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Debbie gets lost in Cornwall

Fired by my imagination and a leaflet which promised creeper-covered walls, moss- covered pathways and a door straight out of the Secret Garden, I set out to discover what wonders lay behind that fairytale entrance.

Driving aimlessly in circles and convinced I was almost there, I stopped on a narrow, windy lane, wound down the window and saw a weather-beaten face staring back at me, smiling knowingly.
'Looking for the gardens?' he said. 'Up there, on your right.'

Clearly there had been many before me and not surprising, since if you approach the gardens from the south as I had, there is not a single brown tourist-sign in sight. The irony of the moment wasn't lost on me.

Arriving, I proceeded through a creeper-covered walkway and found myself in a courtyard of shops, tea rooms and gardening supplies. All very quaint but the rumour that half the village of Mevagissey had been conceived beneath an overgrown tropical valley had made me curious and put me in a state of child-like anticipation. With the mindset of a Famous Five explorer I went through the garden entrance at the rear of the courtyard and found myself wandering along pathways skirted with vibrantly coloured flowers in reds, pinks and purples. At Flora's Green I was transported into a romantic by-gone age of tea-dancing, surrounded by the biggest rhododendrons I have ever seen. At the edges of the lawns, elderly people sat contentedly on benches.

Personally I was yearning for some mystery, so I ducked under some undergrowth and discovered a rocky path which I decided would be a good way to kick-start my garden experience. I quickly realised that this Ravine - a winding, man-made rockery, uneven in the natural style of a Himalayan pass - was not best suited to my ridiculous footwear. Stout footwear is a good recommendation, even if you are not planning to walk through the Lost Valley or The Jungle, especially as there are several unfenced and deep ponds that it would be relatively easy to fall into if you hadn't got your wits or your sensible, flat shoes about you.

The Northern gardens are huge and take several hours to get around even for a relatively fit person like myself. Crammed as they are with garden enthusiasts and families with pushchairs, the best parts of the gardens are the more enclosed parts you stumble on by chance and can enjoy alone. The Crystal grotto, for example is hidden in a densely planted part of the garden and the Northern Summer House is slotted into a corner at the top of the gardens and overlooks St. Austell Bay.
It's churlish to complain in such beautiful and carefully restored surroundings but at times reality frustrates the imagination as you realise that your dreams of high-walled, enclosed red-brick gardens exist only in the realm of the childrens' story book. I can only liken the feeling to that I experienced when staring up at Neuschwanstein Castle from the bottom of a hill, surrounded by restaurants, tour parties and all the emblems of commercialisation. As at Neuschwanstein, I felt the disappointment that you feel when you realise that there is no Lonely Planet, no sacred place that is unvisited by the hungry hoards. Satisfying the child within is almost always impossible - unless you are the fortunate owner of a desert island - and I found myself jealous of Tim Smit and John Willis for being the discoverers, the sole voyagers through the decayed, secret ruins of these gardens.

The past echoes comfortably round the gardens - a persistent reminder of time gone by. Its presence is felt like a friendly stranger at the pineapple pit, the Paxton Greenhouse and the kitchen gardens. It is imprinted on the walls of the thunderbox room, the simple, 'Come ye not here to sleep or slumber,' a poignant testimony to the hard work of the staff that was written the day World War I broke out.

The gardens have been meticulously recreated to model the gardens left to decay in 1914, when the majority of the staff who went to war died at battle in Flanders. The value of Heligan lies in its unique preservation of a baronial lifestyle that was abruptly ended after the first world war with the deaths of many of the skilled workers who had maintained many of Britain's great estates.
Though beautiful and refreshingly haphazard in layout, I didn't really sense the desired escape to another world until I left the Northern Gardens and began the steep descent into the Lost Valley and the perilous journey through the comforting darkness of The Jungle. Grand though the palms are in the Northern Gardens, there is no comparison with the huge, sheltering trees in the depths of this valley. No match for the ethereal boating lake in the midst of the valley with wizened trees looking on and the distant echo of laughter from Victorian ladies out for a picnic on the waters. Charcoal burns faintly in the distance in huge vats, and the labourer, who would sit up all night until the blue smoke told him that the fuel was ready, is, to all intents and purposes, still there - a modern-day man, with a black-smeared face, a passion for charcoal and the temperament to work down at the bottom of the valley alone.

The less accessible valley and jungle area is a welcome tonic to the more open-plan Northern Gardens. Many are put off by the long walk down to and around the valley, as indeed many are unfortunately unable to navigate the steep slopes and the boardwalk planking. Sitting on a carved bench alongside that jungle walkway, you can thus forget the hoards and listen to the sound of birds calling to each other across the forest and maybe hear the cries, across the years, of dedicated gardeners toiling under the dense canopy.

With the original buildings of the time and many foreign plants that hark back to a golden age of botanical exploration, The Lost Gardens of Heligan are without doubt the most un-modernised gardens I have ever visited. They are justly a local treasure and with such a large project - much like the ambitious Eden Project - the maintenance of the gardens is dependent on the numbers it attracts. Preserved in time, this example of past splendour is world-renowned and kept open by the financial support of the public. These gardens are no longer lost, no longer the private joy of the Tremayne family but an open and beautiful exhibition of landscape architecture and history. The main drawback for me is that these gardens are a shining example of a great paradox - that most things in life can't be enjoyed if they aren't shared and that most things of beauty are unavoidably spoiled when they are.

© Debbie Hill
© Photographs D.Hill

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