Photographs: Charles Francis
Heartlands Diaspora Gardens
January 2017: A conversation with operations manager Sean O’Neill
These five gardens are an important feature of the Heartlands cultural and community park. What was the concept behind their design?
The gardens reflect the areas of the world where Cornish miners went when mining activity started to decline in Cornwall in the mid-19th century – North America, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – and we’ve named the gardens after these areas. Each one is about half a hectare, and all the trees and shrubs have been planted in the same way as you would find them in their country of origin. The aim is to reflect the plant life the miners found and brought back with them to Cornwall. I don’t think many people nowadays know how many of the plants which thrive in Cornwall got here because of these miners, as well as the great plant-hunters. The gardens are here is to make that link – and the bridge over the pool, which links the gardens to the historic Robinson’s Engine House and the rest of the site, represents their voyage across the oceans.
Not all the miners came back: there are around six million people worldwide who are descended from Cornish miners. A series of bronze plaques, with images relating to the different countries, were designed by local schoolchildren and set in granite boulders, along with lines from a short poem about the miners and their travels, which runs through all the gardens.
What are the feature plants in each garden?
In New Zealand, there isn’t a huge amount of change over the year – there’s not much colour in the summer, but it stays lush and green all year round. There are lots of cordylines and ornamental grasses there.
South America has quite a few monkey puzzle trees, which are thriving, and there are fuchsias and other plants there which make it a haven for bumble bees. It’s probably the most colourful garden, with red hot pokers and crocosmias in flower for several months.
There are fan palms and yuccas in North America, and Bishop pines, which have done extremely well, as have the eucalyptus in Australia. They are the only two species which seem to be able to resist the wind.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the opening of Heartlands. How have the gardens evolved over those years?
I first came here in July 2011, almost a year before Heartlands opened. In the gardens, there were paths and fences, but no lawns and no plants, just three palm trees. Remembering what the gardens looked like then, I think they’ve matured really nicely. With any garden, you will always have an element of loss, but the original design still stands. It has given us a very versatile garden. Wind is the main problem, and on occasions, there has been waterlogging, but although the lawns are affected, it’s never had any effect on the plants. We’ve had a few casualties which were not due to natural causes, but people swinging on palms and clambering on the tall grasses, but they recover quite well.
How important are the gardens to the local community?
The gardens feel like an oasis in the middle of Camborne, Pool and Redruth. I think people really do appreciate that. In a depressed area like this, where people don’t have a lot of money, some Cornish gardens can be impossible to reach by public transport, and the entrance fees too expensive. The Diaspora Gardens are free and accessible to everyone, and we have thousands of visitors of all ages all year round, from young families with little kids to retired people. We have a children’s nursery on site, and it’s nice for them to use the site. We also run children’s activities, as it’s such a safe environment, like teddy bears’ picnics and storytelling. The gardens are also really popular with dog walkers, and people working in places nearby like Cornwall College and the Pool Innovation Centre come and have their lunch here. And the gardens are a good backdrop for weddings. We also use them for a variety of events, like a jazz picnic in the summer in South Africa, and fireworks in November in New Zealand. At the start of the school holidays last summer, we were very busy, because there are several Pokemon Go landmarks here. It’s one way to get people into the gardens!
How do you keep the gardens looking good?
We had a gardener to look after the gardens in the first year when they were being established. We now have a groundsman who has technical and specialist knowledge, but it’s a bit of a challenge for him to keep on top of the gardens as well as the grounds as a whole. We’re hoping to grow a volunteer team, working with Cormac Solutions, which looks after Cornwall Council’s gardens, and Duchy College, which is just down the road.
What other plans do you have for 2017 and beyond?
At this time of year, there is a lot of cutting back to be done to get the gardens ready for the new season. Many people have told us they would like to see the gardens develop further, and our ambition is to start investing in them over the next two years. We’d like to introduce more colour, so there is something attractive for people to see all year round. We hope to make a start on this by the latter part of next year. We’re also looking at ways of making more use of the gardens for larger, ticketed events. The five gardens are separated from each other by fences, and we’re looking at whether to drop the level of the fences, while still keeping the individual gardens, as it will give people a better impression of the overall site.