In the old potting shed at the lost gardens of Heligan in Cornwall there is a timeless sense of peace, calm and satisfaction – things that seem to elude me most of the time. The gentle scrape that a terracotta pot makes as it slides out slowly from the neat columns of other terracotta pots reminds me that I’m absorbed in an ancient task, as the roots of a young plant are carefully slipped into the soil.
Because Heligan is not just a garden for plant-gazing; it’s an insight into a different way of life. In its prime, as a Georgian estate, Heligan was mainly self-sufficient, providing almost everything for the family at the big house and the community of workers and their families. Most of the gardeners left in 1915 to fight in the First World War, and from that moment the estate went into decline.
Twenty-one years ago Tim Smit, who had left a successful career in the music business to find sanctuary in Cornwall, and some friends rediscovered gardens here dating back to the 12th century. They hacked their way through the brambles that were suffocating the fragile remains and, over many years, painstakingly restored every section. Now a team of dedicated gardeners runs the estate as it ran in its heyday.
Perhaps it’s the ghosts of past gardeners or that elusive sense of peace, but when I first visited Heligan I found myself under a spell, wandering its paths and wondering just how many secrets there were left to reveal. Which is how I have come to be drawn back time and again over the past couple of years, chronicling the tales of the secret inhabitants of the garden – the wildlife that the thousands of visitors who come here every year don’t always get to see.
There are toads that have an “orgy” in the Italian garden pond every year around Valentine’s Day, a family of fox cubs who riot on the lawns when the visitors have gone home, and hilarious badgers who hoover up food crumbs in the tea rooms at night. There’s even a barn owl that swoops over the field margins and still breeds in the barn. Every niche is filled and wildlife is thriving here.
When my husband, photographer and cameraman Charlie Hamilton James, and I began to film in 2009, I wasn’t really expecting there to be much more than that. But there is a spirit here. If it isn’t ghosts, then perhaps it is the spirit of a way of life that we have lost, a traditional way of living that not only enables the wildlife to flourish, but also the humans.
The gardeners know this. Nicola Bradley, the head of the “productive gardens”, says being outside with nature all year round is good for the soul. Visitors feel it, too: the visitors’ book is filled with words such as “magical” and “inspirational”.
And now that same spirit touches me each time I come here. It’s something that throws every beautiful detail into sharp focus: the bark on a tree, the lichen on a stone wall, the colours of the woodpecker... something makes me feel good, but I’m still not sure exactly what it is.
My uncle died recently. He was a keen gardener, a man with a potting shed, a greenhouse, an understanding of the seasons and an ingrained knowledge of how to grow food. I am sad not only for his death, but because I fear that with him and his generation we are losing our gardening heritage.
I think part of us yearns for a time when we were at home with plants. This was how we survived; the skills for saving seed for next year were handed down from generation to generation. Not a burst of information on a screen that needed to be assimilated super-fast, but a drip-feed of a sustainable way of living.
And as more of us look to chicken-keeping in suburban back gardens and beehives appear on London rooftops, I wonder if this “lifestyle”, one in which we are producers rather than consumers, is the one we are better suited to. It is, after all, one that we have worked with for thousands of years and perhaps that’s why it gives us a deep satisfaction that we rarely feel in modern life.
Immersed in Heligan as I have been, surrounded by the elements, growth, life, death and renewal, I question how much we suffer from being disconnected from all of that, how much our wildlife suffers because we no longer live this way.
It’s not just about being disconnected from the countryside, but about disconnecting from our place in it – noticing the details of the natural world and understanding what significance those details have for us.
We shouldn’t nostalgically look to the past as a time when things were better, nor will I give up my iPhone or the internet. But perhaps I might give up a shopping trip for a spell in the garden more often. Perhaps be more mindful that simpler connections have the power to make me really content.
Now my film is made, I won’t give up visiting Heligan. It’s like a touchstone, something that I didn’t really know I needed. I suspect the ghosts of the lost gardens will always haunt me, but that’s just fine.