Cornwall remains the cream of destinations. Once again it scooped ‘Best UK Holiday County or Region’ in the British Travel Awards... So does it pay to name your hotel after the much-coveted county? Travel editor Neil Sowerby drove a long way to find out...
BACK from the dead. That’s one thing in common between the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Cornwall Hotel Spa and Estate.
Just two decades ago, the Heligan estate was completely overgrown and abandoned. The hotel’s less spectacular estate had also been reduced to wilderness since its 19th century heyday.
They are five miles apart, so it seemed the obvious decision to stay in the latter in order to visit the former.
We too were feeling a touch abandoned. We had driven 350 miles to attend a funeral in Truro and needed to calm our tremors of mortality in a green shade. Heligan would do nicely. You probably remember it from the Channel 4 series charting its restoration in the Nineties. A lot of heritage series have occupied our screens since then, but the magic of actually visiting the Lost Gardens has not dimmed.
Sports stunning green credentials
Of course, according to legend, Eden is the Lost Paradise. But the Eden Project – also an easy drive from The Cornwall and grey old St Austell – doesn’t cater for nostalgia. This futuristic global garden set in a former clay mine sports stunning green credentials but I’ve never warmed to it. And I can even forgive it hosting an Oasis concert!
With crowds trekking up and down dutifully through a million plants in the world’s largest greenhouses it feels uncannily like being touristically processed.
Heligan isn’t like that. The major event there in the past 12 months was the arrival of a new resident in its Lost Valley wildlife reserve, the rare green heron, only sighted on 10 occasions before in Britain.
We, alas didn’t get to see it, but fell in love all over again with both the varied gardens and wild landscape, home to fascinating flora and fauna. Good shops and restorative tea-room, too. It’s never as exhausting as Eden but you can cover some ground in a day there.
The Heligan story – a horticultural Sleeping Beauty – deserves re-telling. At the end of the 19th century the thousand acre self-sufficient Tremayne estate, at the head of a valley above Mevagissey, was at its zenith.
Brambles, ivy and laurel took over for the next 70 years
The Great War then took a hand. Few of the male staff came back from the Flanders mud, it was impossible to maintain the estate... and brambles, ivy and laurel took over for the next 70 years.
It was particularly devastating for the 80 acres of pleasure grounds plus a complex of walled gardens and a huge vegetable garden central to Heligan.
All changed when a distressed John Willis (a Tremayne descendant) met Tim Smit, John Nelson and Robert Poole socially, just after he had inherited the gardens. The quartet cut their way in and were touched by the romance of the place.
Particulalry poignant was a message scratched into the plaster of the gardeners’ toilet on the day that World War One broke out: "Come ye not here to sleep or slumber". Underneath it all the garden staff signed their a names.
Tim Smit, who later went on to create Eden, famously recalled:
“We were fired by a magnificent obsession to bring these once glorious gardens back to life in every sense and to tell, for the first time, not tales of lords and ladies but of those ‘ordinary’ people who had made these gardens great, before departing for the Great War.”
Out of this was sown the largest garden restoration project in Europe.
Giant’s Head, Mudmaid and Grey Lad
I love so much of what they achieved, it’s hard knowing where to start. Perhaps because I strive with my own modest raised beds at home I am drawn most to the walled Victorian Productive Gardens with their abundance, but the lush sub-tropical Jungle showcases those species intrepid collectors brought back from across the world. Ferns and palms grow to record sizes here.
In the Northern Gardens alone are two and a half miles of footpaths, an Elizabethan mount, rockeries, summer houses, a crystal grotto, an Italian garden, a fine set of bee-boles, a wishing well and a superb collection of walled gardens. Remarkably much of the original plant collection has survived.
For children the interactive Wild Life Project, featuring state of the art hides is particularly impressive and the Woodland Walk features in a more natural landscape wooden statues that are eerie, mysterious and charming – the Giant’s Head, Mudmaid and Grey Lad.
There was a touch of the muddy about us as we arrived back at The Cornwall Hotel, based upon the handsome 19th century White House. We were staying, though, in one of their 56 balconied chalet-like rooms set in a curve of the wooden hillside just outside St Austell.
Some striking artwork and a cool bar
It’s an ambitious new project, which has involved restoring another abandoned valley estate, in this case dating back to the Anglo Saxon period. A famous hoard of religious icons and coins was discovered here in the 18th century. It’s now in the British Museum.
As yet it’s all a bit raw. As rain swept in, we looked out on undulating grounds, freshly planted grass and trees still waiting to take hold.
Its loveliest element is the walled kitchen garden, which you can gaze on from the cunningly integrated spa/pool complex. Pool, treatment and a gym occupy a restored stable block. Beyond here freehold holiday homes, for sale fully furnished, are scattered among the trees.
Inside the 1834 White House there’s some striking artwork and a cool bar plus two restaurants: the Arboretum, and the Acorn Brasserie, with open-to-view kitchen. The food was fine, making use of local produce but maybe lacking in imagination. Service was ultra-friendly but occasionally hapless, one of the waitresses confessing “I’m having a really bad day”. Oddly engaging but not the stuff of an ambitious country hotel – or should that be resort complex? The Cornwall can’t quite make its mind up.
Yet its very affordable and handy for Heligan, Eden, Mevagissey and some fine beaches, while not much further afield are the striking Roseland Peninsula and St Mawes (Olga Polizzi’s Hotel Tresanton shows how it should be done).
The Cornwall Hotel Spa and Estate, Pentewan Road, Tregorrick, St Austell PL26 7AB. Rooms from £69 per room per night, including full Cornish breakfast. Price based on accommodation in a Standard Room and based on 2 sharing. To book call 01726 87 40 50 or visit www.thecornwall.com
Lost Gardens of Heligan, Pentewan Cornwall PL26 6EN, www.heligan.com.
Open all year, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Main season: 10am-6.00pm. (last tickets at 4.30 pm). Winter: 10am-5pm (last tickets 3.30pm). Adults £10, children 5-16 £6. Family ticket – 2 adults and up to 3 children, £27. Guided tours are available. Free parking
Eden Project, near St Austell visit www.edenproject.com.
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