Photographs: Charles Francis
June 2013: A conversation with marketing manager Lorna Tremayne and head gardener Mike Friend
Cornwall Today readers have voted Heligan their favourite garden. Why do people love it so much?
Lorna: People have such a strong emotional attachment to Heligan. The romantic and mysterious atmosphere is something everyone can respond to. It’s why they keep coming back.
Mike: Some people come for the history and nostalgia, some because they are interested in the productive gardens, and some for the ornamental planting. We have a national collection of rhododendrons and camellias, native plants like wild garlic, campions and foxgloves mixed with oriental plants, and hybrids created here by John Tremayne in the 1870s. And then there’s the jungle, which has the feel of a valley in China or the Himalayas.
It is more than 20 years since Heligan was famously rediscovered from under a thick canopy of bramble and ivy. How do you retain that sense of wonder?
Mike: We garden by instinct, with a balance between cultivation and keeping the “lost” feel. We maintain this place out of respect for the gardeners of the past, especially those who went off to fight in the First World War and never came back. When you step into the potting shed, you feel you’re stepping back in time: it’s the kind of place your granddad might have had. The darkness and slightly rotting wood evoke that sense of history — yet it is still used now. There would have been a large number of gardeners here in the Victorian period; but even now we have 19 staff, and their passion and care for the plants makes Heligan what it is.
Do the different areas of the gardens present different horticultural challenges?
Mike: The productive gardens are the core of Heligan and are run on Victorian principles, to reflect their history. The melon yard was created in the 1760s, the flower garden in about 1810, the vegetable garden in the 1830s and 40s and the peach house built in 1907. But in the jungle, we know the Tremayne family would have tried to get any new plant which came into the country. We try to follow that spirit of adventure.
Lorna: The jungle team aren’t bound by period correctness. They planted a group of rare Australian wollemi pines three years ago — the largest plantation of them in the UK. In the jungle, native wildlife adjusts to something a non-native plant can provide: we’ve had goldcrests nest in the side of the trachycarpus.
Can you describe some of Heligan’s other attractions?
Lorna: The tea garden at the Steward’s House is a crossover between formal planting and more modern plants. The hydrangeas look incredible in the summer, the Tibetan cherry is a showstopper and the hoheria trees are covered in white flowers. Nearby is Horsemoor Hide, where you can see wild birds coming in: barn owls are the big attraction. The gardens at Heligan cover 25 to 30 acres, but we also look after the wider estate of 200 acres of woodland and farmland, and we have our own herd of Dexter beef cattle.
What’s been happening in the gardens in the last year?
Lorna: An oak tree came down last summer across part of the boardwalk through the jungle, and we decided not to rebuild it, but to create new paths, like fern gulley, a brilliant path which we opened for the Diamond Jubilee. It takes you down to the bottom of the valley, where you’re surrounded by giant rhubarb leaves. As you come back up, you see an amazing coastal redwood high above. It gives you a great sense of the depth of the valley.
In the flower garden, we’ve put a Victorian-style stumpery in a damp shady area where we’ve always battled to find something that would grow, and it’s doing very nicely.
We’ve also created a scented garden – another thing popular with the Victorians — in an area opposite the sundial garden. These two gardens will both be dug over and replanted in the autumn.
What are your plans for the future?
Mike: Although there is a real sense of history here, we’re always moving forward. This year, we’ll be planting large concentrations of bulbs in specific areas of the gardens to create a real wow factor. We’ll need 5,000 crocusses and 10,000 snowdrops. But we won’t be using only spring bulbs; the aim is to have some interest at different times of the year.
Lorna: We’re working on a woodland trail, which will give children an interactive relationship to the land in a fun way — it will allow them to go off track and get a bit dirty. But we don’t want Heligan to become a theme park. We are here to protect what we know to be special.