The Lost Gardens of Heligan

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.

An apple-tree walk. A new picture made old, to reflect the quality of the gardens themselves...

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.

The walled garden calling you in

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.

water in a pool in the walled gardens

The vinery, the original vines struggling on among the shards of broken glass when they were rediscovered

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.

The birdbath and Sundial garden - with pet graveyard dating to at least the 1870s.

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.

Dovecote full of sleepy, cautious residents

Interior of an old tool shed, full of rakes and lawn-flattening instruments and other mysterious implements

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.

The privately-owned Heligan house, inaccessible, glimpsed over a collapsed wall and a stream that ran down an old entrance way

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*



Filed under The Millenial, The Now

10 responses to “The Lost Gardens of Heligan

  1. So much history. I could see why you would want to get a feel for it. Your pictures are beautiful.

  2. I love your photos. Visiting a place for research is totally worth it. It can be inspirational and even take your work in vastly different places you couldn’t even expect.

    • Thank you! Yes, I do love going on little research trips, or even just going on jaunts to places that don’t sound as if there would be much to inspire, but then turn out to have incredible things hidden all over the place. This is why I have been to the sheep-shearing museum of Australia, in Hay, New South Wales.

  3. I love that you are searching out Aida’s place. The photos are gorgeous.

  4. What a haunting, quiet place. You’re making me realize I need to get myself to Vashon Island for a research trip of my own. There’s nothing like seeing the setting in person to get you under the character’s skin.

    Lovely photos.

  5. CJ

    That apple tree walk photo is extraordinary.

    • I am a fully fledged pixlr addict – so easy to make it look like I just picked the image out of a box of old photographs on a flea market table…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s