Imagine losing 200 acres of gardens for 75 years. Pretty hard to comprehend, but that’s what happened to the gardens on the Heligan Estate in Cornwall, England. From the 15th – 19th century, Heligan was the seat of the Tremayne family who started planting the gardens in 1766. The gardens grew larger and more extravagant with each new generation. One head of the household was inspired to create the jungle gardens, while another requested that giant rhododendrons be cultivated. There was also a sundial garden, a flower garden, a Japanese garden, and an Italian garden to name a few.
The gardens thrived through the 19th century requiring the estate to have a staff of 22 gardeners to manage them. Unfortunately, with the start of World War I, many of the gardeners went to fight in the trenches and never returned (only six of the 22 garden staff survived the war). Trees on the estate were cut for the war effort and the manor house became a convalescent hospital for officers. The gardens were neglected, fell into disrepair, and within a few years were overgrown and lost for decades to come.
In 1990, a Tremayne descendant named John Willis, who now owned the land, and businessman Tim Smit, were exploring the property when they came across a tiny room, buried under fallen masonry in the corner of one of the walled gardens. Written on the wall were the signatures of the gardeners with the date “August 1914” and the line “Don’t come here to sleep or slumber.” Inspired by their discovery, Willis and Smit decided to bring the gardens back to life and to tell the story of the people who had once tended and cultivated the spectacular gardens.
Today—25 years later—the Heligan Gardens have been painstakingly restored to their original size, including the massive rhododendrons, Italian gardens, and the jungle gardens the estate was once known for. In addition to the original gardens, floral artwork was commissioned, and there are also Victorian productive gardens—producing 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables which supply the gardens’ kitchen and bakery. The Lost Gardens of Heligan can now be found again in the company of some of the finest gardens in England.
Photos from Atlas Obscura and the Lost Gardens of Heligan
By Hannah F
Senior Art Director