This week’s early edition of Six on Saturday comes to you from Dungeness, in Kent, England: a bleak but beautiful shingle peninsula that juts out into the English Channel, moodily facing off France. It’s home to an ageing 1970’s nuclear power plant, and also a very unusual garden that blends seamlessly into the landscape around it. Prospect Cottage is a fisherman’s hut bought by the British film director Derek Jarman, who was sadly suffering from AIDS but fond great solace in the elemental surroundings and in creating this garden. He died in 1994, after which the cottage passed to his partner, and it was recently sold to an arts charity for the eyewatering sum of £3.5 million, surely making it one of the priciest fisherman’s huts in the world. Let me take you on a little tour:
1 The Front Garden. Driving along the single track road that skirts the peninsula, there is nothing to indicate anything special here among the scattered bungalows, huts and electricity pylons. The only sign indicates that you are entering a restricted area, making you wonder if you’re even allowed to be here. I knew we were looking for a small black weatherboard cottage, and something about this one with the yellow window frames and door made me guess it must be the one. There is no gate, fence or boundary separating it from the surroundings, which struck me as very un-British. Instead of a neatly mown lawn there is a pebble lawn, distinguishable from the shingle thanks to the use of larger, white-grey stones. A collection of taller upright pebbles huddle together like little dolmen.
2 Garden ornaments take the form of flotsam and jetsam, stuff that was washed up on the shore and picked up by Jarman to decorate his garden. Rusty bits of twisted metal, weathered timber and the hull of an old fishing boat are put to good use. There are no trees or large shrubs in the garden, as there is no soil to support them, just shingle, so these ornaments add height and structure. There’s nothing twee or romantic about them, they echo the harshness of the landscape and the electricity poles and pylons that criss-cross it.
3 Plants. Like the people who eked out a meagre living as fishermen here, the plants are tough and resilient. There are no labels of course, so I can’t tell you what they all are, but most of them are also found growing wild nearby. There’s a spikey, bushy plant that looks like a coarse rosemary, and plenty of sea cabbage, which has lovely silvery sculpted leaves and attractive seed heads at this time of year. These plants grow directly out of the shingle.
4 The back garden has a more shrubby, cosy look to it, with denser planting nearer the house. The large grey bushes – which I think are Santolina, Cotton Lavender, look good contrasted with the greener plants. I didn’t dare go any closer as I wasn’t sure if anyone was actually living in the cottage or not, I already felt that I was intruding.
5 The John Donne wall. Walking round to the side of the house, you are again surprised by a different area with striking simplicity. Here timber boards have been placed in a quadrant, with another smaller quadrant inside it, and at the centre what look like parts of tyres arranged around a metal pole. What do you think this represents? My guess is a water feature with fountain. The writing on the side wall is almost illegible, but I researched it later and it is The Sun Rising, a beautiful poem by John Donne, although as you can see by the late afternoon shadows cast by the westerly sun, this wall seems to face south rather than east.
6 Blending into the landscape. I think you can see how successfully this garden reflects its setting. I find it so restrained. I think I would have been tempted to fight the elements, to bring in tons of soil, make raised beds, put trees in to filter and do battle with the salty winds, plant a hedge, make a boundary, mark it as mine, but Jarman seems to have fully embraced the landscape and his garden is a wonderful example of less is more. Beyond the garden, bits of rusty metal and hulls of fishing boats dot the flat scrubland and shingle ridges, which eventually reach the wide expanse of sea that reflects the giant sky like a mirror. I found this place mesmerizing.
An elegant lighthouse stands sentinel, watching over the treacherous currents and shifting banks of shingle.
I hope I can return here in spring and summer, when both the garden and the landscape will be transformed by wild flowers. I’ll leave you with a thought from Jarman:
Paradise haunts gardens, and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them. Others are like bad children, spoilt by their parents, over-watered and covered with noxious chemicals.
More gardens can be found on the Propagator’s site, a few paradises and perhaps one or two spoilt children?!