If you’re visiting the south coast of Cornwall, The Lost Gardens of Heligan is one of those places you simply have to see. Here’s why…
The gardens at Heligan are incredible. You can easily lose a day in this 200-acre botanical estate, made up from a beautiful blend of kitchen and flower gardens, subtropical woods, and water and valleys that are teeming with wildlife. But why are they “lost”, and what makes them different from other estate gardens?
The gardens at Heligan were created between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries by the Tremayne family. Immediately before the First World War, a team of 22 gardeners looked after the estate; however, sadly, only 6 of them survived the war.
The Tremayne family’s house had been used as a convalescent home, and was used for war work again during the Second World War. In the 1970s, it was converted into flats, finally separating the house from its gardens. Nature gradually took over the once-immaculate grounds.
Fast-forward to 1990, when a Tremayne descendant, John Willis, inherited the Heligan estate. John and some friends (including Tim Smit, later of Eden Project fame) macheted their way through the thorns and weeds to the heart of the old gardens.
The team was taken by surprise by the romance of the overgrown grounds. They found glimpses of gardeners’ lives preserved in a time-capsule of sheds, alongside formal gardens taken over by weeds and trees.
John and his friends took on the massive task of rediscovering and restoring his ancestors’ gardens. And the result? A garden whose story is as magical and unique as its planting.
One of the truly remarkable things about Heligan is the diversity of gardens and landscapes in one estate. This ”gardenesque” approach is typically Victorian, combining a love of collecting rare plants with the practical need for fruit, vegetables and cut flowers.
Work continues on the 200-acre site, with the Heligan team aiming to “remain a living and working example of the best of best practice”. Visitors can see the team in action in various places around the site.
Here are a few of Heligan’s highlights.
Heligan’s kitchen garden team uses traditional Victorian methods to cultivate over 300 heritage species of vegetable, fruit and herbs. Like many stately homes, the Heligan estate fed the family, and today, you can enjoy the wonderful results of the productive garden in the Heligan Kitchen restaurant. As you explore the gardens, look out for the potting shed - one of Heligan’s most evocative glimpses into the past.
Walk along the winding boardwalk to the bottom of the valley, planted with dramatic tropical specimens brought back by Victorian explorers. Species like bamboo, banana and palms arch across the path, creating a lush and green landscape that’s like nowhere else you’ve ever walked. At least, not in the UK…
Leave the jungle and head for Heligan’s native woodland. This area stretches for over 60 acres, and it’s the most beautiful place for a relaxing stroll. Look out for Heligan’s iconic sculptures, the Giant’s Head, the Mud Maid and the Grey Lady. Head for the heart of the woods to find out more about Heligan’s charcoal project.
Heligan has the status of National Collection Holder for these spectacular flowering shrubs. Some of the specimens date back to the 1850s and many are pre-1920s, showing how some plants can flourish in the most unlikely circumstances. Heligan describes these plants as “living links” to the family, and you can borrow a map to help you spot the most significant specimens.
These are just a few highlights of Heligan. We could also mention the farm, the elegant pleasure grounds, the wildlife hide…
There can’t be many cafes at visitor attractions where most of the produce is grown on site. Heligan Kitchen sources a lot of its ingredients from the estate, just as the Tremayne family once did. Even the meat is reared on the estate farm. If anything needs to be outsourced, it’s bought from local suppliers. The result is fresh, seasonal cooking that’s absolutely delicious.
Want to pick up something for later? Call into the Heligan Bakery. There’s also a gift and plant shop, so you can take home a unique piece of Heligan. Honourable mention to Lobbs’s Farm Shop just outside the gardens.
With so many acres to explore, including a farm and a jungle, Heligan is a great place for kids who love being outdoors. There’s also a fantastic new adventure play area. Look out for the regular family events held at Heligan.
If you need access for wheelchairs or pushchairs, please take a look at Heligan’s accessibility guide. Some areas in the wider estate and the jungle aren’t accessible; however, there are good paths and facilities in theProductive and Pleasure Gardens as well as the farm.
What about four-footed family members? Dogs are welcome at Heligan (there are so many great walks for them); just please keep them on the lead.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan are open daily from 10 am until 6 pm. The last admission is at 4:30 pm. Please book ahead, and allow around four hours to explore the gardens (longer if you want to eat at the Kitchen). Look out for any evening events.
The prices for summer 2022 are £22.50 for an adult, £9.50 for children, under 5s free, plus some group tickets and concessions. See the Heligan website for the latest times and admission fees.
Heligan is close to the coast and the town of St Austell. You’re near the coast path and pretty harbour villages like Charlestown and Mevagissey. Inland, there’s Wheal Martyn Clay Works, St Austell Brewery visitor centre and a good network of cycle tracks.
And of course, it’s a must to visit Heligan’s younger sister, the Eden Project, which was inspired by Heligan.
Firstly - don’t follow your sat nav, as you’ll soon regret it. From St Austell, take the B3273 towards Mevagissey and follow the brown heritage signs for Heligan. Of course, if you’re staying with us at The Cornwall, it’s just a short drive or cycle ride to the gardens.
If you decide to travel by bike, use National Cycle Network Route Number 3. It’s an enjoyable cycle ride, and we have a dedicated bicycle park.
If you’re travelling by train, it’s just five miles from St Austell railway station to Heligan, and you can catch a bus or take a taxi.
If you want any more locals’ tips about a day at Heligan, please just ask us at The Cornwall.