Discovering The Lost Gardens of Heligan with children
The Lost Gardens of Heligan is somewhere we discovered during one of our first family holidays in Cornwall. It was a bit of a gem and we had such good memories of it that we decided to visit again a few years later. This post about going to The Lost Gardens of Heligan with children has been updated in 2020.
Back in 2016 our then pre-schoolers loved roaming around the different types of gardens Heligan has on offer, as well as looking at the farm animals and playing on the various obstacles dotted around the estate.
In 2020 they and their pre-teen cousins who joined us had a better appreciation of the history of the place. They also enjoyed exploring the jungle and crossing the Burma rope bridge.
Visiting in 2020 is obviously a little different. Here’s what you need to know:
- It is essential to book your timed entrance in advance
- Some of the narrower routes around the gardens are one way only including the jungle where the bridge is always one way
- There are social distancing signs and hand gel around the site
- Bring your masks for the shop
- The restaurant at reception is open.
- A lot of the usual activities you might find happening around the gardens have been cancelled this year. I’ve written about some of these below but these are from a pre-COVID-19 visit.
We arrived at 10am and felt like we had the place to ourselves for a good hour or so before we reached the adventure playground and jungle.
It was at this point that there were a lot more people on the boardwalk and paths around the sub-tropical valley. Visit this area early or later in the day if you want easier social distancing.
We also visited The Eden Project after lockdown.
What are The Lost Gardens of Heligan?
The story of how the gardens were ‘lost’ is a sad one. During World War I many of the people who worked on the estate were killed in military service. The then owner, Jack Tremayne, didn’t have the heart to keep up the gardens and rented out Heligan House. The gardens began their decline.
It was in the 1990s that they were rediscovered by John Willis – who inherited the estate – Tim Smit – a co-founder of The Eden Project – and John Nelson – a builder friend of Tim’s. During the past 25 years they have recreated the gardens using traditional practices.
One of their earliest and greatest discoveries was a Victorian Thunderbox Room (that’s a lavatory to you and me) situated in the Melon Yard. On the walls there was much graffiti. Poignantly, some of the scrawlings list the names of men who worked the land before going off to war. Most did not return.
The revival of The Lost Gardens of Heligan became a project in their name and continues a quarter of a century on. More than 20 gardeners and estate workers now tend to Heligan, cultivating vegetables, rearing traditional live stock and holding events that attract up to 3,000 visitors a day to the 200 acre estate.
Read my guide to more things to do in St Austell with kids.
Our visit to The Lost Gardens of Heligan with children
When you arrive at The Lost Gardens of Heligan you might be mistaken for thinking you’re walking towards the entrance of a rather posh garden centre. Don’t be fooled. There’s magic beyond the every day delights of the cafe and gift shop.
We arrived after lunch with about four hours to wander around the gardens. On reflection, it was not nearly enough time to do the place justice.
Harvest time at Heligan
By luck we visited at the beginning of Heligan’s harvest events. Flora’s Green is the only area where a lawn mower or any machinery is used to maintain the grounds and this is where we found a double teepee which was being used for food tastings and cookery demonstrations.
We arrived in time to taste apples, chutneys and baked delights made using produce gown at Heligan. Food always captures the attention of Tin Box Tot and Baby, so we stayed a while to sample what was on offer.
Around the rest of the main gardens there were displays of pumpkins and seasonal squashes that fascinated both of our girls. I had to stop them from pulling apart the arrangements on more than one occasion as they investigated the different shapes and colours.
Tin Box Tot also spent quite some time in a craft tent that had been set up as part of the harvest events. There she experienced painting with natural ingredients like charcoal, nettle and beetroot, and made a corn dolly to take home.
Heligan holds regular events themed around the seasons so if you have children it’s worth planning your visit tom coincide with one these to make the most of additional family-friendly activities.
Touring the gardens with children
Despite visiting during the autumn, we found we were never short of things to point out to Tin Box Tot and Baby.
The rows of vegetables and seeding plants in the Kitchen Garden gave us the opportunity to talk about how food is gown. Heligan’s staff tend to the crops by hand, using organic methods as much as possible, and many of the fruit and vegetables grown here are heritage varieties.
At the bottom of the Kitchen Garden you walk through an arch into the Melon Yard where you can see all kinds of exotic fruit being grown. I was particularly intrigued by the melons hanging in nets.
Through a door leading off the Melon Yard you find the famous Thunderbox Room, which leads on into the Italian Garden and its peaceful fountain. I would have loved to linger here longer (to reflect, not out of necessity), but Tin Box Tot was keen to continue exploring.
On we went past the beautifully restored Head Gardener’s Office where you can read the tragic story of one of Heligan’s workers, Percy Carhart, who died at Passchendaele aged 19.
The office stands at the entrance to the walled Flower Garden, which is a haven for plant-friendly insects and was still full of colourful blooms. Here we showed Tin Box Tot bees collecting pollen.
We also saw an enormous dragon fly in the central pond. It perched on the side for quite some time while the Tot inspected it. Brave insect! Outside the Flower Garden is a wall of traditional honey bee hives, which reminded me of something out of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories.
Family-friendly activities at Heligan
We found lots of things to do and activities to entertain our girls as we walked around The Lost Gardens of Heligan. There were animal feeding times, a wildlife hide, a towering insect hotel and the woodland sculptures including the iconic Mud Maid.
Tin Box Tot and Baby particularly liked looking at Helicon’s cattle, pigs and shire horses. Of course no family day out is complete without a scramble around play equipment and we found two areas for this.
The first was a wooden adventure playground on the East Lawn – the perfect spot for a picnic – and the second was the Giant’s Adventure Trail on the Woodland Walk past Heligan’s sculptures.
One of the last places we visited was the wonderful Burma Rope Bridge which crosses a gully that runs through the centre of The Jungle – a subtropical garden. The bridge is not for the faint hearted, or push chairs.
Mr Tin Box and Tot decided to brave the crossing while Tin Box Baby, Dog and I trotted down to the bottom of the gully and back up the other side to meet them. I got a serious sweat on!
Had we had more time I might have gone back around and had a go myself, but at this point the end of opening the Heligan’s hours was approaching fast. Plus we still had a two hour drive home on a ‘school night’.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan were the best way to finish our weekend in Cornwall – it really did end a great weekend on a high.
Is The Lost Gardens of Heligan dog-friendly?
Yes. Dogs are welcome to join you as long as they are kept on a lead.
Tips for visiting The Lost Gardens of Heligan with children
- Arrive early and stay all day – our four hour visit was really not enough. We stayed right up until closing time and could have easily seen much more.
- Take a picnic – there’s plenty of open space where you can eat your own lunch. But don’t deny yourself a delicious Cornish ice cream treat from the Kitchen Restaurant or the Steward’s House Cafe.
- Bring a buggy – we were able to use our pushchair throughout the gardens and estate with the exception of a few steps here and there.
- Visit the Burma rope bridge at the beginning or end of the day – this can get very busy, particularly in peak holiday season, so try to beat the rush. Bear in mind that it’s about a 20 minute, fast walk back to the entrance.
Have you visited The Lost Gardens of Heligan with children? What would be your top tips?
For more information about The Lost Gardens of Heligan, opening times and admission prices, visit its website.
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