Discovering the Real Secret Gardens

Imagine what it must be like to discover something lost to living memory.

Rather like Mary Lennox stumbling across her secret garden in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, the Lost Gardens of Heligan were discovered accidentally having been forgotten some 80 years previously.

The pool by the Jungle section, Lost Gardens of Heligan
The pool by the Jungle section

Generations of the Tremayne family, who owned the Heligan estate in Cornwall, poured years of love and attention into creating and maintaining magnificent gardens from 1766.  The gardens were added to until 1914 when the Great War broke out and forced the gardeners to leave to fight in the trenches.

The large house on the estate was used as a hospital during the war and then tenanted out in the 1920s and 1930s.  The gardens were neglected, and then forgotten.  When the house was split into flats and sold in the 1970s, the land was left to the wider Tremayne family, and it was not until 1990 that descendants of the Tremaynes happened upon the gardens.

The project of clearing and restoring the gardens took years and you can see why when you visit.  There are several different gardens (all spread out), woodland, a farm and fields that are used to host various events.  Now, the gardens have been lovingly resurrected and have won numerous awards.  We visited whilst staying in nearby Fowey.

Statue of a sleeping woman clothed in ivy, Lost Gardens of Heligan
Statue of a sleeping woman clothed in ivy

The gardens are extensive and unless you rush, you probably won’t see everything in a single visit.  Upon arriving we chose to walk towards The Jungle at the far end of the gardens.  The path took us through woods where we picked our way past bluebells and sculptures, among them a beautiful statue of a woman asleep on the ground, covered in moss and ivy.  Emerging from the woods there is a gorgeous view over fields down to the sea.

View from Lost Gardens of Heligan
View down to the sea

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Jungle section; surely it couldn’t feel that tropical in Cornwall?  But I was surprised at the sort of plants that can grow in this area; we saw bananas, palms and bamboo among others.  The valley is so sheltered that it has its own microclimate; 5 degrees warmer than its surrounds, enough to allow these tropical plants to thrive.

Giant rhubarb framed by rhododendron
Bananas grow pretty well in Cornwall

The paths snake through the foliage, past several ponds, up and down sections of steps.  The Cub had a great time scampering about and loved being carried across the huge rope bridge, as she was too small to cross it herself.  Don’t miss this bridge – the kids will think it’s brilliant.  You really have to wonder at the effort that the Tremaynes put into their estate all those years ago – everything carefully planned and looked after so that many of the plants were still growing decades after they were last seen.

After leaving the jungle we continued on the path up the hill towards the entrance.  We stopped for lunch at a cafe before heading towards the other gardens, but the Cub was flagging and so we  barely had time to poke our heads into the Productive Garden and Pleasure Grounds.  From the looks of it, these would deserve another visit.  There are some absolutely enormous rhododendrons that have been growing in the garden for aeons, and make the one in the below photo look like a sapling.

Rhododendrons at Lost Gardens of Heligan
Rhododendrons in full bloom – perfect timing!

Slightly older children will have a blast exploring the gardens (the Cub was not quite 2).  There is a Family Trail which includes insect hotels, bird hides and farm animals, and more.  Pick up the map at the entrance.  Check Heligan’s website for details of events that might be on when you visit – they have plenty tailored to families.

Parents of young children need to be aware that the Jungle area is not suitable for prams  as there are far too many steps.  We took our sling to carry the Cub in when she was too tired, or when daddy’s shoulders were not acceptable.

Try to visit in late May if you can as it’s the perfect time to see the rhododendrons in bloom.  We also managed to avoid half term holidays so the gardens were quiet.  Even if you are bound to the holidays we would still recommend Heligan as a great family day out.


48 thoughts on “Discovering the Real Secret Gardens

  1. 100cobbledroads says:

    Visiting gardens can be such a relaxing experience, isn’t it? Ambling around at a comfortable pace, no pressures to really comprehend anything, taking in the greenery can all be such a welcome change from the hectic pace of a holiday. Nice set of pictures…specially eye-catching was the reclining grass lady.

  2. Bethanny Sudibyo says:

    This place really does redefine the meaning of ‘garden’! It’s so beautiful and imagine living there… It must a great place to just relax, walk around, and unwind. Wish I could have that in my backyard! beautiful photos guys 😀

    • kidsandcompass says:

      We spent nearly a whole day and only did the jungle section, but we were moving slowly because of a toddler. You wouldn’t be able to do it all in a single visit but you’d probably see more than we did 🙂

  3. andsuchislife says:

    I can remember reading The Secret Garden as a child and thinking how magical it would be to discover a lost/secret place like that. My kids would love exploring these gardens – but far from New Zealand…but one day, maybe!

  4. FarmerFi says:

    I’ve wanted to visit the Lost Gardens for years, but now I’m living in Australia I think it’ll be a while before I make it! Thanks for this wonderful description of your trip and the gorgeous photos. Oh, and I love giant rhubarb – it looks so alien with the huge prickly stems!

  5. Vyjay Rao says:

    The garden is really enchanting. i can imagine how someone who has accidentally stumbled upon it would have felt. While the garden is really beautiful, what is unique are the sculptures, which lend it an enigmatic quality.

  6. Natsa says:

    I must say this>WOW…the garden looks like from a fairy tale. I believe you’ve relaxed so much over here. I love gardens and flowers and all that green around..i don’t have this sort of things of my living place but hope to visit some once..

    • kidsandcompass says:

      They must have been thinking of Mary when they unlocked the door…
      It must take them ages. I loved how the ivy and moss didn’t cover all the statue, just created her clothes. And I’m sure she had hair too!

  7. jamiekatblog says:

    I love the whole place! It looks so relaxing, so peaceful, and it’s definitely where I want to be right now. The flowers in the last photo are amazing.

  8. Amy says:

    As someone who does well to keep a house plant alive, I am in awe of such hard work and dedication. But it certainly pays off, they are beautiful! And it’s nice when the kids can be out and enjoy it too.

  9. Passports and Pigtails says:

    As someone who does well to keep a house plant alive, I am in such awe of the hard work and dedication such amazing grounds require! They look absolutely beautiful! I love that there is a family trail and it is tailored for enjoyment for all ages.

    • kidsandcompass says:

      There’s lots to do in the UK. I appreciate it more and more, now that it’s harder for me to get abroad as much.
      Hope you get to come here soon, stay tuned for more things to do in the UK! 😉

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