Monday, 6 May 2013

The Lost Gardens of Heligan

I always knew I wanted to somehow incorporate gardens into this blog. Indeed the history of collecting would be somewhat more barren without the early plant collectors who travelled the world finding exotic specimens to bring back home. So when I was thinking about places to visit, Heligan with its wealth of ancient plants seemed a logical first garden to write about. But this article is going to be very different from how I first anticipated. I knew that Heligan was home to a National Collection status wealth of rhododendrons and camellias, but as soon as I visited I realised it was much more interesting in terms of thinking about collecting - this is not a collection as possession of obviously beautiful plants, but a collection of memories, history and atmosphere - a garden as a living evolving museum, devoid of any of the sterile and static connotations that word may have (and shouldn't have in my opinion - the best museums feel like they have their own life). And really this makes complete sense when thinking of many great gardens - when I was growing up we often used to visit the wonderful gardens at Stourhead in Wiltshire and I often thought about how here someone was yes "curating" the landscape, but for future generations - the original gardeners would probably have never lived to see the "end results", if there is every such a thing, of their efforts. Heligan is a very different place to Stourhead, but it illustrates for me beautifully how when thinking of place, the definition of museums and curating and collecting grows too - how it evolves with the natural world and this is both moving and fascinating to me. It is not so much about cataloguing and containment, but setting a collection free to see what happens - the garden is almost curating itself.

In the wonderful booklet about the history of Heligan available in the shop we gain a wonderful insight via documentary evidence and stories into the people who have formed Heligan over hundreds of years, and it seems to me that the garden is as much a curation of their stories as of the plants. It talks of how in the early days when Tim Smit discovered it buried by nature they also found personal artefacts such as a zinc bucket of coal, a rusty pair of scissors, an enormous kettle hidden in ferns. These offered inspiration for what Heligan was going to be - these simple everyday objects held stories that deserved to be uncovered. This came to a head when in the Thunderbox room, I believe an old loo, they found ancient graffiti of the names of ordinary people who had worked there. This discovery was to become the driving force behind the project - to restore the gardens, but to uncover its whole social history and personal memories. It is as if the work of those that nurtured it through the years are part of the soil. And there is so much deeply moving history - many workers lost their lives in the world wars, and there is a shared sense of this loss. A pervading melancholy amongst the beauty that feels a more fitting war memorial than any stone monument. It keeps memories alive rather than petrifies these names. I recommend everyone who visits to buy this history book as it tells the stories of these individuals in a deeply poignant way.

The booklet is full of photos and old postcards of Heligan that remind me of ghosts - a gentle haunting. They follow the garden from its heyday through requisition when the house became a military hospital, to tenant owners and then its sad gradual decline from the 1940s until Tim discovered it in the early '90s. This sense of rescue and nurturing back from a decline again illustrates for me how this is not so much a curation in the normal sense as a work of nurturing - of curation as care giving and respect for plants, the random found objects (there is an old boiler that is anthropomorphised in the guide as it looks like it has a face - it seems the workers see even the inanimate objects as somehow pets - I love this), and the past. There is a humility as opposed to omnipotent quest for possession and knowledge as can be seen in some collectors. In the history booklet it says they wanted to let the past find its own place, and I think this is apparent.

Of course all this is not to forget the sheer beauty and delight of the gardens. I entered near the fabulous collection of rhododendrons and camellias and wandered around the paths, past twisting trunks and a wonderful strange mound that is believed to be an Armada beacon! There is a crystal grotto waiting to be cleaned up so it can sparkle, a lovely little wishing well hiding in the shade and the perfect bath for birds. There were extraordinary working gardens of vegetables and flowers - Heligan is very much a productive garden and they sell their produce in the shop and use it in the (really good) cafe. I particulary loved the old beaver-tailed glass greenhouses and trained fruit trees. There is a melon garden, and one of my favourite things an ancient pineapple pit with an early heating system! I wandered under an arch of apple blossom drinking in my favourite flower smell of wallflowers. On the sunny day it was, it was magical. I should also mention the amazing old bee boles - little doors in the wall with baskets for bees in!

After exploring the sundial garden with its magnificent wisteria and the graves of past Heligan pets around a tree trunk (again that wonderful sense of personal history), I walked back round and down to the orchard with its fabulous black ducks and on through a field of Dexter  cows to what is known as the Jungle. In the early days of Heligan it was a Japanese garden, but over the decades it developed into a place to experiment with exotic plants - something that is continued today.  Giant rhododendrons tower over ponds and bamboo and all sorts of exotic treats that flourish in its microclimate - it can be a few degrees warmer than that rest of the gardens! Something written in the history guide summed it up for me beautifully - it was described as an exotic essay - textual foliage written on the Cornish landscape. And somehow this sums up the gardens for me - they are both of another place and rooted both metaphorically and literally in the Cornish soil. And this textural foliage writes not just the stories of the plants but of the people who planted and enjoyed them. It is garden as living book - waiting to be read and explored and continued with every new person who discovers its delights. The lost gardens of Heligan have well and truly been found.

I would recommend that every visitor to Cornwall comes here. More details can be found on their very informative website

Armada beacon!

Pineapple pit!

Wishing well!

Black ducks!

The Jungle

Witch's broom

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