Gardening: The rescue of Heligan Manor: Della Denman visits the Cornish estate where one of our finest Victorian romantic gardens is being restored

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The Independent Culture
THE steep-sided ravine is filled with Chusan palms, bamboos and New Zealand tree ferns; a series of linked ponds glint in the dappled light. In the swampy, almost steamy atmosphere, the smell of skunk cabbage and wild garlic is overpowering. You can almost hear the cry of parrots among the giant gunnera.

You don't, however. The ravine sweeps down to Mevagissey; this is the south coast of Cornwall, not some subtropical forest. The

superb Victorian gardens of Heligan Manor are being rescued from the wilderness of 70 years' neglect.

The moving force behind the restoration is Tim Smit. 'When we first arrived the gardens were 10 feet deep in nettles and brambles,' says Smit, who came across the abandoned estate near his farmhouse on Dodman Point in 1990. 'The paths had completely disappeared beneath decades of leaf mould. Fallen trees blocked every way through.'

Tim Smit was an unlikely rescuer for Heligan Manor. An archaeologist turned record producer/band leader who moved to Cornwall from Brixton in 1987, he knew nothing about gardening when he first saw the estate. The house had been converted into flats in 1970 and the land had been inherited by someone with little interest in gardens. Various horticultural groups would have liked to attempt a rescue, but the gardens were thought to be too far gone. For Smit, however, despite - or perhaps because of - his lack of practical knowledge, the challenge of a full-scale restoration was irresistible. He formed a partnership with a local builder and a surveyor and they acquired a 34-year lease on the land.

'We spent a year working from a 1839 tithe map with a team of contractors and volunteers and cleared 1,500 tons of fallen timber,' he says. 'We erected scaffolding towers around the trees to strip off the ivy and remove dead and diseased limbs. We excavated two miles of original pathways with machetes and chainsaws. We're only half-way through but now at least you can stroll around.'

A century and a half ago Heligan Manor was the perfect Victorian romantic estate. Originally laid out in 1700, it was redesigned in the 1840s by the Tremayne family, keen gardeners and plant collectors, who filled their grounds with follies, water features, and sub- tropical 'exotics'. But the Tremaynes abandoned the estate during the First World War and it became a virtual jungle. This year it was opened to the public, giving visitors a chance to see the process of restoration, acres of wilderness being returned to formal gardens and ornamental woodland.

In the 19th century sea-sanded paths ran through spectacular groves of rare rhododendrons and camellias at Heligan. An avenue of palm trees led to walled fruit gardens with heated peach houses, melon grounds, and pineapple pits. A complex water system serviced a stream, a waterfall, several ponds, and the ravine. In wet weather visitors could make for the shelter of a mysterious grotto inset with quartz crystals or a decorative cobbled summerhouse overlooking the sea.

Only the remnants of these delights were visible when Tim Smit discovered the garden two years ago. The grounds had reverted to scrubland, the greenhouses had collapsed, paths had disappeared. Ornamental clipped laurel hedges had grown rampant, their knotted branches forming an impenetrable forest. Where they had not invaded, monster Rhododendron ponticum had spread.

Fortunately, many of Heligan's prized 'exotics' - rhododendrons, azaleas, and magnolias - have survived. Some were introduced from China and Bhutan in the 1840s by Sir Joseph Hooker, plant collector, explorer, and later a director of Kew. Heligan's rhododendrons include some of the rarest in the world and its collection of 130 Australasian tree ferns is thought to be the largest in Britain.

An hour or two's stroll will show the visitor the main features of this romantic garden. Winding woodland paths take you through a giant 100-yard rockery which is to be filled with ferns, past the grotto which would have been lit by candles on summer evenings, to a Georgian walled garden with what used to be a vinery, orchard houses and a charming circular pond where gardeners would fill their watering cans. Next to a wall with 14 vaulted beehives lies the oval melon garden with its derelict melon and pineapple pits, all to be restored with their traditional sliding 'English Lights' glass frames. Nearby an Italian garden, complete with pantiled summer-house overlooking a lily pond, is being relined with aromatic rambling herbs and Chinese gooseberries.

Now that the clearance work is done, shelter belts of trees have been planted, grass is being laid, and the design of the garden is emerging. How far the recreation should go is under discussion. 'We aim to restore accurately where there are archival records but we want to maintain the wild look,' Tim Smit says. 'We don't want Heligan to be polite and polished. If the paths are too narrow or you have to duck beneath overhanging branches, you will get an idea of the wilderness it became.'

Cornwall is renowned for its gardens, and when the local gardening fraternity heard that a rescue project was under way offers of support came pouring in. Advice came from the Cornwall Gardens Trust, the National Trust, English Heritage and the Natural History Museum. Tim Smit made sure nearby industries such as English China Clay heard of the restoration and, as one sponsor led to another, much of the early excavation work was done with loaned or donated machinery and fuel. The labour force consists mainly of volunteers, YT students, or those from the Countryside Commission, which also produced grants for the replanting of trees. 'Some originally came for a week and have been here for months,' says Smit, whose own enthusiasm is infectious. 'Everyone gets so excited about the project they get sucked in.'

Most of Heligan's trees and shrubs have been identified by a former director of Wisley RHS, Philip Macmillan Browse, who is also propagating replacements where necessary. Old metal name-tags unearthed in the loam have helped establish what was there. Another recruit was the great-great-grandson of the artisan who originally installed the waterworks. He found an invoice dated 1880 for work done at Heligan, rang up - and was pulled in to repair the damaged system. Peter Thoday, consultant on the BBC's The Victorian Kitchen Garden, has just joined the restoration team; he considers the walled garden complex at Heligan possibly the finest in Britain.

So far the project has cost pounds 190,000, most coming from grants and private donations, and the next phase will probably cost the same again. Heligan may not end up as pampered and precious as it was in its Victorian days, but it will have had as much enthusiasm and affection lavished on it.

Heligan Manor Gardens are open daily 10am- 4pm. Adults pounds 2.40, children pounds 1.50, under 12, free. Dogs allowed. Ring 0860-214196 for directions, or information on volunteer work.

(Photograph omitted)