Do your thing

Every so often I come across a story that particularly inspires me. This happened during our holiday when we visited the amazing creation of Rowena Cade. Maybe you have heard of her? I hadn’t, although I knew of the thing she made, namely The Minack Theatre. And when I say she made it, I am being literal – with her own hands and initially only the help of her gardener, Billy Rawlings, she built the most incredible theatre. But not just any old theatre – one created within the land, on the Minack Headland in Cornwall, overlooking the sea, nestled between the boulders.

In order to allow a local group to stage an outdoor production of The Tempest in 1932, Rowena and Billy created an amphitheatre on the headland. In the months prior to the performance, they moved granite boulders and shifted soil.  In August 1932 the play was staged, lit by car headlights and with the audience scrambling down the slopes to get to the grassy seating terraces. It was a great success and the start of an amazing project.

To begin with many of the building materials were scavenged. Sand from the beach was carried up the steep path by Rowena herself each evening, ready for making concrete the following day. There’s a story of her collecting some large beams that had been washed ashore – she and Billy carrying them up from the beach. When the customs men came to see if she knew of the timber’s whereabouts, they took one look at her apparently frail frame and assumed that she couldn’t possibly have taken the beams and she didn’t correct them!


These are some of the steps from the beach!

WW2 interrupted development of the theatre, but when it was over, they were left with a concrete bunker, which served as the box office for many years! Rowena kept working on the theatre until she was in her mid-eighties. She died in 1983, but her vision and legacy live on.

I love the story – I love the fact that Rowena had a vision and had the tenacity to turn that vision into reality. I love that she didn’t simply achieve this by spending money, that she dedicated her time and her energy into creating this amazing place. I love that she worked alongside Billy and subsequent helpers. Admittedly, she did have the benefit of money to allow her the freedom to do this, but much of the labour was her own. What an inspirational woman.

I really hope that we can go and see a performance there in the future – this time we only went to look round.

Off on holiday… the places (3)

The final place that I want to introduce you to that we visited on our holiday was The Eden Project. Again, it was somewhere that I had wanted to visit for ages, being a combination of educational project and gardens, plus all the pictures make it look spectacular. It was created in a huge, disused china clay pit and was the idea as the same man, Tim Smit, who was there at the beginning of the restoration of Heligan. They claim to have ‘the largest rainforest in captivity’ within their geodesic domes and the whole project seems to be based on superlatives. If you want to know about the history of the project, there’s lots to see and read on their web site; do check it out.

We loved seeing the Mediterranean and rainforest plants – a few of which, like the Coco de Mer, we had seen in their native habitats – but in fact the outdoor plantings were a joy too. It was great to see gentle education in the form of information boards and interactive displays as well as the groups of school children engaged in a whole range of activities. The project is about much more than plants – it highlights all sorts of aspects of caring for the environment from conserving habitats to reducing consumption… all in all a project after my own heart.

It’s such a big and diverse site that even spending two days there, as we did, was not really enough. Like Heligan, we will certainly be back. And, like Heligan, pictures will probably give you a much better flavour of the place than hundreds of words…

First some outdoor shots:

And then, in the biomes:

Like Heligan, I highly recommend a visit… or two… or three…

Off on holiday… the places (2)

So, we arrived in Cornwall (after a brief stop in Devon, but that’s a story for another day) at the fishing village of Mevagissey. The place is not for those with mobility issues, being built on the steep valley sides around the harbour, but for us it was perfect.

Our first excursion was to walk the mile and a quarter to the Lost Gardens of Heligan – a delightful (although occasionally steep) stroll through woodland carpeted in bluebells and wild garlic and beside banks of primroses. Once at the entrance we decided not to venture in because we wanted to spend a whole day there and time was already getting on. Instead we visited the adjoining farm shop to buy a few supplies and then returned the way we came with plans to drive up the following day for a ‘proper’ visit. In the afternoon we explored some of Mevagissey (and gave our legs a thorough work-out).


Lovely Mevagissey

It was bright and sunny when we arrived at Heligan – a perfect day for strolling around some of the most amazing gardens I have ever visited. In case you don’t know the story…

At the end of the nineteenth century Heligan’s thousand acres were at their zenith, but only a few years later bramble and ivy were already drawing a green veil over this “Sleeping Beauty”. The outbreak of WW1 was the start of the estate’s demise as its workforce went off to fight in the trenches; many sadly never to return.

… the gardens and land at Heligan were never sold or developed. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Heligan House itself was eventually sold and split into private apartments.

After decades of neglect, the devastating hurricane of 1990 should have consigned the now lost gardens to a footnote in history…

Heligan Website

In fact, the storm encouraged Tim Smit and John Willis (a descendant of the Tremayne family who created the gardens) to venture into the overgrown site. There they discovered the remnants of glasshouses, landscaping and planting that fired their imagination and sowed the seeds that led to the most spectacular restoration.

The native vegetation that colonised the garden when it was abandoned served to protect many of the trees, shrubs, bamboos and palms and so they are still present today. The structures, however, had been damaged by the rampant growth, but the debris was still in situ and, in some cases, salvageable. For the restoration, the focus was on obtaining salvaged material from elsewhere when the originals could not be used. And so, the recreated gardens represent the resurrection of many old and abandoned plants and structures.

Pictures cannot do the place justice, but I will try to give you a flavour of the gardens. There is ‘The Jungle’ – a sheltered valley containing exotic plants…

Many of these plants survived the neglect, so their size is quite astonishing. Below this area is The Lost Valley and adjacent are woodlands carpeted (when we were there) with spring flowers.

And then there are the more formal gardens and productive areas. In days gone-by, large estates like Heligan were self-sufficient, so the kitchen gardens are a sight to see. The work that went into reconstructing collapsed buildings, glasshouses, water supply and drainage systems, and (my especial favourite) manure-heated pineapple frames cannot be understated. What’s more, this is a working garden, supplying food to the cafe and demonstrating just what is possible with enough land and resources (it’s certainly not low-input in terms of working hours!).

We were delighted to discover that Heligan, like us, has a limery! They call it the Citrus House, but it’s really a limery. And like us, they put their citrus plants outside for the summer and grow other things in there.

That’s really only a tiny taste of Heligan, but I hope you enjoyed it. I highly recommend a visit – make a special trip, it’s worth it. We will certainly be going back.

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