The rock garden at Aysgarth is one of the most unusual listed buildings in the Yorkshire Dales. Aysgarth Rockery is a picturesque alpine rockery that was built at the beginning of the 20th Century using blocks of limestone to create a rockscape and water feature. In May 2018 the Yorkshire Dales will be the inspiration for one of the show-gardens at RHS Chelsea.
It was spot listed as Grade II in 1988 in order to prevent its destruction, and since then it has been restored to its former glory. It was commissioned in the years before the First World War by Frank Sayer-Graham who owned the cottage opposite. The 1843 tithe records reveal that the land was previously classed as an “arable garden”, so was likely used as a vegetable patch. Sayer-Graham was a keen horticulturalist – he had planted fields of tulips around Aysgarth and set up his own nursery next door to his home.
The cultivation of alpine plants had become popular from the mid century onwards. Interest was fuelled by plant hunting expeditions to faraway parts of the world and by books written by men such as William Robinson and Reginald Farrer. Enthusiasts created rock gardens to show off their plants to great effect, and some nursery firms became specialists in building these so that anyone could have their own little alpine paradise at home, albeit on a very small scale.
One of these firms was Backhouse and Son, from York, who was brought in to design and build the rock garden at Aysgarth, and construction began in 1906. The family were noted rockery builders and alpine nurserymen from the late 1850s, creating rock gardens for wealthy landowners as well as those of a more modest size. The rockery in Aysgarth is a rare surviving example of a “walk through grotto” type. Sayer-Graham may also have had advice from the famous alpine specialist and plant hunter, Reginald Farrer. (Farrer published many books but is best known for My Rock Garden.)
The rock garden itself is constructed from massive blocks of waterworn limestone that were transported there from a nearby location – a hugely difficult task. Today, this is a nationally important garden; however the movement of this limestone would now be considered environmental vandalism. [Limestone Pavement Orders afford statutory protection for limestone pavements under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits the removal or damage of limestone within the designated area. Many limestone pavements have also been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest for their geology as well as their natural habitat.]
The limestone blocks create the rockscape, rising to about 8 metres in places with narrow winding paths through giving that “grotto” feel. This rockscape results in countless planting pockets providing a variety of micro-climates for the garden to be planted with a variety of choice specimens of alpines and ferns (likely supplied from the Backhouse nurseries originally). There is also a mountain stream and cascade which add to the alpine atmosphere, and there is an open south facing area of lawn to the rear of the garden. After the creation of the rockery this lawned area continued to be cultivated as a vegetable garden for the house in an echo of the mid-19th Century usage of the plot. The rockery garden is contained within a walled enclosure with cast-iron railings.
By 1998, despite its protected status, the rock garden had become very neglected and overgrown. Unfortunately there are no records of the original Rock Garden plantings, and the large and varied collection of alpine plants are not covered by the listing. However during the 2002 restoration many plants were identified as likely to have been original. During the restoration expert advice was sought on design and planting from a garden historian and a professional alpine specialist.
Frank Sayer-Graham’s garden was private – the original sign on the wrought iron entrance gate stated “private rock garden” – with visitors only being allowed to view by personal invitation. However, today the garden welcomes all visitors.
The Yorkshire Dales – its sights, smells and tastes – are the inspiration for Welcome to Yorkshire’s 2018 RHS Chelsea show-garden. The show-garden will include drystone walls crafted from Yorkshire stone, as well as a variety of plants and flowers, pasture and beck, and a stone bothy converted into a craftsman’s creamery where genuine artisan cheese production will take place.