When Tim Schmidt and his friend John Nelson broke through the overgrown and matted foliage into the Lost Gardens of Heligan they entered a forgotten world. In the midst of the overgrown walled kitchen gardens they stumbled on a decaying greenhouse,whose wooden walls had rotted with age, the crazily leaning fineal serving as a metaphor for the lost grandeur of the place. Schmidt and Nelson trod carefully through the decaying structure, before deciding that such deterioration of a beautiful place should not be tolerated They had stepped into a lost world, a garden that was once the pride of South West Britain. Why had it decayed and been abandoned? The two friends soon found out.Schmidt discovered the names of several gardeners written as graffitti in the toilets. The same names were found on the local cenotaph, which revealed that sixteen of the twenty gardeners had died in World War 1,killed fighting in the Cornwall Light Infantry. The few who survived were insufficient and the family who employed them were economically stretched and emotionally exhausted, so the gardens fell into the decay from which Tim rescued them over sixty years later to form one of Cornwall's prime tourist attractions.
The extensive gardens contained a variety of features, including a walled kitchen garden. It was this kind of garden that was the pride of the English country house in the period before World War 1.It was a garden that might cover several acres and which fed not only the great family, but also the servants and estate workers. Concealed within four walls was a richly productive garden in which a wide variety of fruit and vegetables flourished and in which several men worked long hours achieving horticultural perfection using the technology available at the time.
The gardens produced fruit and vegetables, both within and without their walls. Outside the walls the slips, the areas beyond the walls, were used for the extra production of coarse vegetables, such as cabbage and potatoes, which were required in bulk and which sometimes took up whole fields,but within the walls there was a rich variety of vegetables and fruit requiring subtle cultivation. In the slips were the manure yards and various sheds, but inside the walls was where the skilled and dedicated horticulture took place, and inside were the main paths on which the owners would take their guests for strolls to show off the productive gardens.
At the heart of the country house walled garden system was the relationship between head gardener, owner and cook. The owner wanted food all year round, regular cut flowers for the house, and also exotic vegetables and fruit to show the owner's status to visitors. The head gardener must supply them. But on a daily basis the head gardener used to negotiate with the cook, who would tell him what vegetables she wanted [Cook was always she, just as gardener was always he.] His daily ritual involved a visit to Cook. A less desirable ritual was given to one of the garden boys, who in an age before flush toilets existed was detailed to collect the night soil that the house had produced for use in the gardens. But at least he could have a quick chat with the maids.