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A NOT-SO-PRIVATE “PRIVATE” ROCK GARDEN
The Aysgarth Edwardian Rock
Garden was commissioned by Frank Sayer-Graham (1859-1946). He was a local
landowner who traded in silver rabbits fur which he farmed at the purpose built
warren, below the renowned Lady Hill, to the west of Aysgarth. It is reputed
that he supplied the last Czar of Russia with fur for a stole.
He also exported rare gulls eggs to Europe. Upon his father’s death, Frank and
his first wife Mary moved back to Frank’s childhood home, Heather Cottage
(opposite the Rock Garden) and proceeded to convert it into a state of the art
Edwardian house, embracing the Arts & Craft movement of the time.
Frank’s overriding passion, however, was for
things horticultural. He planted fields
of tulips and daffodils as well as at least two plantations of trees around the
village. Rose Cottage (renamed Springhill) was his own private nursery.
It was, of course, the era of the great plant
hunters, such as Reginald Farrer, who were bringing new and exciting plants into
the country for the first time. Over in York were the famous alpine specialists
and nurserymen Mssrs. James Backhouse & Son whose nursery at the time was larger
than Kew. Rock gardening was undergoing a popular revival and the Backhouse
nursery led the field of building walk-through Rock Gardens, typically in large
estates, to house the new and fashionable plants, that were arriving from
overseas, in a natural setting. At the Backhouse nursery at Acomb was their own
show piece Rock Garden and also a spectacular underground fernery. Sadly the
nursery was demolished in the 1950’s.
In 1906 Frank Sayer-Graham commissioned
Backhouse to create his own personal Rock Garden complete with mountain stream
and pool. Development took the best part of 8 years, the rock being brought down
from Stephen’s Moor at Thornton Rust. Each boulder was transported on a low
horse-drawn cart. The construction was overseen by one of Backhouse’s top
foremen WA Clark who:‘was paid £1 a
day, always wore gloves, carried a small gavelock (crowbar) and went home every
To the rear of the Rock Garden, Frank planted
a vegetable garden, his own personal touch. As the sign says on the gate, this
was very much a private garden. Locals who remember Frank all bear testimony to
the fact that they were not welcome in his garden. Children of the time recall
Mrs. Sayer-Graham rapping on the windows of Heather Cottage if they so much as
touched the railings. Despite its age even today few people know anything about
the Rock Garden and even fewer have entered within.
Following Frank’s death the Rock Garden has
had several owners. In 1988 when it was proposed to demolish the Rock Garden and
develop the site, there was local uproar and English Heritage had it emergency
Grade II listed, highly unusual as listing normally only covers buildings.
One owner determined to make it into a money
making venture selling garden gnomes. Having spent good money on a television
advertising campaign the venture was doomed to failure as the local youth armed
with air rifles deemed the gnomes as good target practise!! Evidence of
dismembered gnomes were uncovered during restoration.
In 1998 we bought Heather Cottage, which came
complete with Rock Garden. Little did we realise just what we were taking on.
Self seeded Ash and Sycamore trees covered a lot of the rock threatening to
undermine its structure. Brambles and nettles ran amok, particularly in the
vegetable garden. It resembled a rain forest more than it did a Rock Garden.
Railings were in need of repair, 10m of stone walling had vanished, the stream
and pool defunct. Following extensive research, we soon began to appreciate the
Rock Garden not only as a unique piece of Aysgarth’s history but as being of
national horticultural significance too. We resolved to return it to its former
glory for the benefit of not only ourselves but others too.
As with all these things though, it soon
became apparent that the main stumbling block was money. The following 3 and a
half years were spent searching for funding. Just as hope of ever finding money
was fading the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust funded by the Heritage Lottery
Fund stepped into the breach by way of an 80% grant. Once this was obtained the
National park Authority donated their consultancy time free of charge, the Royal
Horticultural Society and NatWest Bank made contributions, as did some local
villagers. We have personally funded the remainder and undertaken to maintain
the Rock Garden for a minimum of 10 years.
The restoration began in October 2002 and
after extensive replanting was completed in April 2003. The Garden was
officially opened in July 2003 by Eric Robson and both the restoration and
opening were filmed by Tyne Tees TV. The 2-part documentary “The Secret Garden”
was first screened in September 2003.
A dream has been realised – we hope to have
preserved it for the enjoyment of generations to come.
The Rock Garden is open during daylight hours
free of charge. Please stay on the path and beware of low stone lintels,
protruding rocks, open water, uneven paths and slippery steps. Please do not
climb or remove any of plants. Accompanied children & dogs are welcome but must
be kept under close supervision. Dogs must be kept on a lead.
A note on parking – the Rock Garden is
situated on a hazardous bend. Please do not park in front of it or the adjacent
cottages. Parking is available in the centre of the village. For your own
safety, please do not attempt to cross the road near to the bend close to the
Rock Garden especially with children.
Unfortunately due to the nature of the site
the Rock Garden is unsuitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs.
Sorry there are so many rules but your safety
is of paramount importance to us. Finally we hope you will respect the garden
but moreover enjoy the “not so private” private Rock Garden.
In January 2012 Adrian and
Rosemary Anderson became the owners of the Rock Garden. To contact them or for
further information please visit:
The following web pages also feature the Rock Garden:
Out of Oblivion
The Giant in my Garden