OFTEN overlooked in favour of its better-known neighbour the falls, Aysgarth Rock Garden is a rare surviving example of the work of alpine and rockery specialists James Backhouse and Son.
The garden was a created in the early twentieth century at the whim of Frank Sayer Graham, owner of nearby Heather Cottage. It is of enormous significance within the history of horticulture.
Perched on the outskirts of the village, it was designed as a walk-through grotto. The huge limestone blocks, low lintels and narrow winding paths, complimented by cascading water, and exotic plants all contribute to the serene atmosphere.
Walking to the rear a south-facing haven with views of adjacent fields and trees provides further space for quiet contemplation.
A moment of serendipity gave present owners Rosemary and Adrian Anderson their first brush with the rock garden. In April 2005 perusing the Royal Horticultural Society journal, The Garden, Adrian noticed an article “Uncovering a Rocky Past”. This gave a detailed account on the restoration of an Edwardian Rock Garden at Aysgarth.
Although living in Nottinghamshire, as regular visitors to the Yorkshire Dales the couple resolved to pay it a visit.
Mrs Anderson said: “We both loved coming to the dales and the next time we were in Wensleydale we visited the rock garden and were quite taken with it.
“We had no thought that one day we would move there and become its owners.”
The garden’s creator Frank Sayer Graham was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Graham, housekeeper at Heather Cottage and its elderly owner Francis Sayer, a farmer. Following the death of his acknowledged parents, ownership of the cottage passed to Frank who married a Welsh girl, Mary Jones. The cottage significantly, had a plot of land opposite.
With entrepreneurial zeal of the era Frank made his living in the fur trade and as a game dealer. He could buy silver-grey rabbits from a commercial warren nearby which could arrive in London that same afternoon. His products were much sought-after by the rich and famous and reputedly once supplied to the last Tsar of Russia.
A burgeoning business enabled Frank to become wealthy and with the cultivation of alpine plants popular at the time, it was unsurprising he should embank upon creating an alpine paradise of his own.
York firm James Backhouse & Son was chosen to create the garden on a plot of land opposite Heather Cottage. Today, the design would never pass the planning stage and prompt furious correspondence to the letters page of this newspaper.
Massive water-worn limestone blocks were brought from nearby Stephen’s Moor; with men and wagons from Burtersett Quarry carrying out the labour under close supervision by staff from Backhouse’s.
Once the hard graft of moving and erecting the blocks into the complex core of the garden was completed, the next stage was to create a spring-fed pond.
Final touches would have been planting the alpines and ferns in the nooks and crannies between the rocks. They were probably supplied from the Backhouse nurseries in York, although it is possible some were from the garden of the Heather Cottage. Work was completed sometime prior to 1914.
Aysgarth Rock Garden became a much loved, but definitely off-limits place for anyone but Frank and his immediate family. The original sign on the entrance gate states “private rock garden”. Visitors were admitted by personal invitation only; children were particularly discouraged from even loitering nearby.
When Frank’s wife Mary died, he dutifully married her sister Annie and in June 1946 aged 87 Frank passed away. With no children from either marriage, the house, garden, and contents were all sold.
The next 40 years marked a decline in its popularity; it was even once used for a garden gnome business. A number of headless relics still exist partly hidden deep in the garden’s crevices.
A local campaign in the 1980s averted a planned sale for development following Listed Building status by English Heritage.
When in 1998 Angela and Peter Jauneika bought Heather Cottage, the adjacent rock garden had become neglected and overgrown. A thick covering of unwelcome foliage made it difficult to discern anything of interest.
Discovering the garden was of horticultural significance, Angela resolved to restore it to its former splendour. Her quest for funding took 3½ years until the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust offered 80 per cent of the cost. The Royal Horticultural Society and Nat West gave donations, with Mr. and Mrs. Jauneika stumping-up the remainder.
Over the winter of 2002/03 following expert advise, workmen cleared the garden. By July 2003 it was opened to visitors amid much publicity, by broadcaster Eric Robson.
Following respective careers as a general practitioner and a specialist dyslexia teacher and researcher, Adrian and Rosemary retired to Wensleydale. Seeing an advertisement for the property in the D&S Times they enquired if the garden could be sold separately. In January 2012 couple became its new owners.
Once again there are over 300 varieties of plants and ferns throughout the garden, which the owners lovingly tend. Speaking to them it is obvious they are both immensely proud of their own piece of the Alps tucked away in deepest Wensleydale.
Mrs Anderson said “Rather than owners, Adrian and I regard ourselves as the garden’s temporary custodians. It goes without saying that without Angela there would be no rock garden today; we all owe her an enormous debt of gratitude.
“My favourite place in the garden depends on the season, although I love seeing snowdrops by the waterfall. It is such a wonderful place of quiet informality.”
Often featured in both print and broadcast media, Aysgarth was recently visited by TV gardener and author Carol Klein and featured on Great British Garden Revival; it has even witnessed a marriage proposal.
Open to the public throughout the year, free of charge; contributions towards its upkeep and development are appreciated via a donation box.
A book, Aysgarth Edwardian Rock Garden – a Story of Creation and Re-creation written by Mrs Anderson is available locally. For up-to-date information on the Aysgarth Rock Garden visit www.aysgarthrockgarden.co.uk/