Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Beautiful Story of a Lost Garden

I want to tell you a story about a garden. 
It's a good one. You'll like it.

In June, I was visiting some of the rose gardens of southern England when I heard about a garden called Heligan. Or more accurately The Lost Gardens of Heligan {LINK HERE}

Some of you may have heard of this place, just as I had, but I didn't realise the depth of sorrow that's buried in its flower beds. 

Heligan is a garden that lost its soul to the war.

Owned by the Tremayne family for more than 400 years ago, the thousand-acre estate of Heligan in Cornwall was once a garden to rival the greatest in the world. The Tremaynes had fallen in love with horticulture and spent a fortune on sourcing new plants from around the world. 

One after the other, four generations of Treymaynes fell under the garden's spell, and each spent a considerable amount to develop it. Two garden plans from 1777 and 1810 show the development of the Italian Garden, the Rhododendron Garden, the Walled Garden, the Northern Gardens, the Flower Garden, the Lost Valley, even a Melon Yard, among other areas. Prior to the First World War, the family employed 22 gardeners. 

Then, just as Heligan reached the height of its beauty, the war broke out. 

It was August, 1914.

Just before they were all called up, Heligan's gardeners decided to etch their names into the wall of the old outdoor lavatory ("the thunderbox"), with the date – August 1914. 
A month later, they had all gone off to battle. 

Heligan's garden paths were empty; its wheelbarrows still.

The fighting would not be kind to them. 
Of those 22 gardeners, only 6 lived to return to Cornwall. 

Without its extensive horticultural staff, Heligan slowly lapsed into decay. Its owner, John 'Jack’ Tremayne, was so heartbroken by the news of his staff that he turned his family home over to the military and moved to Italy to live out his days. 

“He couldn’t live with the ghosts,” recalled one gardener.

Over the next 50 years, a blanket of bramble and ivy grew over Heligan. The once-beautiful beds and grand allees were claimed by nature and were soon out of sight. Heligan became a sleeping beauty, lost to the world. 

The garden had died alongside its gardeners.

When Jack Tremayne finally passed away, the Heligan estate came under the ownership of a family trust. One of Jack's descendents, John Willis, lived in the area and happened to know a businessman called Tim Smit. John invited Tim to explore this newly inherited property. 

As the sun set over the Cornish coast one gentle evening, they discovered a gate, almost hidden by greenery, and past it, in a corner of a walled garden, the decaying old thunderbox, almost buried under fallen masonry. Drawn to the tiny shed by forces they couldn't explain, they discovered the names of the lost gardeners etched in barely legible pencil, followed by the word 'August 1914'. 

They still don't know what made them look in that particular place.

Moved by the words, John and Tim began to restore Heligan, which had been hidden for almost 50 years. "We were fired by a magnificent obsession to bring these once-glorious gardens back to life," they said. They also wanted to find out more about the gardeners, whose skills had clearly contributed to Heligan's beauty. "We were struck by the idea of all these gardeners going to war."

What they found was that Heligan’s doomed gardeners had taken wildly divergent paths. Charles Ball, a “gentle giant” of a gardener, had enlisted in the Worcestershire Regiment and died on the Somme. William Robins Guy, who tended the vegetable garden, had joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, and also died, near Lille. Others met their fate in other fields; other devastating ways. 

As they sunk into the mud, their treasured garden was probably the last thing they imagined. Or perhaps it wasn't? Perhaps they thought they were finally going home, to their beloved paradise?

The story of Heligan's gardeners, and of the forgotten, haunting Thunderbox Room, has become so famous that the Imperial War Museum made it a “living memorial”. The building, and the gardens – now restored – have been celebrated and recently commemorated as part of the anniversary of the war. In fitting tribute, Smit and his present-day gardeners have planted a meadow of poppies.

Those who visit Heligan often come away with a sense that its gardeners are still there. Many claim it's haunted; and indeed strange things do happen in the rockery, the melon garden, and the fruit store, as well as the Lost Valley. Heligan's current gardeners believe that the old gardeners are still around, tending to their plants and beds. 

Heligan may have lost most of its gardeners to the war. 
But they ended up returning, after all.

If you'd like to know more about Heligan, buy Tim Smit's fascinating memoir, which details the years he spent restoring Heligan, and also the ghosts he and his gardeners came into contact with. 

It's a beautiful book, albeit unnerving in parts.

It just goes to show gardens do have a soul, after all.


  1. Lovely and tragic story. I'll look out for the book and I'm adding Heligan to my list of places I'd love to see someday.

  2. I became transfixed reading this account. Thank you for sharing this. X

  3. Christopher Lloyd said, "The garden dies when the gardener dies."

    Vita Sackville-West's head gardener, in a letter written soon after leaving for war, wrote, "Whatever you do maintain the hedges."

    Leaving my garden of 30 years in about 2 years. Already grieving, wondering if my sanity will be lost. Garden will be in its finest form on the last day I am on its paths. Plants/stones will be tagged for the men to move, I will never return.

    Have not been in Heligan, but a dear friend was there and sent me his pics. He's just recovered from a horrible cancer/treatment.

    Will buy us both this book !!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara


Thank you for stopping by. It's always lovely hearing from The Library's readers.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...