A Passionate Response

by Candy Smit, Creative Director, The Lost Gardens of Heligan

In last year’s Journal (pp.13-19), Professor Timothy Mowl selected the wrong target as a focus for his paper on ‘Commerciality, Bureaucracy and Corporate Management and the Effect on ‘Open’ Gardens in Cornwall’. Here at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, those responsible for its care are fiercely independent, specifically in the cause of protecting a historic and atmospheric place from the ravages of precisely these three plagues. To start by extracting direct from Mowl’s text, ‘. from car to garden takes at least twenty minutes and could cost hundreds of pounds as you are encouraged to browse and buy. The total experience is carefully controlled, all is ethically sourced and right on, but there is little freedom to go off piste and explore.’ We were almost convinced Professor Mowl was confusing Heligan with somewhere else. The visitor experience we endeavour to offer is as far from this as it can realistically be.

Heligan Gardens Ltd is a private limited company with the sole responsibility of running this garden open to the public according to its self-written constitution. It is answerable to the law, to itself, and to whom it pleases; but not to any over-arching corporate or funder with vested interests. If you have earned or inherited great wealth and are not dependent on visitor income, you are free to barely advertise and to sustain the suggestion of stealing into a private garden. Wonderful and you do not have to sell any-thing; but few who own historic gardens have the benefit of such a luxury they have no choice but to join the 21st century and open to the public to turn a penny in one way or another. And if you lease a historic garden that has captured the heart of the nation and has an annual wage bill of £1.5 million, sympathetic commercial enterprise of one sort or another is the only responsible, nay essential way forward. This is not because we want to make our personal fortunes; it is because we desire to protect and to share the joys of a unique garden experience.

Of course, we should not forget that sizeable historic gardens were created with the luxury of financial resources gained through commerce in the first place, whether or not it became inherited wealth or arrived as marriage dowry. For the Tremaynes of Heligan, this wealth came substantially from mining interests, land and property management, and fishing.

In order to restore, maintain and develop the gardens and estate today in what we believe to be an appropriate manner, sympathetic to the history and ethos of the place, we offer permanent employment to some 70 local people, whose obvious love of their workplace, commitment both to colleagues and visitors and diversity of skills and interests distinguishes Heligan from any other garden open to the public. It is very definitely not a corporate, not a bureaucracy. Those who know us well will appreciate that Heligan is a rich melting pot of character and enthusiasm, where the people matter just as much as the plants and the animals and everybody, both visitor and employee, is individually respected. This is not to second-grade the horticulture, but to recognise it is practised by gardeners, using labour-intensive traditional methods. All are an essential part of Heligan.

It is extraordinary that, with very considerable visitor numbers on many days of the year, the atmosphere of this very unusual historic working garden still has the power to captivate, intrigue and console. It is our management responsibility to protect this special place by turning a profit to support its working community and indeed the communities beyond its boundary, which resource us and provide hospitality to our visitors for their own livings.

We strive to be realistic and honest. In order to sustain the quality of the visitor experience, the number of jobs and the necessary investment to deliver this, we need very substantial annual income and first-class business management. Necessarily we run our own Heligan Shop, Tearooms and Bakery, to make money, satisfy demand and to extend the unique experience of any visit beyond the gardens, for those who wish. (This includes mirroring the historical template of harvesting our own produce to feed our visitors, around the year.) Those responsible are regularly scrutinised and applauded by fellow professionals; however they operate within clearly agreed, self-imposed parameters of conduct to prevent commercial intrusion within the Lost Gardens.

There is specifically no obligatory route through the commercial areas themselves, into the gardens. At our entrance our intention is to provide simple, attractive essential facilities, a seasonal welcome and appropriately tailored information for your visit. For this reason, for example, we declined to continue our membership of Cornwall Association of Tourist Attractions, because we would not oblige an external dictat to ‘market’ fellow members at the point of entry into our haven.

We recognise that the educational and therapeutic value of gardens exists for people across all ages, abilities, interests and socio-economic groups; we charge fair garden admission rates and provide privileged access

for those who need it most not for those who need it least. Our visitors frequently choose to visit the Lost Gardens because of Heligan’s oft-commented healing qualities and we therefore take particularly seriously our responsibility to protect the gardens from commercial intrusion. We are aware of numerous examples in which individuals have gone to great lengths to plan economic trips here at very significant moments in their lives; we respect that payment of gate money should secure any desired privacy and peace.

Professor Mowl concluded his paper by proclaiming that Heligan had been wrecked by restoration and tourists. We would all agree it is not at its best in August. But I was there right at the beginning, witnessed the decay and haunting desolation of the Lost Gardens before the first official visitor arrived and I can vouch, for all my similar concerns at the time, Heligan has been revived as an unspoilt, living treasure an achievement of which all involved are incredibly proud, and fiercely protective. Best of all, so many imbibe and identify with its history and actively continue to enjoy and benefit from it .

Editor’s note: Tim Mowl’s article in last year’s Journal was certainly provocative that is his style. As well as criticising aspects of Heligan, he acknowledged that it ‘was built on a brilliant restoration, which needed funding through commerce and enhanced visitor numbers’.  What is your view? If you would like to contribute to the debate, send a letter or email for inclusion in the next newsletter to David Pearce at Sweet Thymes, Rose, Truro TR4 9PQ or fjpearce@tiscali.co.uk