Thursday 23 June 2016

The Aysgarth Rock garden. Was it (very) late Victorian folly?

Aysgarth Rock Garden

I wonder if Frank Sayer had illusions of grandeur when in about 1906 he commissioned that most famous Edwardian Landscaper, James Backhouse of York to build a two storey limestone rock garden in his small cottage garden. It would be uncharitable to think so but it must have looked a little strange in the backyard just over the road.

Cathi recently passed over our hedge a delightful small book about the inspiration, creation, decline and restoration of this delightful garden which is now  a preserved listed building! It is written by current garden owner Rosemary Anderson who with the help of husband Adrian now works to maintain it and opens it to the public for free throughout the year in all daylight hours.
The book is thoroughly researched and extremely well written. It paints a picture of great Victorian gardeners and their gardening fashions. It describes the emergence and much later decline of the renowned Backhouse nursery in York my home town. Little did I realise that such was it’s fame that the combined Backhouse garden and nursery was dubbed ‘Kew of the North’. At its peak it was a hundred acre botanic garden sporting forty greenhouses and employing more than a hundred gardeners. It was the spiritual home for great gardeners of its time. To great garden visionaries such as William Robinson it was a gardening mecca. For Reginald Farrer it was his inspiration for his writing about rock gardens.

As landscapers three generations of the Backhouse family built great gardens - especially  rock gardens and grottos - the length of the land. 
The book intertwines a social history of Aysgarth and Victorian/Edwardian life with meticulous research about the rock garden. Frank Sayer’s family history even reveals a mild Victorian scandal!

The Backhouse and Aysgarth story resonates with me. As a York resident I had heard whispers of a renowned local garden history about which I knew nothing. I remember how the craze for great rock gardens had continued well into my lifetime. I recall with nostalgia great flower shows such as Chelsea, Southport and Harrogate having huge exhibits of running water through water washed limestone. I read with interest that the closing down sale of the Backhouse nursery was in 1955. That was the year that I fell in love with gardening and decided it would be my own future! I have always loved rock gardens and gardening with gravel, water and stone.

Then I read on about the restoration of the overgrown once lovely Aysgarth rock garden at the beginning of the brand new 2000 Millenium. It was full of self seeded trees and overgrown with so called dwarf conifers and when I read further that the main contractor was Michael Myers who is a former student I just had to visit.

Going to Aysgarth - in pictures
I had to see the now very scanty remains of the great Backhouse nursery. I skipped the original site on what is now York railway station(!) and the subsequent Fishergate nursery and went straight to their final home, the renowned Holgate garden.

Little did I know it is 300 yards from York Bridge Club where I attend weekly!  West Bank Park is the only part of the Backhouse nursery left that is not under houses  
It is a now a local municipal park. A group of volunteers work to preserve its history

A few dog walking acres retain shadows
There are of some very fine original  trees
Victoria still reigns
It is likely that this new rock garden uses some of the old stone 
Edinburgh Botanic Rock Gardens started with Backhouse and looks very similar to the original two acre York rock garden

Aysgarh Rock Garden
It really is quite a big heap of stones
The surrounding wall, fence and actual stone are legally preserved
It is a very fine garden...
...and contains some very fine plants
it opens up like a tardis when you go inside
The girls feel that they rather get dragged round gardens
I hope Roger has not got lost...
It looks a little precarious. Much of the cost of restoration was to ensure its safety and stability
Shades of Victorian grottos
Ferns like walls
A former resident used it as a gnome home for his gnome business. They keep finding more gnomes when weeding
A gnother gnome. A writer about Bolton Percy churchyard described me as gnomic

Contrary to rock garden dogma many larger plants are planted on high
Was this one of the originally planted dwarf conifers? With some disturbance to my domestic  bliss I so argued...

There are very fine water features. Apparently the original water works were much more sophisticated and created alpine misty environments
But it still splashes down
I love the green water
Peter is very frond of ferns at the moment...
....and pictured this beautiful crozier
Plants love to grow over and sometimes anchor in limestone. I loved this muehlenbeckia. A different one at home is a real thug and I dare not recommend it 
Inside looking out
Meconopsis cambrica
A lovely seed-around thug
We wondered if these were remnants of original planting
You can source Rosemary Anderson’s delightful book here


  1. This sort of garden does not appeal to me, but I can understand that some people like it. It must have created quite a stir when it was new. I wonder if they had to get Planning Permission for it? You probably would have to today.

    1. The mind boggles at the thought f getting planning permission!
      I think I would refuse it!

  2. Very dramatic - I can't see why you were compared to a gnome.

  3. I have been called worse!
    It was said in a very kindly way!

  4. Love it! A great way to combine artistic flair with rocks and plants.

  5. What a fascinating place. This has definitely gone on my list of places to see. I love rock gardens, though from across the road this looks a bit like a monstrous carbuncle on the side of the house.

    1. Monstrous carbuncle I like it!
      Wonder what Charles would think?

  6. Although it does look incongruous against the adjacent cottage, as a former alpine fanatic, I can understand why this was constructed on the premise that in Victorian times, and still today, the only way to grow true alpines was basically by reproducing what approximated to a mountain side. Personally I used have one section of the garden as a "rock garden" next to a peat bed built of peat blocks, we had a nursery nearby (gone long ago) which we used to visit every Saturday to buy the latest alpines for the collection. I may well "down-size" in the future and get back to my first love!

  7. A place I would love to visit. It looks like a most interesting garden.

  8. Beautiful photos! Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. What an absolutely fascinating garden, I would have loved to have this as part of my garden if I had a bit more space – and if someone was crazy enough to build it for me! I must admit I miss not having any rocks in my garden, as a Norwegian I am used to gardens having exposed rocks (boulders) in at least one part of most gardens. Here we have to pay for the rocks – and pay for having them transported home, which still seems absolutely bonkers when I try to explain that to fellow countrymen. They usually say; but can’t you just go out and pick some with a wheelbarrow? It’s hard to explain that big rocks don’t just lay around here so you can put them in your car and take them home :-)

    1. It would be great to just go out with a wheelbarrow Helen. We are just too small a country and no way should we take pebbles from a beach or boulders from the landscape or limestone by the road from an old neglected wall. i hasten to add i know you are not suggesting it. We were in Norway ourselves last Autumn and I can see what you mean

    2. And I was having my own area in mind – not many boulders or spare rocks lying around here in East London :-)
      Hope you had a nice trip to Norway, it’s 10 years since last time I was back.


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