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Torfaen Tales

Lost in Heligan

Rhian raised her eyebrows as the elderly gent went on his way, having given the couple detailed directions. “I hope you can remember all that. I got lost in the first half mile.”

Ben flashed his wife a grin. “Oh, I think I can get us there all right.”

“No need to sound so smug.” said Rhian. “I know you think you have a superior sense of direction. But that Cornish accent was so thick I had trouble figuring out what the old fellow was saying, and I kind of lost the thread.”

“Excuses, excuses,” muttered Ben. “We’d better get a move on if we’re going to get there some time today.”

Ben and Rhian set off through the town. It had been an added bonus to discover that the Lost Gardens of Heligan were within walking distance of their holiday accommodation. Rhian remembered a programme about the gardens on TV some years before. They had fallen into disrepair through the twentieth century and it had taken considerable expertise, dedication and lots of back-breaking labour to discover what the grounds of the stately home had looked like in centuries gone by and restore them.

Rhian’s eyes lit up when she saw the Sports Centre. “Ah, yes. I remember the old guy mentioning this. We must be on the right track.”

“Plain sailing now, love.”

The path at the side of the Sports Centre soon became a rough country lane meandering slowly uphill. Through the trees overhead Rhian could see the sun shining in a brilliant blue sky. She hoped they wouldn’t be walking too long in the shade, for she wanted to get a decent tan while on holiday.

Then they came to a gate with a sign informing them they were on the Heligan Estate.

“Can’t be far now,“ said Ben. “The old guy said it would take a good 40 minutes to get there, but I suppose that was to take account of people not as young and fit as we are.”

Round the next bend, the rough lane suddenly became a near vertical ascent of the hillside.

Rhian looked at her watch. Forty minutes had passed and they didn’t seem to be anywhere near a stately home, let alone its neatly manicured gardens. So much for being young and fit.

They puffed onwards, and finally came upon a sign indicating the entrance to the gardens.

“Blimey!” said Rhian, wiping the sweat from her brow. “It looks bigger than I’d expected.”

They paid the entrance fee and made their way past the shop and tea rooms.

“That wasn’t cheap,” muttered Ben. “This had better be worth it.”

The manor house was still nowhere to be seen. This was clearly much more than the average country estate. There were no boring, neat rows of begonias and lobelia. Instead there were impressive clumps of exotic plants. Rhian prided herself on her plant knowledge but she’d never seen half this stuff before. Massive rhododendrons bordered a vast lawned area. From their size they must indeed have been there for hundreds of years.

They stopped and read one of the notices. Rhian wished they’d splashed out the extra five pounds on the booklet, for she found herself wanting to know more about this intriguing place. It turned out that the gardens had been created and planted at a time when the British Empire reigned supreme, when British explorers went away for months and years at a time, bringing home samples of plants they found in far-flung corners of the earth. It was the fashion among the wealthy to have a garden stocked with all sorts of unusual plants from exotic locations.

They perused a map, marvelling at the acreage of the estate. It turned out that they’d walked along one side of the gardens on their approach to the entrance and had been totally unaware of what lay beyond the screen of trees on the perimeter.

“I bet the jungle’s a bit lame,” said Ben. “But let’s have a look anyway. For nine pounds each we should at least try to get our money’s worth.”

Ben and Rhian set off on the broad path leading down into the valley. Pines and oaks gave way to more unusual, tropical looking trees. Suddenly the path was surrounded by black-stemmed bamboo which whispered eerily in the breeze. Then beyond the bamboo they caught sight of the pond. Rhian felt that she had been transported to China. She half expected to find people dressed in silk and satin, wearing lampshade hats as they wandered among the exotic foliage.

They descended lower in the valley, and before they knew it they were surrounded by dense forest.

“You wouldn’t want to wander off the path,” said Ben. “Perhaps that’s why they gave us these little compasses,” he added, taking from his pocket the plastic toy that had been given them with their tickets.

“It’s dark in here,” said Rhian with an anxious tremor in her voice. “Let’s go back to the jungle.”

But try as they might, they couldn’t find the path they had been on earlier. A different path took them off in another direction. As they climbed the hill the forest thinned, and they came to an area of vast grassland. There were a few meadow flowers still in bloom, and Rhian wished they’d come earlier in the year when the meadow must have been a sight to behold.

At least they were back out in the daylight.

“I keep expecting to see a herd of antelopes coming over the hill,” joked Ben. “Or at the very least some monkeys in the trees.”

Rhian laughed. The place was truly bizarre, much more than the word ‘gardens’ had led her to expect. She couldn’t find appropriate words to describe what they’d seen so far. And, according to the map, there was plenty more.

Finally they came upon the manor house, flanked by walled gardens. There was a huge garden given over to the growth of flowers to be cut for arrangements in the house.

They came to a conservatory fitted out as a café.

“Let’s get a cold drink and sit over there,” suggested Ben, pointing to another garden with wooden seats around the edge.

It was a relief to get off their feet. They flopped on a bench and shared a bottle of water, the cheapest item in the drinks fridge.

“Look at this,” said Ben, pointing to a brass plaque on the seat they were sitting on. “’Dedicated to the memory of Captain George Armstrong, 1709-1771, who sailed the Blue Puffin to Tahiti, bringing back exotic plants for the Heligan collection.’”

They moved on to read the inscriptions on some of the other seats in the area.

“’In memory of Joseph Maldwyn Islwyn Fairwinds, 1801-1885, gardener,’”, read Rhian. “Joseph Maldwyn Islwyn Fairwinds,” she murmured, turning the name over in her mind. “Sounds familiar, can’t think why.”

From the formal gardens around the house they wandered on into the area north of the manor house. More trees from places as far afield as New Zealand and Peru. They passed a damp little stone grotto hung with ferns, and followed a stream which trickled alongside the path.

“It must take an army of hundreds to keep this place looking good,” mused Ben. “We haven’t seen that many gardeners. Perhaps they come in at night?”

“It’s brilliant,” agreed Rhian. “Goodness knows how they manage to keep on top of the weeds. Mowing the lawns alone would be a full-time job for an army of gardeners.”

“I’m getting hungry,” announced Ben, consulting his watch. “Do you know, we’ve been here for nearly five hours?”

“Time we were getting back,” Rhian agreed reluctantly. “Let’s just get some more water and some chocolate. Hopefully that will do us till we get back into town.”

Ben thought Rhian seemed a bit quiet on the way back.

“Tired, love?” he asked as they crunched back down the gravelled lane leading to the town.

“Something’s bugging me,” she replied. “I’m going to give Mam a call.”

She fished her mobile out of her handbag and within seconds was connected to her mother by the miracle of modern technology.

“Yes, Mam, we’re having a lovely time. The weather’s been great. Mam, we’ve just visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan. You remember the TV programme from years ago? Does the name Joseph Maldwyn Islwyn Fairwinds mean anything to you?”

Ben grew curious at his wife’s response. “Oh, never! Amazing! How exciting!”

Her eyes glittered with excitement as she severed the connection with her mother.

“Ben, you’ll never guess. That man was my great-great-grandfather. I felt it as soon as we got there, some sort of eerie connection with the place. I want to go back again tomorrow, see if I can find out more about my great-great-grandfather. You don’t mind, do you?”

Ben smiled. He was used by now to Rhian and her family’s obsession with their family tree. He should have realised that they’d stumbled on yet another remarkable ancestor. For a humble little family from small-town Wales the Caradocs were extremely well-connected.

During his first couple of years with Rhian her family had discovered an ancestor who’d fought at Rorke’s Drift and another who had been Lloyd George’s secretary. Ben had at first dismissed it as fond imagining, but then he’d been allowed a privileged inspection of the family tree. A man with an unusual name and the same date of birth as the secretary - it was too much of a coincidence to be wrong. And sure enough, since then one or two more had popped up each year from the travels of some member of the Caradoc family. His own ancestors were, as far as he knew, miners and clerks, all ordinary folk. But Rhian’s heritage became more intriguing with each discovery.

And now she had found a connection with the Lost Gardens of Heligan. He sighed, realising that time spent at the beach was going to be somewhat limited now that Rhian had a vested interest in the gardens. Ah well, at least there were plenty of comfortable places to sit in the sun while she trawled for further information on the great-great-grandfather. Joseph Maldwyn Islwyn Fairwinds - what sort of a name was that?

By Karenne Griffin


Last Modified on: 05-11-2015

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