Mention Cornwall and two iconic sites spring to mind: The Lost Gardens of Heligan and The Eden Project. They are within 10 miles of each other.
Heligan is in many respects a traditional garden whose resurrection was well-documented in a television series years ago. Sub-tropical plants that thrive in the Cornish climate are part of it, but there are also great expanses devoted to kitchen garden produce and fruit growing, with broad swathes of annuals and perennials suitable for decoration and cut flower use.
The condition of the latter was most telling. Whereas ours at home were showing the strain of performing constantly for several weeks and looking drained of energy, these plants and flowers were fresh and vibrant. Row upon row of giant zinnias, echinacea, rudbeckia, cosmos and other flowers for cutting, and showing their very best face, was evidence enough that this climate really does give summer an extra lease.
In traditional lean-to glasshouses we found grape vines, figs, peaches, citrus fruits, melons. One old-fashioned greenhouse supported a collection of zonal pelargoniums, and in recognition of the Great War centenary, space had been created on the display bench for a photograph and details of a local soldier who fought there.
I found one of the gardeners willing to talk and discovered they have a staff of six (no volunteers) to tend 37 cultivated acres.
Heligan was good but what followed was outstanding in a totally different way.
Nothing can prepare you for a visit to The Eden Project. The sheer scale of what has been achieved since 1999 when transformation of the former china clay pit, a crater 50 metres deep, first began.
Although there are glorious flower borders and oodles of colour, this is no traditional formal garden, rather a series of experiences, some within environmental biomes others out in the open. A strong educational element runs through the various themes. We are encouraged to think about world food crops, how humankind affects the natural environment and much more.
Our visit coincided with a festival of food weekend involving TV chef Antonio Carluccio amongst others, and one open air lecture was right up my street – Chilli Peppers by nurseryman/breeder Michael Michaud of Sea
Spring Seeds (www.seaspringseeds.co.uk) who sells plugs and mature plants including the scorching Dorset Naga.
He asked who in the audience grew chilli plants and which varieties, my hand went up instantly, and I became part of the act. “Typical!” said an embarrassed lady of the house.
At Eden I sensed the same restless drive to extend barriers, catch and hold the public interest, appeal to all ages, which is so evident at Alnwick. A covered ice rink is presently being created with an October opening deadline, and the main man, Tim Smit, no doubt has more ideas in the pipeline.
Our entry fee of £17 each came with a season ticket, and much as we enjoyed the visit and extended summer weather, we’ll leave the driving or even walking 500 miles to the Proclaimers – for another year at least.