22nd April 2016

Report of CGT visit to Heligan

By mid-April there is a quiet contentment in the kitchen gardener. The soil is no longer bare, the excitement of the first shoots has passed. Gentle satisfaction now reigns in surveying the burgeoning buds on the fruit trees and the shoots of the successive plantings of broad beans. The winter months of preparation give way to the prospect of long days of nurture until the summer months of harvest are passed.

What a change from the early days of Heligan, when months and years of slash and burn led to intrepid discovery, followed by intense consultation and collaboration to restore the structures and substance of the gardens. Now the tamed Gardens of Heligan could truly hymn that “I once was Lost but now am Found”.

Heligan guides

Our guides: Nicola Bradley, Productive Gardens Supervisor, Ian Davies, Head of Gardens and Estate, and Candy Smit, Archive and Publications

More than any other garden in Cornwall the remit of Heligan is focused on research into the history of the garden, the arts and sciences of garden land and the education of the public. We were privileged to have three guides to give us a fascinating insight into the largest garden restoration in the country. This transformed the visit from a pleasant stroll around a fascinating garden into a master class in the history, development and ongoing management of the garden. Because the gardens cover such a wide area we concentrated on the Northern Gardens.

Heligan Manor was recorded as far back as the 12th century and lies mostly in the parish of St Ewe. In 1569 Heligan was bought by Sampson Tremayne, beginning a family ownership of the land which continues to the present. In 1603 Sampson’s son William built a Hall House, superseded in 1692 by Sir John Tremayne’s William and Mary reincarnation, incorporating a fashionable walled court. The Tremaynes have left three exquisite garden plans of 17th and 18th century date, the earliest showing this incarnation in a coloured plan annotated and with dimensions. It shows two rectangular lawns separated by a paved way and flanked by “gravell walks”. This led down steps to “The Terras Walk” with a “Wall for Flower potts” with a further flight of steps with flanking garden.

In 1735 another John Tremayne updated the gardens, and the plan he commissioned from John Wade details the series of rectangular parterre compartments he created, flanking the house and garden court and leading to a semi-circular area demarcated by two rows of trees.
These parterres seem soon to have been swept away as there is no sign of them on William Hole’s survey of the Heligan estate dated 1777, made for Henry Hawkins Tremayne. At this time the grounds on all sides of the house are still in sharply defined compartments, including a walled garden with a glasshouse to the south of the house.

 1777 Estate plan

1777 Estate plan

The 1777 plan presumably shows what H H Tremayne inherited, as in 1785 he journeyed around southern England and then set about implementing the fashion for a more open landscape here at Heligan. His proposals are shown on a plan by Thomas Gray that must pre-date the rebuilding of the house in 1810, but is perhaps more likely to be of the late 18th century than the early 19th.

Undated plan (post-1777 and pre-1810)

Undated plan (post-1777 and pre-1810)

This plan shows suggestions to remove several field boundaries, creating a landscape of wide vistas southwards from the house, with new Plantations of trees and shrubberies lining existing cart routes. To the north of the house a horse-shoe shaped field is proposed largely as orchard, within a new plantation for protection from the wind. The southern section of this field is marked ‘Intended Gardens’ – showing the curved wall of today’s Melon Yard and first incarnation of the walled Flower Garden. However, by 1839 (St Ewe Tithe Map) most of the suggested orchard area is occupied by the lay-out of today’s restored Kitchen Garden.

Henry Hawkins’ son, John Hearle Tremayne, was the first collector of foreign plants at Heligan. He created the long drive from Pentewan and in 1832 planted Cornus capitata, brought from Nepal by Sir Antony Buller, as a new avenue all the way up to the house. J H’s connection with his brother-in-law Sir William Lemon of Carclew led to the introduction of the first Himalayan rhododendrons, brought back by Joseph Hooker.

It was, however, J H’s son John (Squire from 1851) who must be thanked for the vision to take horticulture to a higher level and to inspire his son Jack (John Claude) to follow in his footsteps. John was a keen proponent of hybridising, particularly of the new exotics that are now a staple of so many Cornish gardens, and also brought in modern techniques and technology, such as the flat-pack “Paxton” greenhouse of the 1850s with associated heating, the later Peach House (late 1880s?) and a ram pump for water provision. Under his supervision many hybrids of Rhododendron arboreum and R. griffithanium were made. He gave his son Jack free rein to create the Jungle in the steep valley below the house, with its series of pools, its bamboos, conifers, palms, tree ferns. After his father’s death in 1901 Jack continued to develop the gardens, adding the Italian Garden and the Ravine.


The later incarnations of Heligan are shown on the O.S. 1st and 2nd editions (1881 and 1907) which, with the earlier plans, form a critical tool in understanding the developments of the garden over two centuries.

The First World War took nine out of 13 garden staff known to have enlisted and the Imperial War Museum has now recorded Heligan as a Living Memorial in their new National Inventory of War Memorials. Jack Tremayne was one of the first landowners to offer his house as a convalescent hospital for officers of the Royal Flying Corps. After the War the Williamson family became tenants and then the house and grounds were used by the American Army practicing for D-Day landings at Pentewan. Much damage was done. The house was then tenanted again, to Cmdr and Mrs Thomas, until the late 1960s, after which it was made into 22 flats and sold off.

In 1990 a chance meeting between John Willis, the current representative of the Tremayne family, and Tim Smit, then looking for a site for a rare breeds farm, led eventually to the start of the restoration.
Today the productive gardens are run on Victorian principles, with Victorian methods and growing over 300 plant varieties that were available before 1910. Although much research was carried out in the early days of the Lost Gardens by Philip McMillan Browse this is an ongoing research project, refining and deepening the understanding of the arts and sciences used in the garden’s heyday. The Melon Yard is the area for propagation and hardening off, with the potting shed at the hub.

The potting shed today – Craig and Jacob at work

The potting shed today – Craig and Jacob at work


The manure heated pineapple pits with their beaver tail glass panes epitomise Heligan’s production principles – historically accurate infrastructure, tools, materials and cultivation methods are used regardless of intensity of labour and materials, providing a crop that is completely unviable within strict commercial terms, but inspires and intrigues the thousands of visitors who pass through the Yard.


The Kitchen Garden itself has a six year rotation cycle using Heritage varieties grown under a strict regime of double digging, fertilised by manure, compost and seaweed by the team of eight gardeners. Apples and pears are trained in cordons, peaches and plums in fans, while in the Flower Garden are the vinery and citrus house – the planters will soon be moved outside for the summer. We could also see the start of this season’s cutting garden.


Rhododendron Falconeri

Rhododendron Falconeri

The rhododendron falconeri (pictured right) at the entrance to the Flower Garden is thought to be from one of Hooker’s 1851 seeds. Below the Flower Garden is the Sundial Garden (or Mrs Tremayne’s Flower Garden) which the Gardeners’ Chronicle described in 1896 as including “the finest herbaceous border in England,”. This has now been replanted with some pre-Jekyll varieties to complement originals such as Davidia involucrata and Stauntonia hexaphylla.

Heligan has so much to offer and, though we spent a full three hours in only a part of the Northern Gardens with Nicola, Ian and Candy we barely scratched the surface of what these historical gardeners know of their landscape.

A visit to Heligan is in any case a treat but if you want an insight into the history, the philosophy, the challenges and the excitement of the Lost Gardens, make sure you take a guided tour.