No – it’s not south-east Asia but south-west Dorset! Abbotsbury, a garden founded by the Strangways family in the late 18thc, was my first point of call recently on an out of season tour of some gardens in the south-west.
In 1863 Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography, must have been rather surprised by the contents of a letter he had just received from his uncle, William Fox Strangways, the 4th earl of Ilchester. The two corresponded regularly and often about gardens but this time Uncle William was complaining about his elderly gardener not just chopping bulbs in two & trying to stick them together again but asking what he should do about “amorous polygamy”. This was surely scarcely a subject fit for the pen of a Victorian gentleman so no wonder William said it had “left indelible impression in my memory.”
Actually its nothing as potentially scandalous as one might think. Uncle William’s gardener was rather confused and asking what he should do with Amyris polygama, more commonly known as the Chilean pepper tree, one of the rarer plants in the garden. So sorry if you’d read this far expecting a bit of salacious gossip but read on to find out more about this amazing sub-tropical garden and its origins.
[All photos are my own from Feb 2018 unless otherwise stated]
Abbotsbury, unsurprisingly given its name, was the site of a monastery sold, after its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539, to Sir Giles Strangways, He paid £1906 10s for the buildings, its manor, land, and the famous Swannery. Some of the abbey buildings were converted into a house, although it was never the main family home. It was besieged and largely destroyed in 1644 by the Parliamentary party.
By the mid-18thc taking the sea air and sea bathing was becoming popular, and the family began to visit Abbotsbury more regularly. However the rebuilt house was much smaller and in the village, inconveniently half a mile from the sea. So in 1765 William’s grandmother, Elizabeth, the first Countess of Ilchester, had Strangways Castle built as a seaside home in the newly fashionable Gothick style. Although the architect is unknown it is known that Charles Hamilton (of Painshill fame) was consulted. The “castle” commanded “a very extensive sea prospect from the Bill of Portland to Torbay, between which no ships can pass without being distinctly seen”, and by the 2nd edition of Hutchins’ History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset in 1796 there was “a neat bathing-house on the beach, which is accommodated with hot and cold baths, dressing rooms, etc.”
The Countess much preferred Dorset to London and she and her eldest daughter Susanna, [Lady Susan O’Brien,William’s aunt], planned a garden which sloped down away from the castle on the seaward side. They started planting it with “exotics” since “the climate is uncommonly genial and the grounds are so well sheltered”. [Gardener’s Chronicle, 18 August 1899].
Their original garden was rectangular and surrounded by high walls, with a stone summer-house in each corner so there was always somewhere to shelter from the strong winds and sea spray. It also included a rock garden that Alicia Amherst, the pioneering garden historian argued was probably the first purpose-built one in Britain, rather than any of “the stone compilations of the ‘landscape’ period.” [Proceedings of the Conference of the Royal Horticultural Society and the Alpine Garden Society, RHS, 1936, p.13].
Another more sheltered walled garden, some two acres in extent, was also created a few hundred yards away in a valley behind the hill that faced the sea. This was to become the garden we see today.
In 1906, in his Book of English Gardens M.R.Gloag noted that “the rock garden she made, the Fig trees she planted, and the Arbours she built are there unchanged and have an eighteenth-century air about them, forming a veritable ‘souvenir heureux’ of a very charming woman.”
The setting and hospitality attracted several royal visitors including Princess Charlotte of Wales who made several visits to Abbotsbury in 1814, and was “struck with admiration at the sublimity of this charming summer residence” [Morning Post, 11th October 1814].
There was severe damage caused in 1824 by a “great storm” which swept over Chesil Beach: “the embankment gave way and the whole [was] filled with sea and shingle. A hundred bodies were washed up on the beach and the house was filled with wretched shipwrecked mariners of all nations”. It also destroyed the earl’s swannery, and presumably washed away his bathing house and ruined the gardens.
Princess Victoria and her mother visited in August 1833 and again in 1846 when as Queen, she returned with Albert on the royal yacht. As they had just dropped by unannounced the Earl was not at home, so instead they were shown round by Mr Nicolson, his lordship’s gardener, and were obviously impressed. That’s probably because all the Strangways family seem to have have been interested in gardening.
In 1802 after, Henry Fox Strangways, the third Earl inherited the estate he began enclosing the open fields and commons within it. In 1811 he planted Stavordale Wood, immediately east of the walled garden then known as Castle Gardens.
Working closely with William, his younger half-brother he built up an extensive plant collection in the Castle Gardens, extending them westwards into the fields outside the walls and into the valley along the northern edge of Stavordale Wood. He remained in charge until his death in 1858, when William succeeded him at the age of 63.
William had been a diplomat and travelled around Europe, building up a network of botanical contacts not just on the continent but all over the world: in 1818 for example, he had made a contact in the Crimea: ‘The very lists make one’s mouth water’ and as early as the 1820s, William excitedly wrote to Henry: ‘I have just this moment received a magnificent box of seeds from Mexico.’
The plant collections at Abbotsbury were further enhanced by exchanges with the gardens of other family members including their principal seat at Melbury, but also nephew Henry’s Laycock Abbey, Penrice in the Gower the home of William’s half-sister Mary, and the homes of their Digby connections at Minterne and Sherborne Castle. The extensive correspondence between them all provides references to specific species and varieties introduced at Abbotsbury Gardens. There is a huge database of Henry Fox Talbot letters online which includes 246 references to Abbotsbury, many giving great detail about plants.
Despite all his travelling William’s heart was definitely at Abbotsbury where he planted a belt of protective evergreen holm oaks to provide shelter for his other plantings. He was almost certainly responsible for the magnificent Caucasian wingnut tree which still dominates the original 18thc walled garden.
He was honoured with having the genus Stranvaesia (closely related to Photinia) named after him by John Lindley. Shortly after he died in 1865 The Journal of Horticulture published an article about the Abbotsbury gardens, which the author had toured with Mr McNeil the head gardener and which listed many of the rarities that William had introduced.
The 5th earl, another Henry, succeeded and he and his wife, Mary, continued to take great interest in the garden, but it really began to blossom in the 1890s when they appointed Joseph Benbow as gardener. He had trained at Kew and worked for some years at ‘La Mortola’, the garden on the Italian Riviera created by Thomas Hanbury who also had a nearby estate at Kingston Maurward, Dorset.
It’s likely that it was Benbow who encouraged or influenced the Earl and Countess to create a Mediterranean or even subtropical, garden. Certainly during this period, the Castle Gardens were extended again to the north-east and more shelter belts were planted to the south-west.
Dams were installed along the stream in the valley to create a series of pools and two formal lily ponds were built. Benbow also contributed several articles to Gardener’s Chronicle and “most heartily enters into the labour connected with the planting and cultivation of the numerous exotic and sub-tropical plants that here exhibit such vigour.”
Abbotsbury was certainly a great example of the great golden age of Edwardian gardening, although not in the usual sense of grand Jekyllesque herbaceous borders. In 1899 both Gardeners Chronicle and Country Life featured Abbotsbury, and in that same year Lady Ilchester also printed a catalogue listing an astonishing 4000 different plant species and varieties from every continent. By 1912 the collection had expanded further to over 5000 species.
Gloag listed many of the rarer trees and shrubs, and described a large recently built and plant-filled winter garden adjoining the castle, its interior walls and glass roof covered in tender climbers. He also noted that everything in it was planted into the ground with no flowerpots allowed.
Outside round the castle itself there were “Seventy or eighty varieties of Mesembryanthemum (commonly known as Ice Plant) [which] run wild over the stones.” Many of these had been imported by Benbow and unfortunately all were killed by heavy frosts later in 1906 when the temperature even in Abbotsbury dropped to -6C.
In the valley garden the Ilchesters had made a wild garden where “a brook runs right through it crossed by various bridges, and at intervals are small ponds bordered by Arum Lilies, Sagittaria, Aponogeton, Nymphaeas and other water plants; on either side a choice selection of trees are planted.” The planting has changed – with Gunneras, now dormant predominating, but the brook still runs underneath “various bridges”, all now painted Japanese red.
Elsewhere were rhododendrons, bamboos, mimosa, 30 varieties of eucalyptus, agaves, crinodendrons and edwardsias and indeed “every part of the world has been called upon to contribute to this earthly paradise.”
Disaster struck in 1913 when the castle caught fire and was reduced to a shell, taking its contents and many of the garden’s records with it. Matters were made worse when it was quickly rebuilt using sand from the beach in the mortar. This meant the structure was so weak that it had to be demolished in 1936. During World War II the remains were levelled, the garden filled in and the site became a base for American troops.
Nowadays the castle’s site is largely overgrown and almost inaccessible. A track leads to the old terrace and although apparently it is possible to make out outlines of walks and other garden features unfortuntely I couldn’t find any sign of them.
There are also supposed to be a large range of naturalised garden plants surviving in the fields and hedgerows including fritillaria, verbascum, geraniums, myosotis, iris, and salvia, as well as tamarisks and fig trees. Again, it being winter, I saw no sign.
Abbotsbury’s gardens were then gradually engulfed and overgrown until inherited by the 7th earl’s daughter, Lady Theresa Agnew who began their restoration in the late 1960s. It was a slow and painful process but included, in 1982-4, the further expansion of the Gardens into Stavordale Wood to house a Chinese plant collection.
Her death in 1989 and the immense damage caused by a storm in early 1990 coincided with the arrival of new garden curator, Stephen Griffith. He found the shelter belts uprooted and over 100 specimen trees felled by the force of the gales.
A ten-year plan for restoration and renewal followed, with advice from experts such as John Bond of the royal gardens at Windsor, Sir Simon Hornby, Martin Lane-Fox and Roy Lancaster, leading to what the Royal Horticultural Society describes as ‘a highly spectacular renaissance’.
New plant collections and garden features such as a rope bridge to cross one of the many ponds, have been introduced, as well as a shop, nice restaurant, and garden centre. The transformation was recognized in 2012 when Abbotsbury was awarded the coveted accolade of Garden of the Year by Christies and the Historic Houses Association.
Out of season or not its easy to see why.
For more information check the garden’s website: https://abbotsbury-tourism.co.uk/gardens/