The Lost Gardens of Heligan

The Lost Gardens of Heligan

Lowarth Helygen

Pentewan, St. Austell, PL26 6EN
Tel: (01726) 845100


Living Museum of 19th century horticulture

Overlooking the ancient fishing village of Mevagissey lay the vast estates of the Tremayne family consisting of 1000 acres of land, stretching from Pentewan to Gorran Haven. This Estate was totally self sufficient, having a number of farms, quarries, woods, a brickworks (the earliest in Cornwall in 1680), a flour mill, a sawmill, a brewery, and productive orchards and gardens. At the heart of this massive estate was Heligan House (meaning "the willows" in Cornish) with one of the finest Gardens of its period, containing 57 acres of planted gardens, 100 acres of ornamental woodlands, and 300 acres of rides and folly temples. It was the centre of the community with 20 "inside" staff and up to 22 "outside" staff, with the local economy dependent on the estate for their income and parishes assisted by the Tremayne's benevolence.

The outbreak of war in 1914 ended this idyll. Of the 22 garden staff that worked here three quarters were to perish in the mud on the fields of Flanders with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, whilst the house was taken over by the War Department and used as a convalescent home for officers. When the house returned to the Tremaynes in 1919 it was a different world. They remained until the mid 1920's but really had not the heart to stay, so ending four hundred years of Tremayne residence. The reason was plain; the gardens were enormous and without a large staff they were impossible to maintain. After the Tremayne family left Heligan a family called the Williamsons rented the house, they tried their best to keep up the estate, but they were only able to keep up a basic maintenance regime and so the majority of the property went gently into decline. They in turn were followed by the American army who were billeted at Heligan during World War II to practice for the D Day landings on Pentewan beach (one mile away) which apparently bears a marked resemblance to Omaha beach in Normandy. After the war Commander and Mrs. Thomas lived there until 1970, when the Tremaynes sold off the house to become flats. From this moment onwards the gardens gently went to sleep. No major alterations have been carried out this century and all the vernacular and garden buildings remained untouched. This is why Heligan is so valuable, because there are very few examples of gardens which haven't been "modernised" and so provides a unique time capsule.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan

The restoration of "The Lost Gardens of Heligan" started as a result of a chance meeting between John Willis (a Tremayne Family member who had just inherited the gardens) Tim Smit and John Nelson on February 16th 1990. Inspired by the romance of decay as they cut their way through swathes of brambles, laurels and fallen timber (As a result of the Cornish Hurricane 730 trees over 60 feet in height had blown over), they decided to change their lives and mount what has become the largest garden restoration in Europe. A lease was negotiated, money was raised and research began. Researches at the Cornwall Record Office, the Institute of Cornish Studies, the Public Record Office at Kew and the family papers revealed much, helped considerably by the work of Ivor Herring (a local historian) who had studied Heligan for 15 years. Funds were made available by the Countryside Commission, English Heritage, Cornwall County Council, many large public and small private companies. In late 1990 a restoration Committee under the stewardship of the County Horticultural Officer Philip Macmillan-Browse (ex Director of Wisley R.H.S.) was set up and has been advising the team ever since.

Heligan was built in 1603 by William Tremayne. In 1692 Sir John Tremayne re-built the house in William and Mary style using Heligan bricks. It was the 19th century Tremaynes who created the gardens largely as we see them now. Henry Hawkins Tremayne, John Tremayne and John Claude Tremayne successively created and planted the 57 acres of gardens and ornamental woodlands with walks and rides. They were noted horticulturists and by the end of the century had a superb collection of trees and shrubs from Japan, China, Australasia and the Himalayas many of which can be seen today. John Tremayne, Squire from 1851 to 1901 developed the planting of Northern Gardens and Japanese Garden using new, imported exotic species.

The Ornamental garden paths have been restored by following the 1839 tithe map. The two and a half miles of footpaths were discovered underneath more than 2000 tons of fallen timber, 18 inches of loam and a complete covering of 10 foot high brambles.

The present tour of Northern Gardens comprises; Flora's Green, a lawn used by the ladies of the house for dancing, and surrounded by the marvellous collection of Rhododendrons brought back by the famous plant collector Sir Joseph Hooker from his Himalayan expedition of 1847 to 1849. The Ravine, a man made rockery more than 100 yards long. The Vegetable Garden, two and a half acres of productive garden with 70% of the produce being varieties grown by the Victorians; The Melon Garden, an oval walled garden containing pineapple pits, melon frames, bothys; The Italian Garden with its summer house, formal pool and Kiwi fruit inspired by the excitements felt at the discoveries being made at Herculaneum and Pompeii at the turn of the century; The Sundial Garden being described in Gardener's Chronicle of 1896 as being the finest herbaceous border in England; The Georgian Walled flower Garden with its Vinery, orchard houses peach and fig houses and dipping pool; The Bee-boles, a huge wall with 14 chambers to accommodate bees; New Zealand or the Dell, containing delightful tree ferns (some of the smaller ones being planted in 1993 as part of a conservation project with the Tasmanian Government and the Countryside Commission), a superb Ginkgo tree, a Wishing Well and Crystal Grotto; The Northern Summer House with its spectacular view over St. Austell Bay; The Mount, the history of which remains a mystery, although there is a reference to it in 1623 when mentioned as the old beacon.

All this will occupy a couple of hours for the committed gardener or plant lover, but this is not all. To the south of these gardens is the mysterious Tropical Garden or "Jungle". Here resides the largest collection of Palms and Tree Ferns in the British Isles. Four ponds linked by man made streams flow down this subtropical valley.

There are some superb specimen trees at Heligan, among the most remarkable are the World's largest Chinese Cedar (Cedrella sinensis), Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thumberg;) and Chilean Yew (Podocarpus totara). On Flora's Green lies what is believed to be the largest Rhododendron in the world, measuring 82 feet from bowl to tip.

The Melon Garden has its own story, built about 1720, the Melon House itself was heated by a boiler with pipes running under the beds. The pineapple pit near it was heated by a mixture of fermenting bark and manure; Heligan possesses the only working Georgian pineapple pits in Europe, and when the pines ripen this will be the first such occasion for more than one hundred years. The Pineapples are the original species used, being kindly sent from the agricultural research station of East London, near Durban in South Africa.

Peter Thoday who advised and co-produced the BBC Television series "The Victorian Kitchen Garden" and "The Victorian Flower Garden" described Heligan Gardens as " the most important 19th century garden in Britain by miles and the reason is that it was left for so long that no one has tried to modernise it or turn the walled gardens into bijou plant centres or tea rooms. Indeed all the buildings were caved in and overgrown but at the hand of nature not the hand of man. This means with careful excavation one can find out exactly how it used to work."

Through the hard work of many people much of the Gardens have been restored, possibly influenced as much by the romantic images of "The Secret Garden" or "Peter Rabbit" as by horticultural ambition!

Heligan is perhaps most. famous for being a "Living Museum" of 19th century horticulture. The celebration of the skills of the ordinary men and women who made gardens such as these great, has been sadly neglected elsewhere. But here, where time has stood still for so long, the bones of a once famous productive garden lay buried under mountains of debris, waiting to tell their story. It is here that the Head Gardener reigned supreme, growing all the fruit, vegetables, herbs, ornamental flowers and exotics for the Big House. The heart of his kingdom comprised four walled gardens with associated pits, frames, glasshouses and working buildings, a large kitchen garden and various orchards; the restoration of which is now nearly complete.

More than 300 varieties of, fruit and vegetable are being grown again by traditional methods, and more are being brought into production each year. In the Melon Garden one can marvel at the ingenuity of the country's only remaining manure-heated pineapple pits: whilst in the great walled Flower Garden, alongside the glasshouses of citrus, vine and peach, one can see the most comprehensive collection of Victorian cut flowers. Aside from the more glamorous end of production there are the working buildings: the boiler houses, tool and potting sheds, equipment store, fruit store and dark house, and the bothies which give a snapshot of the daily lives of those who once worked here.

Finally, the most poignant reminder of the past is in the gardeners toilet or thunderbox room. Here written into the plaster on the day that World War I broke out is a message "Come ye not here to sleep or slumber" and underneath it all the garden staff signed their a names. One must remember that the next time you see many of these names is on the War Memorial at St. Ewe and it is genuinely felt that the restoration is in some small way dedicated to their memory as the last people to work the Gardens in its heyday. Heligan is a "living museum" of C19th horticulture celebrating the skills of the ordinary men and women that made these gardens great rather than retelling the often told and somewhat boring tales of lords and ladies. The general public seem to agree. In 1995 Heligan became the most visited private garden in Britain with 200,000 visitors. It also won the prestigious "Country Life" Garden of the Year award 1995. Future discoveries are likely to be just as exciting so for all those who love romance - watch this space!

The gardens also have the figures of the Mud Maid and the Giant's Head, which are made up from rocks and plants. The walled sundial garden was opened in 1997.

The Lost Valley, the most recent addition to the gardens, was opened to visitors in 1998, a circular walk of around a mile now incorporates the Medieval Sunken Lane and additional sections of the original Georgian Ride. Work in this area is ongoing.

The Horsemoor Hide, designed in 2001, is a pioneering Wildlife Interpretation Centre, where 'live' images of Heligan wildlife are displayed on indoor plasma screens, draws the visitor into the dramas of life in the natural world in an intimate and unedited manner, as they occur.


Everyone can enjoy Free Entry to the Heligan Tearoom, Shop and Plant Centre all year round. The licensed Tearoom provides a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere for morning coffee, Cornish cream teas and delicious home-cooked lunches. Enjoy Cornish ice cream and pasties or a treat from our on-site Bakery. Outdoor and indoor seating is provided, with a homely wood burner ablaze on crisp winter days.


1200's Heligan Manor first built.

1569 Heligan Estate was purchased by Sampson Tremayne from the Heligan family.

1603 Heligan House was built by William Tremayne in Jacobean style, but only the basement of that house remains.

1692 Sir John Tremayne re-built Heligan house in William and Mary style using Heligan bricks.

1735 His great-nephew, John Tremayne, built the stable block and clock tower, now Grade ll listed, and commissioned John Wade to create a fashionable parterre garden to the west of the house.

1810 His son, Henry Hawkins Tremayne, re-built Heligan House in Georgian style. It remains privately owned to this day and is now Grade II listed by English Heritage.

Between 1766 and 1906 Heligan's gardens were developed and planted out by successive generations of the Tremayne family.

From 1914 onwards Heligan's gardeners left to fight in WWI.

From 1916 to 1919 Heligan House was used as Convalescence Hospital for Officers.

By 1918 most of Heligan's gardeners had been killed during WWI leaving the gardens under-staffed.

Between 1939 and 1945 American troops used Heligan House as a base during WWII.

From 1920 to 1990 Heligan's gardens gradually became overgrown unattended and forgotten.

1950's-1960's Heligan House let to Commander and Mrs Thomas, who ran a market garden and farm training business from the property.

1973 The house at Heligan was sold off and converted into flats, leaving the gardens completely abandoned.

1990 Tim Smit discovered the overgrown and derelict gardens at Heligan.

1991 Restoration of Heligan's gardens began.

1992 Heligan gardens opened to public. Year one: 37,000 visitors

1993 Saw the clearance of the top lake in the Jungle and building of the board-walk at Heligan.

1994 Heligan became a Founder Member of the Five Great Gardens of Cornwall.

1996 Heligan's herbaceous border in the Sundial Garden was restored.

1997 HRH Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall visits Heligan. Year five: 300,000 visitors.

1999 John Nelson retires and Tim Smit moves to the Eden Project. New Heligan MD Peter Stafford expands lease into estate and initiates Heligan Wildlife Project.

2000 Saw the opening of Butler's Path and the vegetable garden cleared back to its original size.

2002 The first barn owl chicks viewed on camera from Horsemoor Hide.

2002 The Wood Project began. Year ten: 457,000 visitors.

2003 Lobbs Farm Shop opens at Heligan.

2004 Jungle board-walk totally re-built and extended. Also Wildlife Walks start, and Heligan's first Bat Nights.

2005 New look-out completed at top of Jungle. And the entire refurbishment of the Melon Yard.

2005 Three millionth visitor arrived at Heligan.

2008 The Heligan Tearoom wins silver Café of the Year at the Cornish Tourism Awards.

2008 The Lost Gardens of Heligan was granted National Collection Holder status by Plant Heritage for its historic and unique National Collection.

2009 Pineapple Pits produce first fruit in three years.

2009 Heligan is awarded a Gold Medal at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show.

2010 The four millionth visitor visits Heligan.

2010 The gardens were closed for three days after heavy snow falls in November.

2011 HRH The Countess of Wessex made a visit to Heligan.

2012 Fern Gulley opened.

2013 Cornwall Tourism Awards – Garden of the Year – Silver Award. Dogs welcome to the gardens all year round.

2014 Cornwall Tourism Awards – 'Winner of Winners', ‘Garden & Country House of the Year' & Silver in the Wildlife Friendly Business category. 'Cornwall Today' Garden of the Year.

2014 The five millionth visitor is welcomed at Heligan.

2014 A new 100 foot rope bridge across the Jungle opened at Heligan.

2015 The Prime Minister David Cameron visits Heligan to give a speech urging people to visit Cornwall this summer.

2015 HRH The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall visits Heligan as part of a three day tour of Cornwall.

2016 New Ticket Office and expansion of visitor facilities. Renewal and extension of Jungle Board-walk.

2016 Winner Best UK Leisure Attraction at British Travel Awards.

September 2016 Plaque in the Italian Garden unveiled by Lyn Nelson in tribute to her husband, John Nelson.

2017 The 25th Anniversary of Heligan opening to the public was marked by opening of rare breeds animal barn.

2017 Ongoing refurbishment of facilities, including new Heligan Shop and Plant Sales.

2017 Winner Best UK Leisure Attraction at British Travel Awards for the second year running.

2018 Winner Best UK Leisure Attraction at British Travel Awards for third year in a row.

2019 New Jungle Path - Treseder Steps opens in the Jungle.


Approx three miles south of St. Austell, one mile off the B3273.

Opening Times

10.00am - 4.30pm
All Year
Free Parking

Admission Charged

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