A secret garden blossoms anew: Nicholas Schoon joins tourists beating a path to a rediscovered Cornish gem

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THE SIGN on the St Austell to Mevagissey road points to the 'Lost Gardens of Heligan', once one of the West Country's best-kept secrets. Now they are on the way to becoming one of Cornwall's main tourist attractions.

Tim Smit, sometime archaeologist, songwriter and record producer with Barry Manilow and the Nolan Sisters, has played the leading role in their rediscovery and taming, although when he first macheted his way through the overgrown and decrepit gardens in February 1990, he knew nothing about gardening.

Formal restoration work began a year later and now, after squads of sponsors, volunteers and government agencies have given freely of their labours and expertise, the task is two-thirds complete.

'We've worked like bastards; it's most unCornish,' Mr Smit said. He cuts an unconventional figure as head of a large public garden. His guidebook has a cheery informality. It explains that the original statue in the Italian Gardens was stolen, apologises for the newness of its replacement and adds: 'We are currently ageing it with the help of yoghurt and cowshit.'

The rambling lost gardens offer a sort of antidote to the usual National Trust experience, although Mr Smit says that the trust has been generous with help and advice. Wildness and a degree of unkemptness linger here and there, and he intends to keep it that way.

The gardens were created by the Tremayne family in the 18th and 19th centuries, around their stately home Heligan Manor. No expense was spared when it came to growing newly discovered shrubs from distant lands, installing extensive waterworks and building hothouses with ingenious heating systems to grow an abundance of Mediterranean and tropical fruits.

The building was converted to flats after the First World War, but the gardens went to seed.

Mr Smit moved to Cornwall in the late 1980s. At a party he met John Willis, a land agent who was a beneficiary of the Tremayne family trust that owned the gardens, and he suggested a visit.

A day exploring the wilderness left Mr Smit obsessed with the notion of restoring the gardens. John Nelson, a local builder and friend, who was about to retire, was also infected and has spent the last two years full-time on the restoration.

Some locals were suspicious at first, fearing that Mr Smit would hold rave parties or open-air pop concerts in the grounds. Now he finds himself lionised and drawn into the local establishment.

The Countryside and Rural Development commissions have helped, as has business, from Shell down to small local firms. Hundreds have laboured on the project, many on working holidays organised by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.

Mr Smit and his partners have a lease for 31 years. With nearly 20,000 paying visitors this year so far, he believes the enterprise should break even by 1995.

(Photograph omitted)