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Aysgarth’s Edwardian Rock Garden – a hidden gem in the Dales

Not a stop I make on every tour in Wensleydale I do, but last week I had a couple who loved gardens so I thought I would treat them to a stop at Aysgarth’s Rock Garden as an extra stop on our Dales Highlights Tour.


It’s easy to miss the Rock Garden on the A684 road between Swinithwaite and Hawes, just past the turning to Aysgarth Falls. There are just some metal railings and a small gate with a few limestone rocks, but don’t be put off it is definitely worth entering and exploring further.


With its weird limestone blocks and alpine plants, you feel like you are stepping back in time into a secret world as you duck beneath archways and make your way into a labyrinth with a lovely water feature.


So what is the history behind the garden which is actually now classed as a listed building. This status was granted in 1988 to protect the garden and ensure that no one could decide to knock it down but it was built a good while before this.


Just before the first World War, Frank Sayer-Graham who owned the cottage opposite commissioned the project. A wealthy businessman and a keen horticulturalist, he had already set up a nursery in Aysgarth as well as planting fields of tulips around the village.


The land opposite his cottage was used as an “arable garden” in the census and so was probably used as a vegetable patch, it was here he decided to build a rock garden.


It is worth remembering that during the late Victorian period then early Edwardian period, cultivation of Alpine plants had become all the rage. Books written by plant collectors such as William Robinson and Reginald Farmer about their plant collecting expeditions became very popular, so the wealthy often created rock gardens to show off their plants. Some nurseries specialised in Alpine Plants and Sayer-Graham also sold Alpine varieties in his small nursery.


But, one of the best known suppliers of Alpine plants in the region was York based Backhouse & Son, and it was to them that Sayer-Graham turned to design and build him a rock garden across from his cottage. The Backhouses had built a reputation with the wealthy of Yorkshire for building rockeries and as Alpine nurserymen since the 1850’s. James Backhouse became the project manager.


Construction on the Aysgarth site started in 1906 and Sayer-Graham also brought in eminent Alpine specialist and plant hunter Reginald Farrer to help with his planting plan. The brief was to create a “Walk through grotto” and if you visit, you can safely say they achieved this.


Worn limestone blocks were brought in from the surrounding hillsides near Stephen’s Moor. This created a rockscape using blocks to create sections which are as tall as 8m, where a path winds through past niches and pockets for planting.


It is worth noting that the Rock Garden at Aysgarth would not be allowed to be built in this day and age, with the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 prohibiting the removal of limestone due to limestone pavement areas, having been designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to the unique geology and the natural habitats it creates.


The clints (limestone blocks) and grykes (the weathered grooves between the limestone blocks), create unique micro climates for a number of rare species including some rare orchids that grow in the cracks where it is warmer and protected from the wind.


What exists at Aysgarth would have been a relatively modest rock garden, but nowadays as they have fallen out of fashion is a rare surviving example of one from this period.


As you meander through the garden, making sure not to bump your head you eventually come to a lovely little lawned area at the end with benches to relax.


Even though the garden was listed, by 1998 it had fallen into disrepair and become overgrown with many of the alpine plants no longer surviving. Whilst there was no record of a planting plan for the site, by using knowledge of other rock gardens from the time a restoration took place in 2002 to create an environment which was believed to mirror the original as closely as possible.


The garden was private for a number of years but the current owners Mr and Mrs Anderson encourage visitors, and whilst it is free to enter there is a box to give a small donation towards the gardens upkeep.


I would definitely recommend a stop, it is not a huge site but descriptors such as “magical” and “otherworldly” fit well and my guest last week said it felt like a location from Lord of the Rings!


As we wondered around we found a headless gnome sitting hidden away on top of one of the archways. I found this strange but on looking into the site more, apparently the site was used temporarily for a Garden Gnome business to even this was a nod to the past!!


The site is definitely another one of Yorkshire’s hidden gems.


1 Comment

Apr 27

That's just stunning. I'm working my way slowly through your blog and look forward to spending time finding out more. Thanks.

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