Back to Britain, Part 12
Cornwall’s Eden Project, Lost Gardens of Heligan
June 10-25, 2003 (Updated June 20, 2004)
By Lewis Nolan
Saturday, June 21, 2003 – To St. Austell and gardens
Another beautiful day greeted us. Predictions were that the temperature would climb into the mid 70s, ideal for our visits to two gardens inland from the Cornish coast. It felt warmer because of the absence of a cooling wind from the Atlantic.
We drove north about two hours to the small village of St. Austell and the nearby Eden Project (www.edenproject.com). It is the home of the world’s largest conservatory. And it truly is a monster of connected geodesic domes, called “biomes.”
|Eden Project has world's largest geodesic domes|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
The Eden Project opened last year to worldwide fanfare. Some of the garden and travel publications treated it like the Second Coming. The experts had predicted first year attendance of 750,000. Were they ever wrong. More than 2 million garden-loving Brits and other visitors showed up. The popularity continues unabated. We could not enjoy the Humid Tropics Biome because of the press of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of plant lovers jamming the pathways. I should have anticipated the Saturday crush and scheduled our visit for a weekday.
The Humid Tropics Biome is the largest conservatory in the world. It is about 250 yards long, 115 yards wide and more than 50 yards high. The geodesic dome is made of an insulated, clear plastic. The sun’s UVA rays pass through the plastic and temperatures inside sometimes reach 80 degrees. The plantings feature the rainforest plants of the Oceanic Islands, Malaysia, West Africa and Tropical South America. Among the waterfalls and lush foliage are a series of displays showing how indigenous peoples use the plants to meet various needs for food, clothing and building material.
Another huge biome recreates a warm, temperate climate and focuses on the plants of the Mediterranean, South Africa and California. It was a treat for me to see my former home state’s official flower, the Golden Poppy. Another familiar plant from my youth in Sacramento was a stand of hops, which are used to brew beer.
The site of the Eden Project was once an open mining pit where the kind of clay used to make English bone china was excavated and refined. The concave area is perhaps a half a mile across. The circular staircase effect provides a great setting for terraced gardens of flowers, vegetables and ornamentals from around the world. Each bed is fully labeled to explain the merits of the displayed plants and gardening tips on how to make them thrive.
|Betty outside Eden's Tropical Biome|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
We had seen somewhat similar, albeit smaller geodesic domes before. One is the centerpiece at Shaw’s Gardens in St. Louis, also known as the Missouri Botanic Gardens. Another is at the Biosphere at Oracle, Ariz., near Tucson. We’ve visited the Shaw’s Garden dome many times and found it to be especially interesting in winter, when most of the outdoors plants are dormant or dead. I’d guess there is a similar magnetism about the Eden Project in the dead of British winter.
As with many mega-attractions in the United States, visitors park a mile or more away and ride shuttle buses to the gates of the Eden Project. It is visitor-friendly place, complete with guides, lectures, demonstrations, walking and riding tours and several places to buy food and beverages at reasonable prices. It also offers sparking-clean restrooms, soft drink machines and an enormous gift shop stocked with gardening books and supplies. Proceeds go to the Eden Trust, a charity. Had the crowds not been so heavy, we could have easily spent most of a day rather than a couple of hours there.
After lunch, we escaped the crowds and rode a shuttle bus to the remote parking lot where we had parked our rental car. We drove about 30 minutes to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, on the other side of St. Austell. Had we not just come from the Eden Project and been at the Royal Gardens at Kew a few days previously, I’ve no doubt that we would have found the Lost Gardens of Heligan impressive.
But in comparison to Eden and the far, far superior Gardens at Kew, Heligan was a disappointment. It seemed to me to be more of a triumph of smart marketing than that of product. Heligan’s brochures, magazine and guide ads and other promos are most inviting. But the gardens are not particularly well kept or even interesting. I don’t think they are as good as the Memphis Botanic Garden back home, which pales in comparison to similar gardens we’ve visited in Dallas, Atlanta and St. Louis.
Heligan has a neat marketing premise that is built around the “lost” concept. A brochure about “this beautiful and mysterious place” says Heligan had been a self-sufficient, 1,000-acre estate owned by the Tremayne family for more than 400 years. No explanation is provided as to what happened to the family. Nor are reasons given for why the property slid into neglect and became overgrown early in the 20th Century. The gardens were supposedly “re-discovered” in 1990. Since then, a small group working on a shoestring budget has slowly worked to return them to their past glory.
It seemed to me that they have a noble undertaking with a lot of work ahead of them. Here and there were several attractive plantings of flowers. But they are woefully inadequate when compared to the lush beds of Kew or even of nearby Eden Project. In fact, the hundreds of annuals that Betty sets out at our home look healthier and show a whole lot better. I thought the unkempt shrubs along the Heligan’s dusty, dirt paths added little value.
|Lewis at Lost Gardens of Heligan|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
The admission fee was £6 for adults, with a palty half-pound discount for seniors. I was told by a rather surly employee at the gate that no map of the grounds is included with admission. A booklet and map was available for purchase at £2.5. Heligan obviously depends on its gift shop as an important revenue source because it seems to get more attention than other features of the gardens. There is a small outdoor restaurant and a bar under a fancy trellis. I tried a locally brewed ale, which was served at air temperature – warm.
(Six months after I posted the above, critical comments about Heligan I received an extraordinarily well-written and informative email from a gentleman in Cornwall, who kindly provided some much-needed background on the property. He is Darren Lean, a former constable whose knowledge about Cornwall's attractions and history is formidable. His communication to me is reproduced in part below.)
"I read with great relish your account on your 2003 visit to the UK, and particularly your time in Cornwall ( I am a Cornish lad through and through ) . I noted that you wondered why the gardens at Heligan had fallen into neglect. The reason for this was that when the First World War broke out, every single member of staff volunteered to fight, and, sadly, only a few returned home. Most of them died on the fields of Flanders, and thus the gardens had no one to tend them, so they were 'forgotten' and are still slowly being reclaimed, which is why they are not as impressive as many other gardens. Some Tremaynes returned, but eventually they tenanted the gardens out to friends, who only kept up some basic maintenance to the house and grounds, but eventually left the gardens to decay.
The important thing about the gardens is that they stand as a time capsule, as they were never touched by modern hands, and the buildings and original Victorian planning remains extant, with much still to be unearthed. I remember when they were rediscovered, and the people involved in the reclamation ( including Mr Tim Smit, the brains behind the Eden Project) had/have an extrordinarily huge task ahead of them. I believe that it will be many more years yet before they will look anything like they should, which is a great shame, but is the reason that they seemed a bit bedraggled on your visit.
I suggest a URL that you may find interesting, as it contains lots of information on the gardens, and you will even discover that it has connections with the US military and the D Day landings. The URL is http://www.cornwall-calling.co.uk/homes-and-gardens/heligan.htm I hope that you find this interesting , and it is also a shame that you did not find the nearest town to the gardens, Mevagissey, for it is yet another lovely little seaside town on a par with St Ives, perhaps even more quaint, although it is possible that you did but confused it with St Austell, as you refer to St Austell as a small village when in fact it is a large and bustling town. However there are many villages nearby so it could have been any one of them.
A shame also that you missed Newlyn when you were in St Ives, a wonderful fishing village of Daphne De Maurier fame, she that penned the likes of Jamaica Inn, Frenchmans Creek and The Birds ( all based on Cornwall, and she was incensed when The Birds was turned into a film based in the US as she had specifically stated that it should stay true to the book and therefore regard Cornwall...a noble sentiment but perhaps one not as marketable which is probably why her wish was ignored) I apologise, I am starting to waffle :-) Should you ever return to Cornwall, I urge that you explore further as Cornwall has many many sites of great interest, such as King Arthurs birthplace at Tintagel, an incredably evocative and fascinating place, the places where the D Day landings went from, such as at Trebah, the place Marconi sent the worlds first wireless signal, from Cornwall to Canada in 1901 and many more.
Cornwall is a great place, with monuments stretching back over 5,000 years, and is also the dukedom of Prince Charles, who, as well as being the Prince of Wales, is also Duke of Cornwall, which is a fascinating tale in its own right ( The Black Prince was also Duke Of Cornwall) I could fill pages and pages with the history and heritage of this little county, but do not wish to bore you ( though the story of the Cornish Rebellion is gripping, when in 1497 the Cornish marched on London, being eventually defeated at Blackheath right outside the ( then ) city bounds)."
We probably spent no more than an hour at Heligan. I could not recommend it to other American tourists in good conscience. Like in other parts of England, there is an abundance of gardens in Cornwall that are open to tour. Among those managed by the National Trust are Antony, Trelissick, Lanhydrock, Cotehele, Glendurgan and Trenwainton. Other gardens operated by private institutions or charities include Caerhays Castle Gardens, Lamorron House Gardens, Trevarno, Trebah, Tresco Abbey Gardens and Trewithen. I’ve no doubt that many pleasant hours could be spent at every one of them. But I’d advise a tourist with limited time to see the Eden Project on a weekday and to do whatever it takes to travel to London and see the Royal Gardens at Kew.
Once back at the Trewinnard Hotel in St. Ives, I enjoyed a late afternoon drink with our host, Ken. Hanging over his tiny but well stocked bar is a signed print of a famous poster from World War II. It celebrates an anniversary of the epochal raid on a dam by the RAF’s “bomb busters” squadron that became the subject of a movie.
Ken recommended a nearby “pub food” place, the Sheaf of Wheat. The combination pub-restaurant has a charming patio decorated with hanging baskets of flowers and other greenery. The establishment has won several awards for its floral displays.
Betty had some good, sliced pork roast served at the “carvery” station of a buffet line. The baked fish I ordered was swimming in a cream sauce that was topped by melted cheese. I can tolerate a little bit of dairy foods. But this avalanche would have doomed my digestive system to grief for at least a day. It took more explanation than I thought should have been necessary (there was no hint on the menu that the dish was so dairy-intensive), but the finally the pub manager swapped the baked fish for a small portion of grilled cod.
Upon our return to the Trewinnard, we learned yet another attribute about quirky British plumbing. The shower had to be activated by a pull cord connected to an electric controller high on the wall. The electricity heats a coil in a box that the water passes through.
|Trewinnard Hotel Entrance|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
We wondered if the ghost of “Evelyn,” the imagined forerunner occupant of the Trewinnard, had been at work. But regrettably, we learned it was nothing so mysterious and exciting. Glynis had turned off the switch in a power-saving exercise. She is related to a medium and believes she has a certain amount of psychic insight. I think she does.
Glynis and I talked at some length about the murky worlds nobody can see or comprehend but that we both suspect are there, just out of human ken. A close reading of the New Testament of the Bible reveals several pronouncements about the eyes of mankind being clouded for divine reasons we do not understand.
Glynis fervently believes that she and Ken were somehow drawn to Trewinnard, where someone she thinks was named Evelyn once played the piano. I don’t doubt her sincerity or the possibility. I, too, have felt some inexplicable pulls when I was doing research into the genealogy of my family. My book, “Nolan-Miller Family History,” recounts my spooky experience at a lonely graveyard in Southwest Wisconsin when I acted on a hunch and discovered the long-forgotten graves of my great-grandparents.