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|
|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|
|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|
You can source Rosemary Anderson’s delightful book here