Finding Community Spirit at The Lost Gardens of Heligan

The Lost Gardens of Heligan’s journey of adventure, discovery, romance and restoration has inspired a nation of garden lovers for many years – none more so than those who are lucky enough to live nearby and be part of its local community.

Due to mark its 30th anniversary since the gardens were rediscovered, the team at Heligan were busy getting ready for 2020 to be a year of events, reflections and celebrations.

Laura Chesterfield, Head of Garden Experience, said, “It was a really weird feeling. We went from being in the middle of our anniversary celebrations since finding the gardens again and what that meant when suddenly, the gardens went back to sleep again. The Heligan team felt very fortunate that we were able to be somewhere beautiful, outside, in fresh air and reconnecting with the garden, but realising that people who couldn’t be there were really missing that was a challenge emotionally for everybody.

We were lucky that were we able to reopen the gardens relatively quickly, so we became a haven for so many local people to come back and visit once it was safe to do so. There were hundreds of thousands of people who became addicted to their daily walks, reconnecting with nature, and having that time to appreciate what’s on your doorstep again. It felt really lovely to be that space for our community.”

“There were hundreds of thousands of people who became addicted to their daily walks.”

People and Gardens

As a working estate, life at Heligan can never simply stop. Whilst much of the world was put on pause, The Productive Gardens continued to grow hundreds of varieties of produce all throughout the year. “It’s one of the things that makes Heligan so special,” explained Laura. “We also have lots of animals that need caring for, all the pastures need maintaining, we’re making our own hay, charcoal, growing wildflower seeds and more. There’s a constant harvest and work of the estate – whether we’re in lockdown or not.

During the pandemic, whilst some of the gardeners had no choice but to head home leaving a small team on site to tend to the gardens, Heligan took the opportunity to support their local community.

People and Gardens is a St Austell-based charity that helps people with learning disabilities and mental health issues to develop work and social skills. One of its projects involves growing vegetables and producing fortnightly vegetable bags for their community – but they sadly lost their gardening plot due to the pandemic. As one of Heligan’s chosen charities, Laura explained they were more than happy for People and Gardens to dig in and take over a section of Heligan’s Productive Gardens whilst their own gardeners weren’t able to be there.

“It was a really lovely part of last summer, and we’re so proud that we could provide a space for them to continue that project and carry on producing those vegetable bags for people who needed them in the community, and needed them even more so during lockdown. We still had a really great harvest but it had a very different spin on it because it was about still enabling this group to do what was so important for them.”

‘In Nature’s Hand’

Heligan then lent a supportive hand in a different way to local university students Jasmine Fassenfelt and Rebecca Knight, who created a captivating new art installation for the gardens.

Explaining how ‘In Nature’s Hand’ came to life, Laura said, “Jasmine bravely got in touch to see if there was any chance of creating something for Heligan as her final piece for her university project. She has a love of nature and finds a lot of inspiration from the great outdoors, so instantly Heligan connected with that. We’re always keen to support Cornish locals, the arts, and young people.”

“We’re always keen to support Cornish locals, the arts, and young people.”

Ideas for the sculpture centred on celebrating the G7 Summit being held Cornwall, or to give a message from the community about its feelings towards issues that the world leaders were going to discuss.

“The girls came back with four really lovely, creative ideas – all of which we could have gone with to be honest! – but the one that the Heligan team instantly loved was this wicker hand. It’s sat within nature but also doubles up as a place to then sit within nature. It’s a lovely, additional sculpture to our landscape at a time when people are thinking about the political side and the impact it has on the environment, but also about how nature impacts on us and our own wellbeing.”

After almost 400 hours of hard work, the new artwork was placed in the ancient woodlands of the Lost Valley. “It’s lovely to be supporting people at the start of their career who are doing great work, but the end result has also fitted in beautifully alongside the landscape and other sculptures in the gardens,” Laura said.

Reflecting on the year that was like no other, Laura added, “We have a place in the heart of our community. One of the most important things for us at Heligan, and one of the reasons behind the restorations in the first place, was to celebrate the people who worked with their hands and worked the land, the gardeners who went off to war and didn’t come back, the people who had those traditional farming and gardening skills. That’s what we celebrate here – the things that had been lost before that are vital for our future.

It’s really important to connect with our community about those messages and for them to feel inspired by that, and to learn and observe things in a different way. Land management and growing has become far more commercial these days, so it’s really important to be a place that does things differently and teaches people along the way. We’re right within a community that’s supported the restorations since day one, so we’re very connected to our local people and they’re a part of who we are. We simply kept going – with the help of our local community – and the estate now looks better than ever before.”

“That’s what we celebrate here – the things that had been lost before that are vital for our future.”