Prospect Cottage and its garden on the shingle spit of Dungeness in Kent could not have been more of a contrast to the previous three gardens we had visited on our holiday. Pashley Manor, Great Dixter and Sissinghurst all artfully conjured up what most of us would think of as true English gardens; roses in abundance, herbaceous borders, topiary and the use of formal lines to contrast with the softness of the planting, all surrounding beautiful old buildings. My own taste in garden style is exactly that of these three gardens, probably more the wildness of Christpher Lloyd’s planting at Great Dixter but on a much, much smaller scale and as much as I loved visiting them you can have too much of a good thing. Prospect Cottage provided the refreshing, stimulating change that was needed.
The garden surrounding Prospect Cottage was created by the film director Derek Jarman. He moved to the little tarred black fisherman’s cottage with it’s distinctive yellow window frames in the mid 1980s and created a garden in what seems an impossible place. He died in 1994 but nearly 20 years later his garden still attracts people to Dungeness’s unusual and bleak landscape.
The shingle spit of Dungeness has been created over thousands of years. Now a nature reserve it juts out into the English Channel. This flat and exposed piece of land is starkly different to the green rolling hills and farmland only several miles away. Bleak, and seemingly barren, it is hard to image anything or anyone would want to make this their home. In summer the sun beats down with little in the way of shade to provide respite and with nothing between it and the sea the winds rip through here with a regularity that gives the place a weather beaten look. The only other place we’ve felt more windswept was the Isles of Scilly. With such a flat landscape the sky feels huge and it takes on a different presence. Clouds scud across at a pace and you get a real feeling of being close to the elements. This scene is dominated by the looming buildings of the nuclear power station. A blot on the landscape to many it certainly adds to a sense of otherworldliness that makes Dungeness feel so unique. And yet, despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, this strange place is not desolate and lifeless, far from it.
There are over 100 houses at Dungeness. Some were created over 100 years ago from railway carriages, others are wooden huts like Prospect Cottage. It was to here that Jarman retreated when he discovered he was HIV positive. Around the cottage, in the shingle, he started to create a garden. All around Dungeness there are plants, growing in this seemingly inhospitable place they thrive, adapted to the salt-laden winds and the calcareous soil. Species such as the horned poppy, sea kale, woody nightshade and valerian appear through the shingle. These little plants hunkered down and battered by the elements inspired Derek Jarman. He added to the natives already growing encouraging more of them and experimenting with other plants to see if they too could cope with the conditions. He discovered that Californian poppies, lavender and santolina were all happy there. Collecting driftwood, bits of metal and rope and large pebbles that washed up on the shore he created sculptures and focal points which gave the garden some height. He also created patterns in the shingle such as concentric circles, a little like in Japanese gardens, where they rake gravel to symbolise water.
He used flint stones to mark out planting areas giving this part of Dungeness a sense of definition and distinctness. Perhaps one of the most striking features to the visitor’s eye is the lack of boundaries. There are no fences, hedges or walls separating the cottages and the houses themselves have a feeling of being unintended, almost like they blew in on the wind but I love how Jarman used the bits and pieces he found lying around to define the space around him.
Prospect Cottage is now privately owned and the garden is not actually open to the public but it is possible to view it from the road right in front where you can get a perfectly good view of the garden. Tempting as it was to wander through the garden and around to the back with no boundaries there to stop you, we didn’t, remaining by the road and respecting the owners privacy. Apparently there used to be a group of bonsai sloe trees several inches tall but each spreading about a foot which would fruit and flower. I don’t know whether they are still there or not but the gardens seem to have changed little from when Jarman was still alive so I have little reason to doubt there isn’t still a magical little bonsai forest on Dungeness.
We visited one evening with the sun setting and parked up. A hare, only the second time we’d seen one, bounded past and marsh harriers and hobbies flew over head. It’s strange really that the garden we visited for free and only briefly, that was tiny in comparison to the others on the tour and that had such a limited number of plants is perhaps the garden I will remember most fondly. The oasis in the shingle.
There is a fascinating book about the garden at Prospect Cottage if you would like to read more about Derek Jarman and his creation.
We stumbled across this garden when my railway fanatic husband was photographing the trains that run through the shingle. While he was busy chasing trains I wandered off looking at flowers and all of a sudden found that I was in Derek Jarman’s garden. Beating a hasty retreat, most of what I remember from over 10 yrs ago, were the driftwood sculptures and stones with holes in the middle. There were no colourful flowers to show that it was a garden, maybe we were there at the wrong time of year. It is amazing what will grow in such an inhospitable place and I’m so glad that this is the garden that you will remember most fondly.
Really amazing. I think they have changed the planting.
Hi Amanda, It is a stunning place. Whoever now owns it obviously appreciates what they have.
This is the post that I’ve been looking forward to reading and it’s been worth the wait as it certainly encapsulates my own feelings about this garden.
I’ve been twice, mid winter when everything was grey and in total contrast on a perfect summers day. Both times I felt how alien it is, which I guess was because it is so very different to just about all other kinds of English garden.
It’s certainly somewhere that I’ve always wanted to visit again. I’ve seen the book and can highly recommend it. xx
Thanks Flighty. I loved the place. I’m not sure I could live somewhere quite so windy and exposed myself but I loved how despite the conditions he had still been inspired to garden.
Diana of Elephant's Eye said:
Fascinated by the idea, and your glimpses, of the garden – but I can’t imagine living there.
Diana of Elephant's Eye said:
and I hadn’t realised, it is not actually Open for Public Viewing. Perhaps I’ll look out for the book instead.
David Marsden said:
It is a fine book, WW – which my mother in law kindly bought for me but (as I told you recently) I still haven’t been to Prospect Cottage. Is it not a little awkward peering into a private garden? Were you the only visitors? Were the owners there? I suppose it is a holiday house? No more questions. For now. Dave
Hi David, I think because there are no visible boundaries and the garden is literally just off the road it didn’t feel too rude to stand there are admire the garden. It was in the evening and we were the only ones there. There were some other guys walking past but they were off to look at birds. I don’t think anyone was in but we still just kept to the road. It didn’t feel right to go wandering around.I’m sure the owners are used to people turning up though. If you buy somewhere with a famous garden you have to expect a degree of attention I guess. Hope you get a chance to visit soon. WW
It’s amazing how plants thrive in such conditions. What a shame you couldn’t really get up close and personal with the garden, though I’m sure that the owners are used to getting many visitors.
Jo, I would have liked to have had a look at the back but I wouldn’t want some just walking through my own garden without asking so we resisted. It was a magical place though to see all those plants appearing from the shingle.
Flâneur Gardener said:
That is a stunning garden, and I’m so pleased the current owners seem to take such good care of it.
I’d love a garden like Sissinghurst, Great Dixter or whatnot, but I think it’s much more inspirational to see smaller-scale gardens; things you actually have a chance of achieving in the real world, rather than the sort of gardens you’d need to win the lottery twice to afford.
Hi Flaneur, I agree. I love wandering around the big gardens but it’s good to see spaces that are similar in size to your own or coping with similar conditions. They’re the ones that make me think ‘I could do that’. It’s easier to create a gorgeous garden with lots of money and staff to help.It would be nice to have my own Great Dixter but since I don’t do the lottery unlikely!!!
Flâneur Gardener said:
I can barely keep up with my 1250 square meters of garden, so a place like Great Dixter would require me to a) quit my job and b) hire loads of staff for the hard labour!
Sadly, though, when I see the large gardens I still think “I could do that”… And that’s how you set yourself up for failure! I constantly have to remind myself to scale down my ambitions, to think about how i can do something and how long it would take – and whether I might prefer spending that time relaxing in the garden rather than digging out a new flower bed from the lawn…
(And some times I’d rather buy a bottle of white wine to enjoy in the garden, than buy a new plant.)
Garden Correspondent said:
Thank you for this post- the photos are so beautiful, and it was wonderful to learn a bit more about the garden. I’d read that Derek Jarman had created a garden but never seen pictures. Now I think I might like to read that book!
Lucky you! It’s on my list of places/gardens I want to visit. Our last house was painted black with yellow windows in honour of Prospect Cottage. Our present house is called Prospect Cottage.
Karen - An Artists Garden said:
Oh, how wonderful, I have the book “Derek Jarman’s Garden”, which I enjoy very much. It does seem so – otherworldly, simply an amazing thing to do.
I have enjoyed this post very much, as it is probably somewhere I will never get to see.
Hi Karen, If you do get to visit Great Dixter next year. Dungeness is not too much further away, about 40 minutes. Maybe you could squeeze in a visit there too.
The Diligent Gardener said:
I was given a copy of the book a few years ago, and its well worth looking out for. If i ever got teh chance to visit then I think i’d love it. Seeing your visit is the next best thing!
*sigh* this is stunning! Why don’t my Californianoppies look like this!
It looks fascinating – a pity you could not walk around it. An interesting contrast to the other gardens you visited.
I’ve always wanted to see this garden too, and I was really looking forward to hearing about it from you when you mentioned you’d visited. I wasn’t disappointed! This is true gardening for place; it is necessary to stay true to the situation and not try to cheat the environment to be successful, something we can all learn from (especially me dealing with summer drought every year in even hotter conditions than Jarman. Thank you so much WW for the wonderful, evocative description of the place and your feelings about it. Christina
Hi Wellywoman, just been catching up on your blog as I was away at Wimbledon last week! Really enjoyed reading all your posts on your garden tours of Kent and Sussex. Its definitely something I want to do soon so was great to hear your thoughts on some of the most famous gardens in the UK. I can imagine that Sissinghurst would get very busy with visitors, was Great Dixter not the same? The meadows there look fabulous and I’m sure incredibly inspiring. I love this post too on a very contrasting garden which looked amazing in the evening sunlight.
Hi Annie, Must get to Wimbledon myself one day. We got to Dixter early and it wasn’t too bad. It was a Sunday so I don’t know if that is a particularly quiet day. It was no where near as busy as Sissinghurst.
I had not heard of Derek Jarman’s gardens until just recently. Simply beautiful, and inspiring.
Hi Stacey, It’s a beautiful place due a great deal to its simplicity.
A lovely post. I return often to Derek Jarman’s garden and look from the same point, painting the seasons plants. Even in the snow the stems look wonderful.
Hi, thank you for sharing your photos. The cottage is inhabited and the garden maintained and expanded by Derek Jarman’s partner to whom he left the cottage and grounds in his will. Derek Jarman, as well as his films and paintings, also wrote a number of books. Two of them -both part diary, part autobiography – include many reflections and details of the construction of the garden. A lot of love and thought was poured into its making. These diaries from the final years of his life also describe the films and paintings he continued to make despite his increasingly severe health problems. They also talk of his queer activism, as he resisted homophobia with a multi-faceted approach that included direct action for which he was occasionally arrested. And of his spirituality as inseparable from his nighttime cruising on the heath in london and his love for his partner as it was from his art and his gardening. The journals are called Modern Nature and Smiling in Slow Motion. I can only imagine reading them would add extra dimension to visiting the garden….something that is on my long term to do’s list!
Oh and here isa link to a clip forma bbc program on the garden http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=me9MYEewnN8
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