Today, the weather favoured us, and D and I were able to go for a visit to the gardens of Heligan, for me a revisiting of an affecting, beautiful place I’d last been to as a teenager.
Heligan’s gardens, east of Truro, south of St Austell, really were once lost. The gardeners were called away by World War One — most never to return — and the gardens fell into decline, only to be rediscovered just over twenty years ago. Restoration has been an immense act of reclaiming, wrestling, the old walls, beds, greenhouses and layouts from the overgrown mess of itself. Archival layout plans that remained, consulted. Old tree labels have been uncovered with metal detectors, telling of heritage species; worcesterberry, quince, medlar.
Throughout the park, there are lengthy signs explaining what what done, what lost, what choices had to be made. How much the restorers thought of the adventurer who went to a remote part of Tibet to bring back cuttings of rhododendrons never seen in Europe before. Or the young men — names recorded in ledgers and on the walls of the ‘thunder box’ toilet — who went on to the trenches, to have their names carved in the war memorial of the villages they left.
The variety of horticulture, the inventiveness of the old workers and owners, is amazing – in the Victorian and Edwardian era, they were constructing boilers to heat the fig-house, using an underfloor manure system to maintain a pit where pineapples grew (and grow now again, under foggy glass), and hauling rock to set up a ‘ravine’, meant to echo the climate and flora of an alpine gully.
I took a ludicrous number of photographs. But as lovely and sad as Heligan is, as much as I love how it has been recovered, and continues to be in a state of faded elegance, why did I go and search it out on my research trip? It is because I hope to create a believable home for Aida, the daughter of an aristocratic family whose fortunes declined, and rose again with the new money brought in by her mother’s art.
I think of her wandering the flowerbeds in a walled garden where the bricks are heavily lichened, tumbling in on themselves. I think of her picking over interesting pieces of coloured glass in the Victorian bottle-midden that Heligan also has. Of feeding geese, working in the greenhouses, clipping off fruit, speaking to no one for days.
I try to think of the politics, ideals, conflicts of a rich, ancient family gone to seed. The grass, camellia, manure, standing-water scent of their estate. All background, and I don’t know how much will make it in to The Millennial, since Aida has so thoroughly rejected it. Since the modern world has left these sorts of places mostly as verdant monuments to their irrelevance.
But I am glad to have seen Heligan again, and know that it will affect the novel in one way or another, like fig roots anchoring themselves over cracked flagstones, or just the wisp of plant-breath under glass.
*updated to add more photographs, I couldn’t help myself*