Aysgarth Rock Garden Aysgarth Edwardian Rock Garden
History of the Rock Garden
INTRODUCTION In April 2005 an article in the Royal Horticultural Society journal The Garden entitled “Uncovering a rocky past” immediately drew our attention.   It told the story of the 2002-3 restoration of the Grade II listed Edwardian Rock Garden at Aysgarth by Angela and Peter Jauneika. Although we thought we knew Wensleydale well, we were not aware of the garden’s existence and so we resolved to visit as soon as possible. This we did shortly afterwards and found ourselves amazed by its massive stones and charmed by its alpine planting. Little did we know that day that we would move permanently to the area in the autumn of 2007 and that less than five years later in January 2012 we would become the owners of the garden and keepers of the associated historical archive. The story, told below, of the creation of the Rock Garden during the early years of the twentieth century by Frank Sayer Graham, a local lad made good, and its recreation around one hundred years later, is a remarkable and fascinating one. THE CREATION OF THE ROCK GARDEN Frank Sayer Graham’s father, Francis Sayer, was a yeoman farmer, born in the late eighteenth century, who lived in the house which forms the roadside part of the property now known as Heather Cottage in Aysgarth. He also owned the small plot of land opposite on which the Rock Garden stands and the 1843 Tithe records reveal that it was classed at that time as an “arable garden”, which suggests it was being used to grow vegetables for the house. Francis Sayer remained unmarried all his life and for many years he employed a housekeeper, Elizabeth Graham, who came from the nearby village of West Witton. In June 1859, when in her mid–thirties, Elizabeth gave birth to a son who was registered as Francis Sayer Graham. The boy, who was known locally throughout his life as Frank, was acknowledged as his son by Francis senior, who was by this time in his late sixties, and the three continued to live as a household, even though, according to census records, the parents never married. After Francis’ death in December 1871, by the terms of his will which set up a trust to administer his estate, Frank and his mother remained living in the house and were provided for financially. In the 1881 census records his mother is described as an “annuitant” and Frank as an “unemployed clerk” aged 21, but perhaps his prospects improved soon afterwards as in December 1885 he married a Welsh girl called Mary Jones, the wedding taking place in Huntley, Gloucestershire.  By the time of the 1891 census, the young couple were living in Aysgarth in his father’s house, already called Heather Cottage, and his mother, who died soon afterwards, had moved into  another property in the village. From then on Frank made his living as a game dealer who specialised in the fur trade based on the longstanding commercial rabbit warren at       Ladyhill, a little further down the dale and visible from the Rock Garden. This warren was renowned for its silver-grey rabbits whose fur was prized for the lining of car coats for the rich and famous, and it would seem that this business interest enabled Frank       to become wealthy, as according to the 1901 census records he was able to employ two live-in servants. It was also around this time that he embarked on a large extension to Heather Cottage whose interior he decorated in the fashionable Arts and Crafts style with stained glass windows, beautiful tiled fireplaces, and a magnificent oak staircase, all of which are retained today.  Throughout his life Frank was passionate about gardening and tree planting, and even had his own private nursery in the village. The cultivation of alpine plants had become popular from the mid nineteenth century onwards, interest being fuelled by plant hunting expeditions to faraway parts of the world and by books written by men such as William Robinson and Reginald Farrer. As a way to show off their plants to great effect, enthusiasts created rock gardens and some nursery firms became specialists in building these so that people could have their own little alpine paradise at home, albeit on a very small scale! In the north of England the firm of James Backhouse and Son in York became famous for such work, showcased at their huge nursery in Holgate, and although many of their rock garden creations were for wealthy landowners, such as Sir Frank Crisp at Friar Park, Henley on Thames, where a miniature Matterhorn formed part of the design, some were more modest in size. Aysgarth Rock Garden is one such Backhouse garden and is a very rare surviving example of a “walk through grotto” type. We know that it was constructed for Frank Sayer Graham during the early years of the twentieth century as a                Mr W. A. Clark,  Alpine Manager for the firm, lists the garden as one on which he had worked in the 1907 edition of his book, Alpine Plants: a practical manual for their culture. In fact we can date it more specifically as remarkably a postcard showing a view of Aysgarth, and written by Mr Clark’s son in August 1906, came to light some years ago which confirms that he was working on the garden at the time. The massive waterworn limestone blocks that form the garden were brought from an area known as Stephen’s Moor about half a mile west towards the village of Thornton Rust in an act that today would be considered a completely unacceptable form of environmental vandalism. It must have been a hugely difficult task to move the blocks to the site and then erect them into the complex form the garden takes today and it is said locally that men and wagons from Burtersett quarry further up Wensleydale were used to carry out the work. Once the hard landscaping was complete and spring-fed pond created, countless planting pockets would have been formed in the crevices of the rocks in order to provide a variety of micro-climates. Finally the garden would have been planted up with choice specimens of alpines and ferns most probably supplied from the Backhouse nurseries. For the rest of Frank’s life it remained a much loved, but to quote the original sign on the wrought iron entrance gate, a very “private rock garden” to which visitors were only allowed to view by personal invitation. According to older long term residents of the village whose memories reach back to the time when Frank was still alive, local children were particularly discouraged from entering. We also know that the area at the rear of the garden, currently lawn and borders, continued to be cultivated as a vegetable garden for the house in an echo of the mid nineteenth century usage of the plot. Sadly, Frank’s wife Mary died, aged 45, soon after the couple celebrated their silver wedding anniversary and he then married her sister Annie. Having been actively involved in official roles in the local community and at St Andrew’s church all his life, Frank died, aged 87, in June 1946 and was buried with other family members in Aysgarth churchyard where a handsome granite monument marks their graves. As neither marriage produced children there were no direct descendants and so the house was sold and the contents auctioned in 1947. THE RE-CREATION OF THE ROCK GARDEN During the second half of the 20th century the Rock Garden passed through a numbers of owners, including one who  had a garden gnome business, which explains why a  number of mainly headless gnomes still exist partly  hidden in crevices. In the late 1980s there was a danger  that the plot would be sold for development, but thanks to  a local campaign the structure was saved from destruction  in 1988 by the highly unusual step of being given Grade II  Listed Building status. Despite this protection, by 1998,  when Angela and Peter Jauneika bought Heather Cottage  and associated land, the Rock Garden had become very  neglected and overgrown with self-seeded trees, brambles  and nettles choking the whole plot such that it was hard to tell whether anything of interest lurked beneath. By a  chance encounter with an academic expert, Angela  discovered that the garden was of national historic  horticultural significance, and she resolved to restore it to  its former glory. She then devoted several years of her life  to the project, and thanks to her dedication, grants and  donations from various bodies and individuals were  received in order to fund the restoration. This money paid  for expert advice on design and planting from garden  historian, Jo Makin, and for the services of professional alpine specialist, Michael Myers. After many months of hard work over the winter and  spring of 2002 -3, the garden was formally reopened to visitors in July 2003 by Eric Robson amidst a blaze of publicity, which included a two-part  television documentary and numerous articles in newspapers and magazines.        Without Angela’s vision and determination there is no doubt  that this “private rock garden” would have been lost for ever, and we feel very  privileged that we were chosen to be the people to develop it further as a very “open garden” that welcomes visitors freely all year round.  Although in the eyes of the law we are the owners, in reality we consider ourselves no more than temporary custodians of its ancient rockwork  and ever changing flora. Our hope is that it will continue to delight people for many generations to come as:  …the uses of the rock garden as a site of beauty, reflection and spiritual nourishment are many. Building a quiet corner of stones and  plants slowly and meditatively over time is its true meaning. Process over product, journey over destination, forever a work in progress –  rock is the best metaphor that we have for everlastingness.  (From The art of spiritual rock gardening by Donna E. Schaper, published in 2001)     In early 2020 we decided to move away from the Dales and began looking for ways in which to secure the long-term future of the garden as a publicly open space. We were delighted that the Aysgarth and District Parish Council accepted our offer to gift the garden to their ownership. In September 2020, therefore, the Aysgarth Edwardian Rock Garden will begin the next phase of its existence, now owned by the Aysgarth community and continuing to be freely open to both local people and visitors. Adrian and Rosemary Anderson September 2020                                                                                                                                                      
Postcards from the early part of the twentieth century showing the Rock Garden
Frank Sayer Graham in the garden - late 1930s
View of the rear of the garden  - late 1930s
Aerial view of the garden
May 2002 prior to the restoration
View of the entrance
The formal re-opening of the restored garden, 5th July 2003 - Angela Jauneika with Eric Robson
The newly re-opened garden July 2003
Adrian and Rosemary Anderson owners of the garden between 2012 and 2020
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