Behind the scenes of Cornwall's most amazing garden

A flower garden

The Flower Garden at Heligan is a wonderful part of the gardens. - Credit: The Lost Gardens of Heligan

Thirty years ago the abandoned Heligan Gardens were rescued and restored. We investigate what lies ahead for this magical place… 

Head gardener at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Alasdair Moore, is taking stock. As a country estate, Heligan would have to pay for its keep with year-round produce. Today it’s no different with something to see, and smell, and taste, every day of the year. 

“The productive garden is ready to spring into action and there are seedlings everywhere," he says. “Some of the core things have never changed since its heyday. It’s down to the graft and skill and knowhow of the old head gardeners and gardeners. They would have been really pressured and tasked with producing as much food of as high a quality for 12 months of the year as possible.” 

A bald man in a blue-striped polo shirt.

Alasdair Moore, head gardener at The Lost Gardens of Heligan: "Our future is going to depend on understanding how to feed ourselves, how to heal and regenerate the land." - Credit: The Lost Gardens of Heligan

The story of the rescue of Heligan is a romantic one. It had been at the heart of the Tremayne Estate for over 400 years, but many of the garden staff died in the First World War trenches and over the following years it fell into disrepair, overgrown by brambles and ivy. That is, until 1990 when Tim Smit stumbled over the estate and set about saving it. 

In the three decades since, blood, toil, tears and sweat have turned the 200 acres into a garden which tops countless surveys as Britain’s favourite garden. “I first heard about it when I was working at RHS Wisley," says Alasdair. “It really caught my imagination. It’s why it’s so popular with people – the stories are so personal. It is so magical. It’s not just a garden frozen in a moment in time. It’s a dynamic, living, thing.” 

Inside a potting shed.

Life begins in The Potting Shed. - Credit: Toby Strong

The gardeners of old knew a thing or two. The answer does lie in the soil and Alasdair says we need to think of it in a way gardeners would have done years ago. "Our future is going to depend on understanding how to feed ourselves, how to heal and regenerate the land. Heritage fruit and veg is going to become an important part of the conversation,” he says. 

Alasdair and the team at Heligan are really focussed on this area over the coming year, engaging with the public on the mission ahead – learning and healing (which, he points out, is an anagram of Heligan). 

“We have never used any fertiliser or chemicals on the land here and yet it is an absolute fact that the nutritional qualities of fruit and veg have diminished over the past 100 years.  

Pink rhododendrons.

The Dovecote Lawn is a quiet spot. - Credit: Julian Stephens

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“Everybody’s trying to figure out how to take carbon and hold on to it. Well, traditional gardening is all about putting carbon or organic matter into the soil. Food production does not have to be the enemy of the environment. We need an understanding of the relationship between the natural world and food production.” 

Sir Tim Smit

Heligan’s saviour Sir Tim Smit: "Heligan has never been more relevant than it is today. It’s the only place in Britain where you can find everything, it’s like a microcosm." - Credit: The Lost Gardens of Heligan

An enduring legacy 

The covid lockdown gave Heligan’s saviour Sir Tim Smit the chance for a period of reflection, to look back to the moment more than three decades ago when he pushed open a door to the overgrown jungle that hid Heligan’s gardens. 

"Probably the most interesting thing of all is that Heligan is more relevant now than when we started," he says. “We have done a lot of hounding, searching and stealing to get the original crops back. We’ve worked with allotment holders and societies to find these heritage crops – no-one had given them much thought.  

“But they’re good for you. You’re not getting second best. There are a lot more nutrients – the older varieties are full of phenols and powerful antioxidants but we have been breeding them to be sweeter.  

“When you are talking about Heligan 30 years on, the relevance is not in terms of heritage tourism but the work it is doing on healthy soil biology. The aristocracy did some fine long term planning. When the gardens were laid out in 1789, the only thing used to improve the soil was crushed lime. Part of the problem we have now is that the mainstream media fell in love with heritage gardening – pictures of beautiful terracotta in the potting shed.  

“Don’t look at it as if you’re working for Country Life. You had to grow fruit and veg all year round. In the pre-fridge days you would starve if you didn’t do that. 

“The world is moving really fast. It is massively important to redefine what we mean by agriculture. The Heligan anniversary is a really interesting moment and we are looking at our whole economy, including a heritage seed bank. Heligan has never been more relevant than it is today. It’s the only place in Britain where you can find everything, it’s like a microcosm.  

"My favourite spot is the Melon Yard – you’re on a stage with successive generations, people who lived their lives there. A very real, lived, human experience.” 

Apple arches.

Visitors walking under The Apple Arches. - Credit: Lorna Tremayne