The Greatest Detective Story of Our Time Comes of Age

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Lost Gardens of Heligan 21 yrs old and still uncovering history.

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There is still a mystery around who designed the trapezoid shape of the productive gardens, did this evolve or was it perhaps to do with Heligan’s proximity to the coast and designed by someone with a knowledge of the compass and the earth’s rotation...

The Lost Gardens of Heligan were re-discovered, to much acclaim, 21 years ago and quickly became the Nation’s favourite gardens. Now, celebrating their 21st birthday they are keen to track down information on any other Gardens around the world with similarly unusual construction designs.

Renowned for being the finest productive gardens in the UK - cropping amazing heritage pineapples, delicious fruit and vegetables of virtually perfect form - the construction of the Heligan walled gardens themselves hid a mystery. Heligan MD, Peter Stafford says it has been an ongoing feat of detective work to uncover much of the Gardens’ secrets, “All formal productive gardens were laid out in rectangular form as it was the most practical for growing rows of crops. So it was a surprise when quite early in the restoration project we realised that several parts of the Productive Gardens were far from rectangular and quite asymmetrical.”

“The Vegetable Garden had been drawn as a trapezoid shape pointing up into the north-east corner. In the Flower Garden, the Peach House on the eastern wall faced south-west with the whole walled garden built as another trapezoid shape with its apex in the south-eastern corner. And the curved wall to the north of the Melon Yard did not face north-south as would be expected, but in a south-westerly direction.”

Stafford points out that the walls themselves while mostly made of stone had upper sections of brick on the southerly sections, leading the restorers to reason that this had been a cost effective way of building; brick being more expensive than stone but able to retain the sun’s heat more effectively, so only used in areas where such benefits would be felt.

But the question of the trapezoid shapes continued to puzzle – was it perhaps just stylistic eccentricity perhaps – until it was finally determined that the shape had been built to follow the angle of the sun, lengthening the amount of time the gardens benefited from the warmth. By facing the north-east corner of the Productive Garden, the curved wall of the Melon Yard and then the eastern wall of the Flower Garden all effectively had a small micro-climate created, enhancing the temperature and having a positive impact on the plants grown there.

Stafford continues, “This explains the bricks on the southern part of the Melon Yard. They’ll capture the sun’s warmth more effectively than by simply facing due south, indeed the whole curvature of the wall is twisted to the south-west. Interestingly, the earlier structures such as the Melon House, Pineapple Pit, cloches, and Paxton Greenhouse all face due south, so maybe the idea for the twisting of the eastern bits of the garden boundaries slightly to the south-west was a later idea.”

The work of the garden detective continues, but after much research amidst experts and organisations around the world nobody has found a similar example of such an ingenious productive garden design and Heligan is keen to discover whether it truly is one of a kind.

“The reason for the design is one mystery we have solved,” continues Stafford, “but there are other mysteries within the gardens that remain, such as the seven arches within the wall of the Reserve Garden. With cobbled floors and drainage gulleys, what these were used for still has to be explained, so far suggestions range from emu or monkey houses, or possibly even a home for ornamental birds. And of course there is still a mystery around who designed the trapezoid shape of the productive gardens, did this evolve or was it perhaps to do with Heligan’s proximity to the coast and designed by someone with a knowledge of the compass and the earth’s rotation. We’d be very interested in hearing from anyone that knows of other Gardens with similarly unusual construction designs and to unlock a few more mysteries in this our 21st anniversary year.”

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Simon Whittam
Onshore Media
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Dawn Bebe

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