Spirits of Earth and Water: Heligan, Eden and Mud Sculpture in Cornwall

Land's End, Cornwall © Keven Law with CCLicense
Land’s End, Cornwall
© Keven Law with CCLicense

From ghostly moors to the longest stretch of continuous coastline in Britain, the county of Cornwall is a mysterious and legendary place, home to the famously haunted Jamaica Inn on Bodwin Moor, memorialized by Daphne du Maurier. Du Maurier also set her famous short story The Birds, later adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, and her novel Rebecca in Cornwall, which was her home. This ancient Celtic nation, of the same blood as the Welsh and the Bretons, is also the birthplace of the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. It is renowned for splendid gardens, such as the Lost Gardens of Heligan, once the personal gardens of the Tremayne family, and the Eden Project, a philanthropic greenhouse garden built in an old clay mine. These gardens are more than wonderful places to grow plants; they are playgrounds for the imagination.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan

© Penny Mayes with CCLicense
© Penny Mayes with CCLicense

The story of Heligan reads like a plot arc for Downton Abbey. The Tremayne family maintained elaborate gardens at Heligan for four hundred years. Actually, to be honest, their servants maintained them. The one thousand acre estate required twenty two gardeners. During World War I the army requisitioned the estate as a convalescent home for soldiers and the gardens fell into disrepair, which worsened when only six gardeners returned from the War. The family decided to rent the estate for a few years, then World War II hit and the estate was requisitioned again. Heligan never recovered and the house was sold as flats in 1970, although the gardens remained the property of the Tremaynes, slumbering on until the hurricane of 1990, which ruined them completely.

Ravine Garden at Heligan © Carcharoth with CCLicense
Ravine Garden at Heligan
© Carcharoth with CCLicense

In the clean-up effort a tiny room was discovered, a ruin in the corner of one of the gardens. There, drawn upon the limestone in pencil, was the motto “Don’t come here to sleep or slumber” – August 1914. All the laborers who worked the garden had signed it before they left for World War I. Inspired, the descendants of the Tremayne family made the decision to reinvent the gardens, this time in memory of the people who worked there, leasing them to Tim Smit for restoration. These gardens are intended to combine the best of tradition with new currents in gardening and nature preservation.

The Eden Project

© Jay Collier with CCLicense
© Jay Collier with CCLicense

After the restoration of the Lost Gardens of Heligan became a success, Tim Smit found a new project in Cornwall near the village of Bodelva, creating two immense greenhouses called biomes in an old china clay quarry which was closing down. Building greenhouses on an uneven surface was difficult, so they were designed in the shape of giant bubbles. Architect Nicholas Grimshaw was washing up when he came up with the idea. The biomes consist of hundreds of hexagonal and pentagonal cells made of plastic supported by steel frames.

Looking Down Into Eden: Rainforest Biome © James Laing with CCLicense
Looking Down Into Eden: Rainforest Biome
© James Laing with CCLicense

The goal at Eden was to create an educational garden where people could learn about human dependence on nature and be entertained by it. The result is the largest indoor rainforest in the world and a tremendous Mediterranean garden, surrounded by a native outdoor garden. Furthering its cultural and philanthropic interests, the award winning Eden Project sponsors concerts at its very own soundstage and art in the garden itself. Educational projects are housed in a newer building known as The Core.

The Bombus Bee by Robert Bradford, Eden Project © colin with CCLicense
The Bombus Bee by Robert Bradford, Eden Project
© colin with CCLicense

Confronted with constant rain during the construction period, engineers were forced to design a subterranean drainage system which now provides about half the water needed to run Eden. The project also made its own soil, over 83,000 tons of it, with assistance from Reading University. Mixing local mine wastes, which included sand and clay, with composted bark created a base which could be enhanced to best suit the garden in which it was used. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the multi-disciplinary creativity and skill required to make a dream like Eden a reality.

Mud and Plant Sculptures

mesmerized by The Mud Maiden of Heligan  © Chris Allen with CCLicense
mesmerized by The Mud Maid of Heligan
© Chris Allen with CCLicense

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the imagination of Cornwall better than the works of native artists Sue Hill and her brother Pete, which stand at both Heligan and Eden. As part of their impressive artistic careers, which span work in many different disciplines, the pair have constructed large earth sculptures, created from mud and planted with foliage and other decoration. It is delightful that the fantastic nature of Cornwall itself has bubbled out through these quirky masterpieces. Here is a very amusing video of the artists made during the restoration of the Giant’s Head at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Video via HeliganWild on YouTube.

Eve, The Eden Project © KathrynW1 with CCLicense
Eve, The Eden Project
© KathrynW1 with CCLicense

7 thoughts on “Spirits of Earth and Water: Heligan, Eden and Mud Sculpture in Cornwall

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  4. katmcdaniel Reply

    Reblogged this on synkroniciti and commented:

    Here is a post from 2013 featuring some fantastic gardens and garden art in Cornwall.

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