There’s something magical about visiting a garden with children. They just seem to get it. Nature has a wonderful dual effect of being both exciting and calming. The impulse to climb a tree, tumble across a lawn and pretend you’re Alice in Wonderland under mighty gunnera are all simple yet thrilling pleasures. Thoughts of Xboxes fade out and fresh air rushes in.
If you want to enthuse your kids about horticulture and wild nature, these gardens envelop you in their leafy magic from the moment you step through their welcoming gates.
Lost to the brambles of time since the outbreak of WWI, this sleeping beauty was re-awakened in 1992 to become Europe’s largest garden- restoration project.
As you walk in delights unfold, such as the Hidden Giant and reclining Mud Maid, appearing half-superhuman, half- plant. The Jungle bursts with subtropical and ancient plants, including bamboo and bromeliads and, best of all, is the Burma Rope Bridge to traverse the lush Fern Gulley below.
The gardens are large enough to have a proper long walk round its perimeter, with woodland adventure playgrounds along the way. The Wildlife Hide was a hit with my kids, where we learned about barn owls, insects and crops. On working Home Farm, kids love seeing the heritage livestock and poultry. Our favourite was watching the farmer and sheepdog round up the sheep for a dose of medicine, the clever dog clearly taking commands from his master and jumping into the buggy, ready to head out once the job was done.
Kids will be enchanted by Jon the wood-turner as he creates candleholders in front of your eyes, along with mooching around the walled gardens with their impressive dahlias, and encountering plenty of gardeners with traditional tools adding to the sense of a lost paradise regained.
Cultural touchstones, like the red phone box, gorgeous old brick walls, the Citrus House, and the helpful staff give you a warm glow. Top tip: come early in the day during busy school holidays.
Essential info: Family ticket (two adults and three children up to 17) £37.50, adults £14.50, children, £6.50, under-fives free. heligan.com
This 30-acre estate near St Austell is one of Cornwall’s newest gardens to open up to families. Forty years in the making, there are 10 individually themed gardens including an atmospheric Japanese Garden with its own pagoda and a moving Winter Garden in memory of owner Sir Alan Dalton’s brother, with magnificent heather and a stag statue centrepiece.
In stark contrast, the gardens break through to open park and mature oaks reminiscent of Capability Brown’s English landscapes. Kids will love the wildflower meadow to charge around in and the lake with its cute little rowing boat moored under the willow. There’s a fabulous oversized nest, so kids can discover what it feels like to be a bird for real, and throughout the park there are large sculptures of spiders’ webs and dragonflies. Kids can also follow the trail of the Soul Bird, with clues hidden in white chests of drawers.
The gardens are also home to several Champion Trees, which are officially measured by the Tree Register and declared a champion for either being the tallest of their type or for having the largest diameter.
There’s a rustic café serving Cornish staples, including pasties and cream teas, and if the weather’s fine, it’s lovely to sit outside where the resident hens, ducks and geese waddle by to say hi.
Essential info: Family ticket (two adults and two children 11-17), £25; adults £10.50, children £5, under-11s free. pinetumgardens.com
High on my list for 2019 is Trebah, near Falmouth, which is destined for movie stardom, having been used last summer as a backdrop for a new film adaptation of The Secret Garden.
This forthcoming screen version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel stars Colin Firth and Julie Walters, and tells the story of a young orphaned girl sent from India to live with her neglectful uncle. Clearly the potential for lush on-screen landscapes is huge. The crew filmed by the giant woolly tree ferns and gunnera, its giant rhubarb leaves up to 5m tall that dwarf children (and adults), giving them a taste of what it must be to live in a land of the giants.
The thrill of this garden is in the spectacular lay of the land. With a house at the top of a sweeping valley, the garden graces the valley sides until it reaches its own private beach and gentle sandy bay.
Families can embark on a pleasing circuit, beginning at the top to see the koi carp pond, the outdoor amphitheatre, the bamboo forests and on to the gunnera and ponds, making it down to the beach for an ice cream from Healey’s Boathouse, before heading back up the other side with its hydrangea and rhododendron valleys, and Alice’s Seat, finishing up at Tarzan’s Camp, where children can let loose on the zipwire, treehouse and climbing frames.
Essential info: Adults £10.50, children up to 15 £5, under-fives free. trebahgarden.co.uk
If there is one place you must visit with your children while you’re in Cornwall it has to be the Eden Project. Famously built on a reclaimed clay pit, the two biomes are the world’s largest greenhouses, rising up like big bubble- wrap balloons.
The star attraction is the Rainforest Biome. If teleporting were possible, this is what it would feel like as you step from Cornwall’s fresh air straight to the humid jungle and an exotic world of cocoa plants, bananas, rubber trees, nuts and spices, and even a waterfall. The interactive displays on conservation are great talking points, but the best bit is the canopy walkway, where you can stroll over the top of the jungle and wonder at the exotic plants beneath you. Make sure you dress in layers – children can easily get overheated by the time they reach the top.
The Med Terrace restaurant, in the Mediterranean Biome, is a good choice for lunch. Its healthy fare was recently awarded runner- up in a new league table ranking children’s food and drink at Britain’s top visitor attractions. Leave enough time to explore the this temperate Biome. Though it’s not as breathtaking as the Rainforest one, it houses interesting sculptures, grapevines, olives and even a plant that smells like Cola bottles.
For adventure seekers, there’s also England’s longest and fastest zip wire. Other thrills include a freefall jump and a giant swing – not for the faint hearted!
Each ticket purchased gives a year’s entry and in 2020 the Eden Project opens its eagerly anticipated eco-friendly hotel on the grounds, so there’ll be no need to try and squeeze your visit to the tropics all into one day!
Essential info: Family ticket (two adults and two children up to 16) £71/£64 advance; adults £27,50/£25 advance; children £14/£12.60 advance; under-fives free. Zip wire from £25, other activities from £12. Combination tickets also available. edenproject.com