A garden planted with pebbles (6 on Saturday)

Prospect Cottage, Dungeness

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.

The front ‘lawn’ with the nuclear power plant in the distance

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?!

38 thoughts on “A garden planted with pebbles (6 on Saturday)

  1. Great post. I’ve seen photos (usually of the boat!), but they don’t always show the context. It was nice to see a range of photos showing the pace from a few different angles, and the wider setting too. It does seem to be the antithesis of so many things that have become the status quo in gardening. Thanks!

  2. A really interesting Six. I read a brief article about the garden in a magazine earlier in the year I think but that only featured one or two photos, It’s great to be able to get a proper nose around! A stunning setting and a wonderfully different garden.

  3. I always love the broody moodiness of DJs garden, never fails to impress. I had read that the new owners would leave it untouched. I wonder if they have any money left to much else!!

  4. This is somewhere I have always wanted to visit. DJ pushed the boundaries of what a garden could be and for this I applaud him. It looks just wonderful! Hope you have a safe and care free trip back to Belgium.

  5. That is an obscene amount of money to pay for a simple hut even if it is classed as art. In fact don’t start me on what people pay for so-called artworks. I like the desolation of Dungeness, it’s other worldliness is rather compelling and it is in fact classified as Britain’s only desert by the Met office. A brilliantly atmospheric place for photographers.

    As for the planting – I have a post about plants that grow in shingle which you might find interesting / useful – not from Dungeness, but just a little further along the coast at Rye Harbour.


    1. I was just saying to my Mum yesterday that next time we must continue along the coast to Rye. Your post about the nature reserve is really interesting, I didn’t know it was there. Lots of lovely wild flowers.
      I also want to get back to Dungeness in spring/summer and ideally with my decent camera instead of my ancient iPhone!
      Re the cost of the cottage, it’s madness for sure but there was private interest which meant it could have ended up being privately owned. A lot of the money was raised by Jarman’s celebrity friends. I was happy to visit although there was no indication that it was open to the public!!

      1. Yes, the garden is interesting, I did get some photos of the cottage and the garden, but didn’t realise at the time that it belonged to Jarman. If I had known I might have taken a few more photos and had a wander around!

      2. It’s so strange that there isn’t even a sign…but actually I loved the fact that it’s so uncommercial, no dreaded visitors’ car park or gift shop…very unusual.

      3. Indeed. You might like my post about the Chalice Well Garden in Glastonbury which will be posted on the flower blog in a few weeks. For very different reasons!

  6. I went to the lighthouse, but couldn’t find the cottage when we visited, but we did see lots of seakale growing in the shingle. I’ve tried to grow it in my garden but its not happy.
    I love your ending quote. I’m now trying to decide if I have a spoilt child!

  7. Very interesting post. It doesn’t look a very restful place, or maybe that’s just my interpretation. I’m not sure what I think of it but I am not an artistic person by any stretch of the imagination.

    1. I think it would be a difficult garden for most gardeners to live with – it’s so minimal – most of us would bring in earth and compost by the lorry load and get planting I think! Me included! But I do admire his restraint.

  8. What a fabulous post! I think it challenges our ideas of what a garden can be. Ultimately, it’s a nice thought that one can live with one’s surrounds and not bend it all to one’s will. There is a brutality to the garden for sure, but there’s also a Japanese tranquility. And judging by your brief bio of the man, that tranquility was vital to his life. I really enjoyed this reveal of an area I knew nothing about.

  9. Hello Sel
    Thanks for this very interesting post. I’d read articles about Derek Jarman’s garden but had never seen enough photos of the surrounding area to get a clear idea of the whole setting. It certainly seems an interesting to place to visit although I don’t think I would swap my spoilt child for it !

  10. This is so interesting. I’ve never been, but I’ve always wanted/intended to. It looks surprisingly bleak and empty compared to the pictures and videos I’ve seen of it, full of poppies, eschscholzias and red valerian, as well as the kale. Maybe in November they’ve been stripped way by the weather or cleared by the arts charity?

  11. Gosh that takes me back a while. The early 80s in fact. My brother worked at the power station and when I visited him he would drop me off in the early morning and I would spend all day walking around the area. Totally barren and isolated, you think at first, yet brimming with its own flora and fauna.

    1. I imagine those were some lonely walks you had! I thought it was beautiful and hope to see it in spring and summer too. Apparently they might try to keep the power station going but modernise it, as it’s using 1970’s technology and coming to the end of its natural life.

      1. I remember once when I stayed with him the first week of January. Those were not just lonely walks, but very very cold! “Take your breath away” cold!

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