know if modern gardeners are aware that many of our gardening techniques and favorite varieties of plants are due in large part to the innovation of our Victorian predecessors. If you were to have the opportunity to look at a Victorian seed catalog, you’d be floored by the scope and variety available at the time.  Many of those old heirlooms have been lost forever, and we no longer have access to the plant diversity of the Victorian era.

Heligan was the estate of Cornwall’s Tremayne family for over 400 years. The thousand acre estate was at the height of its glory when WWI broke out in 1914.  As happened to estates all over England during the war, many of Heligan’s gardeners were called to serve their country, leaving the grounds untended and deteriorating.

A particular aspect of British history I’ve found so thought-provoking, is the cultural shift of WWI, resulting in the blurring of the lines between classes.  After fighting in the trenches, side-by-side with the wealthy, the working class no longer viewed them with the same awe and respect. They were no longer satisfied to work in service to the wealthy, and sought to improve their means elsewhere.  Consequently, many estates were forced to downsize or sell portions of their property.

Heligan escaped the fate of so many estates, was not sold, and sat neglected and forgotten for decades.  It wasn’t until 1990 that the gardens were rediscovered under 70 years of debris. A distant Tremayne relative had inherited the property, and set out to explore what he had acquired. One of his first finds was the Thunderbox Room (the commode), where the signatures of those long forgotten gardeners were found scrawled on the walls, under the date, August 1914, and the words “Don’t come here to sleep or slumber”. This struck the imaginations of the discoverers, and sparked their desire to see the gardens restored.

The grounds, expansive as they were, and my time limited to one afternoon, I made the choice to spend my time exploring the walled productive gardens.  Upon entering the garden, it opened to a central path down the middle, which was lined by an espalier apple archway. To either side of the central path, were the different sections of vegetable plantings.

One particular vegetable, quite popular in the Victorian era, and little known today, was Sea Kale.  It’s a vegetable I’d love to try, but won’t because it’s incredibly labor intensive, and not suited to my growing region. Grown for it’s spring shoots, and forced under terracotta cloches in winter, Sea Kale requires plants established two years before harvesting.


Because I’ve read about it, and watched an interesting tv series (The Victorian Kitchen Garden produced by BBC2 in 1987) which mentioned it, I was especially fascinated with the “hot walls”.


These walls were equipped with furnaces and chimneys where fires were kept lit to warm the walls. These walls kept early spring fruit blossoms from being damaged by frost, and helped ensure the ripening of maturing fruit.


As you can see in these pictures, the furnace is on the back side of the wall, and espalier fig trees are growing on the opposite side.


There were a number of different glass houses positioned along the walls around the garden: A citrus house, peach house, vinery, and melon yard. Growing in some of the glass houses were grape vines, melons, cucumber, tomatoes, pineapple, citrus trees, and peach trees.


Just south of the vegetable garden was a walled flower cutting garden, where you can see the peach house in the background.


One of the earliest finds in the garden, was the head gardener’s office.  There was a palpable feeling of nostalgia in the room, which was found intact, looking as if everyone had just stood up and walked out.


The gardens were impressive, but what resonated so strongly was that initial find, the Thunderbox Room. To one side of the entrance to the Thunderbox room was a mint garden containing many different varieties of mint.


To the other side was a small herb garden honoring the fallen soldiers and gardeners whose names are written on the walls of the Thunderbox Room. Each marker names the herbs in the row, the name of the soldier, the date of his death, or that he returned.


The restored Lost Gardens of Heligan are not only a rare glimpse into a bygone era of gardening, but a tribute to the gardeners who tended them, and sacrificed their lives in service to their country.

The wall bearing the gardeners’ names is now recognized by the Imperial War Museum as a ‘Living Memorial’, and the fallen soliers are commemerated in this song, Names On a Wall.

Names On A Wall by The Changing Room from The Changing Room on Vimeo.



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