In Focus, Okology, United Kingdom

The Heligan Gardens: In search of lost time


Survivors of several generations, the Heligan Gardens are the only place in Europe where it is possible to rediscover the primitive farming and agricultural techniques of the five continents.  The lands guard traces of ancient plants from distant places, brought there by collectors and used to form a unique garden, which is visited by nearly 400,000 people every year.


Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marín


And in a country such as England, with its strong tradition of ornamental gardens, the gardens of Heligan form an unusual space, one which transcends beauty.  The lands are nourished by wild flowers, vegetables, tropical and Mediterranean plants, and plants from both arid and temperate lands, which create a forest of exotic flora.

The garden is used to explain conservation problems and the problems of land over-use, and to teach people about ancient methods of farming and cultivation.

There are no answers are given, only the possibility of an increased environmental consciousness.

The educational aspect of the gardens, along with an intense environmental campaign, have captivated visitors, providing them with a romantic but informative story, one which shows how the productive gardens have been restored to the way that the visitors’ ancestors would have cultivated them 100, 500 or more years ago.

This historic cultivation meant the gardens were locally sustainable so that it was impossible to have anything if each person wasn’t cultivating it, generating a space with a holistic feel: a space with a farm, a horse stable for manure and transport, forests for firewood and fuel, and the production of vegetables, flowers, herbs and medicinal plants.

This made the Lost Gardens of Heligan a kind of living museum.  Located in Cornwall in the south of the country the gardens sit at the top of the valley of the fishing village Mevagissey.  The garden is a beating heart stretching over 1000 acres from Gorran to Mevagissey, and was populated in the 16th century by farms, sawmills, mines, flour mills, breweries, productive orchards and kitchen gardens.

A Cornish Legacy

Eight centuries ago, the garden was part of an estate that had belonged to the Arundell and Hill families and was to later end up in the hands of the aristocratic Tremayne lineage.  It was William Tremayne who, in 1603, built the house which remains today, a house that was unusual in Cornwall as it was made of brick.  Today, only the foundations remain.

Ninety years later, William and Mary built two large extensions which surrounded a back garden.  It was Henry Hawkins Tremayne, a curator in Lostwithiel, who, between 1780 and 1790, planted buffer strips and drew a map showing the structure of the gardens that we know today.  The following three generations helped to establish the gardens, and notable horticulturalists, took control of creating large collections of plants.

Between 1829 and 1851 John Hearle Tremayne managed the gardens well.  He constructed barns, lined roads with ornamental trees, concocted the exotic ‘jungle’ and, with his son’s help, planted the palms, ferns and bamboo which would make the area/garden unique.

However, in 1916 the War Department asked the family to lend them the house in order to convert it into a hospital for injured soldiers.  After the war, the Tremayne family had lost their momentum and rented the house to the Williamson family, who took care of basic maintenance, although the ‘jungle’ disappeared. During the World War 2 Norte Americans who participated settled there.

Then the Tramayne family live in their Cornwall home and returned there only on occasion, and because of this they were losing a lot of their workers, above all their gardeners, who worked on the farm.  By 1970 they were totally disillusioned and began to rent the house. Although the transformations in this century have been minimal, all the vernacular and the buildings in the garden remained intact and Heligan continued to be valuable.

In 1990 John Willis, another descendent of the Tremayne family, inherited the gardens.  However, they were totally abandoned and it seemed as if it would be impossible to do anything with them.  That same year, at a party, he met Tim Smit, an archaeologist from Durham University in the North of England, who longed to find an old farm where he could look for objects of archaeological interest, such as antique agricultural tools, so that he could open a museum.

Rebuilding the past

Willis expressed interest in the proposition and invited Smit to see what was left of the place. Smit, who had seen the English film, the ‘Secret Garden’ and felt inspired by it, accepted the invitation.  On the 16th February 1990, accompanied by John Nelson and Robert Poole, they toured the gardens.  The gardens were almost impenetrable due to the overgrowth and weeds and they had to use machetes to get through.

Most of the buildings were in ruin, not only because of time but also because of the winds that era.  Nothing in the path was visible, and there were only mere hints of troubled roofs among the trees.  Palms, ferns and varieties of trees from the Himalayas were really, the only survivors.

The visitors talked about the possibility of restoring the gardens, of returning them to life.  Smit took on the responsibility and Nelson expressed his support for the project.  They were joined, in the winter of that same year, by Phillip McMillan, the director of the Royal Society of Horticultural Gardens in Wisley who worked for the council.

Phillip’s concern was whether they had enough plants to restore the gardens, or if they were permanently ruined. He was neither a partner nor an employee; he went to the gardens when he had the time.  He observed and directed the removal of weeds to see whether any bush was valuable and if so, attached warning labels.

The revival of the gardens took four years.  1990 to 1993 was the ‘cleaning’ stage.  This stage included washing, field preparation and weeding.  Phillips read about the gardens of that era and made proposals based on a map from 1839.  At the beginning of 1994, they began the recuperation stage, which involved planting and building.

While reconstructing the buildings of the garden and the greenhouses they decided to base their work on the concepts of centuries past: gardens used for food, medicine and self-sufficiency through the management of forests, fields, orchards and gardens.

The gardens also provided employment for a large number of people, as had happened in the past. They restored what they could between 1890 and the start of this Century.

The engineers worked hard, building the walls that surround the gardens, clearing the land and reconstructing paths and walls.  Others, with patience and effort, cleared the wild blackberry bushes. Then began the planting, which included various varieties of vegetables that were common prior to 1900.  For the planting they used traditional materials, technology and tools from the centuries they were trying to recreate, without the use of machines, without motors, and without combustion.

The employment of these techniques was difficult.  For example, the rotation system was very complex, as was making sure all the plants had their specific needs catered to.  Also difficult was the traditional use of the forests, the collection of sticks for the growth of peas and beans. A further difficulty was the sourcing of manure for the gardens.  In times passed they had had the horse stables for this.  However, the difficulty was that nowadays the forests are abandoned and there are no horse stables.

However, the restorers were determined to relive the past.  Therefore they found similar materials, and learned the correct techniques.  If they could not buy seeds for a specific plant, they used harvests to obtain them.  They recovered 18 of the 24 potato varieties, although only 6 types are sold on the market.  They appealed traditional knowledge as to look for a quick fix would invalidate the whole experience.  The most difficult thing was perhaps rediscovering how to maintain the correct temperature for the growth of certain plants.  This took more than two years to perfect.

Philip McMillan Browse remembers: ‘We learned traditional techniques. Firstly we learnt to practice the types of rotations and related functions so as to avoid the increase of pest diseases and to maintain soil fertility.

We also learned to manage cultivation techniques.  Everything was done manually, including the soil cultivation, where we practiced double excavation and incorporated large amounts of organic matter during rotation.  We cultivated the earth, we carried out the fertilization and irrigation and used fermented manure to produce a nursery, as well as to conserve heat for weeks on end.

The new: the old

Furthermore, they did not create anything new. Everything in the gardens corresponds to earlier times.  This was the same with all plant species found at Heligan.  The plants that are now grown in the gardens have been used for the past 300 years in England.  It is possible that they originated in other countries, for example, chick peas from North America.  However, most are European plants, like potatoes.

In order to recuperate the variety of pine trees from Jamaica, at least one hundred plants were needed.  It was difficult to obtain them but they realised that they existed in South Africa and they were brought from there.

They did the same in order to recover other species: visiting other American countries to find the varieties of plants which hadn’t become extinct.

The renovation of the productive gardens happened at the same time as the renovation of the ornamental gardens.

Both projects were carried out in keeping with the Heligan philosophy: to renovate and restore in accordance with the correct period, to achieve the same views that were enjoyed 100 years earlier, and to manage the gardens in the same way as in those days, by hand, with the knowledge of exactly which plants had to be grown in order to remain faithful to that era.

Initially there was little money, but they maintained momentum because the team had a common vision.  Later, some people and organisations such as the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) and the Commission for the Development of Countryside financed the dream of the Heligan Gardens.  The structure cost almost £750,000.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan offer employment to dozens of people, of which some are permanent members of staff, who sell organic produce, seeds, plants and souvenirs. Because the idea was always to create an educational environment to increase awareness of conflicts between genetic commerce and conservation, food production problems must be tackled and solved as well as its social, economic political and cultural implications.


(Translated by Johanna Blyth)

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