My post a couple of weeks ago about Pteridomania seems to have created quite a lot of interest, which goes to show that ferns still manage to capture our attention in a big way, although probably still not as much as in the 19thc at the height of the fern fever craze.
But all good things come to an end, or at least slow right down, and so it was with fern fever. After WWI like so many other specialised forms of gardening, upkeep of ferneries became more difficult because of labour shortages and the expense of maintenance .
Luckily while most of the simple fern gardens have simply just disappeared, a surprising number of specially constructed ferneries still survive, although, judging by the number of ruins and the amount of documentary evidence, they are a mere fraction of the number that must have existed.
I’ve just picked out a few to illustrate their range and variety – and have concentrated on three success stories.
Most collectors probably had to be content with setting aside a shady area of the garden, to grow their ferns, perhaps adding a few rocks or a tree stump to help create a cool, damp root-run. By and large these do not survive. One that apparently does despite the disappearance of the house is at the site of Darlaston Hall in Staffordshire built for Swynfen Jervis a well known radical MP and fern collector who is seen standing centre right. That must have been a slightly grander one than most since the rocks were imported from the Duke of Sutherland’s estate at nearby Trentham.
If 19thc fern gardens like that have been lost there are some contemporary ones, often associated with stumperies, still being constructed.
I’ve commented before on the unusual one at Arundel Castle and I recently saw another at Holkham in north Norfolk where a long shady border in the walled garden has recently been turned into a fern border-cum-stumpery. It doesn’t fit the “standard” idea of a fernery but it seems to work.
Much more long lasting of course are those which were created taking advantage of natural landforms and materials. The fernery at Canonteign in Devon, for example, is hidden away in a hanging valley complete with caves and what is thought to be the highest man-made waterfall in England which drops for over 70m. Probably built around 1890 it was so well hidden that the entrance became overgrown. ,Once that happened it was quickly forgotten about and only rediscovered by chance in 2009!
If there wasn’t a completely natural landscape available then man-made landforms, such as old quarries were often planted up. An early example of that is now in the grounds of Keele University which provided the stone for the original Elizabethan Keele Hall .
In the 1830s William Sawrey Gilpin was called to advise on landscaping the grounds of a new mansion that was being built to replace it. As part of this he adapted the quarry into a picturesque fernery, creating a tunnelled entrance and a fern-lined gorge crossed by a stone bridge. A later owner of Keele discovered the long-lost site of Hulton Abbey on the estate and bought some of the carved stone mouldings to the old quarry and reassembled them as mock lancet windows to make it even more picturesque. They can just be seen in the middle distance but have now been taken back to Hulton.
Another adapted quarry was at Danesbury House in Hertfordshire where in 1860 the owner, William Blake got his gardener, Anthony Parsons, to create a fernery for him in an old chalk pit. This was done in conjunction with James Pulham. Pulham’s family had developed a recipe for remarkably realistic and durable mock rock which they called Pulhamite. This they used to create amazing artificial landscapes, often on a huge scale, and complete with grottos, gorges, cliff-faces, pools, water courses, tunnels and sometimes even buildings.
At Danesbury the design included ‘a dropping well, a grotto, a pass, and a rustic bridge over a gorge’, all complemented with ferns. There is a detailed account of it in William Robinson’s magazine The Garden in 1881 in which it’s claimed there was no better fernery in the Home Counties. Robinson also uses it as an exemplar in The English Flower Garden, his plea for a more natural style of gardening.
Sadly after the death of the owner and gardener it fell on hard times. A fire in 1916 destroyed most of the house and after it had been rebuilt it became a hospital. That closed in 1993, when the house was turned into apartments while the grounds were sold off, partly as a golf course and partly to the local authority. By this stage the fernery, including its massive rock formation had apparently been completely lost. However this is a good news story and shows the power of determined volunteers.
The part of the estate owned by the local authority had been turned into a nature reserve but in 2015, to quote the 2017 Hertfordshire Gardens Trust newsletter, a group of volunteers “ventured onto the derelict site of the Fernery, written off by Pulhamite experts as ‘beyond redemption’. The hazardous old chalk pit was full of nettles, elder, thistles, litter and rubble. While the Pulhamite rock work was still there, it lay behind a near-impenetrable tangle of ivy and tree roots.”
It was the start of a long but clearly very rewarding journey for a dedicated group of volunteers. After clearing away the vegetation and hundreds of tons of spoil they uncovered a ’lost’ path above the grotto, still with its original gravel surface, that ends with a sudden stop before the ‘gorge’ probably the point where the ‘rustic bridge’ led visitors over the gorge. Their website tells the story of the ongoing restoration with great enthusiasm and has some wonderful photos of the work taking place including some of replanted ferns! There is also an article about Danesbury on Claude Hitchings’ Pulhamite Legacy website.
Other impressive quarry ferneries can be seen at Bicton in Devon, Belsay in Northumberland and Gyllyngdune in Falmouth which has just been restored. But of course however grand the landscape it was still subject to the vagaries of the English climate so most collectors were probably only able to grow British native species, or perhaps add one or two other cool climate ferns from overseas.
If you wanted something more exotic an alternative was to set aside a special glasshouse which either included ferns amongst the plant mix or could be set aside entirely for ferns. Although these could just be for cool climate ferns, many had heating systems and were designed for growing tender, or even tropical species.
A wonderful early survival of an unheated house is in the grounds of Ascog Hall on the Isle of Bute, a popular destination for wealthy Glaswegians in the 19thc. The house which sits in about 3 acres was begun in 1844 for a clergyman but then bought and modified by a prominent Glasgow merchant whose son, Alexander Bannatyne Stewart, oversaw the layout of the gardens in the 1870s. The plans were by Edward La Trobe Bateman, an artist turned garden designer who had a part in the original planning of the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, as well as the grounds of the University there. He later worked for the Marquess of Bute at Mountstuart.
The gardens at Ascog were so impressive that just a few years later in 1879 they featured in Gardeners Chronicle. Although the article praised the plant collections generally, the principal attraction was “the most beautiful fernery” which Bateman is also thought to have designed, which took advantage of a natural spring for the water supply and humidity required for the fern collection that Stewart had assembled.
Its impressive iron- framed glass roof stood on a low stone wall with the L-shaped interior cut into a bank and well under ground level. Although unheated the combination of it being partly subterranean, the mild island climate and the shelter offered by trees and shrubs all around allows a wide range of ferns to thrive.
Its survival is, however something of series of minor miracles because, after Stewart’s early death in 1880, Ascog Hall passed through several hands before becoming an hotel in the 1930s. Presumably neglected the glasshouse gradually fell into decline, before becoming derelict, with the roof virtually collapsed, the frame badly corroded and the collection all but wiped out.
The Hall changed hands in 1986 but it wasn’t until the new owners had restored the Hall that they turned their attention to the garden in 1997 and realised what they’d got and thought was given to what to do with it. It helped that there was still one survivor of the original collection in situ a Todea barbara or King Fern 3 metres high and with with a rhizome about a metre in diameter [on the left in the large photo below]. Amazingly its thought to be at least 1000 years old making it Britain’s oldest exotic fern. It must have an early import from either south eastern Australia or New Zealand and a rare survivor in other senses since mature specimens of Todea, unlike many other tree ferns, do not transplant easily.
The fernery building was restored in 1995-96 with a grant from Historic Scotland and then replanted with the help of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh using the plant list in the Gardeners’ Chronicle article It opened to the public the following year and is now one of the horticultural must-sees on a garden tour of Scotland.
When I was looking through possible sites to include in this post another one which caught my eye immediately was the Grade 2 listed one in Southport Botanic Gardens which dates from 1876. It turns out to be another good news story.
Southport was one of the new seaside settlements that grew up with the rise in popularity of sea bathing in the late 18thc, and was then boosted by the arrival of the railway in 1848. The resident population grew and the town also attracted the ” better class” of visitors. It already had public park, probably designed by Paxton, when in 1874 the ‘Southport and Churchtown Botanic Garden Company’ began laying out 20 acres of gardens. These were opened to the public at a cost of 4d a head the following year. There’s a short description of them in The British Architect 21st may 1875 while the conservatory, fernery, and museum, were officially opened opened by the Mayor in 1876. There is, however, little detail of what was being grown and an article on the history of the gardens in The Pteridologist by Michael Hayward reports that in a typically Victorian way “the Southport Visiter devoted considerably more space to an account of food eaten by the Mayoral party at the inauguration than to a description of the fernery”.
The fernery building is 120 ft long but rather plain and utilitarian in external appearance, with plain brick walls, nowadays being covered in climbing plants, and a plain glass roof. Inside it’s a different story. The Historic England listing says that the interior walls were lined with tufa, but Michael Hayward thinks they are much more likely to be an artificial version – hyper-tufa – a mix of sand, Portland cement and organic material such as peat which can be found used elsewhere round the gardens.
The images below come from the Facebook page of the Friends of the Botanic Garden
Although Pulham’s company worked on several sites in and around Southport the fernery doesn’t resemble their normal style so its more likely it was created by a local contractor. It contained a nice array of rock work features, grottos and fountains but also has mirrors and a wonderful display of ferns of all shapes and sizes.
After the First World Wart the gardens were no longer so popular and the company eventually went bankrupt in 1934. Everything movable was sold and plans were afoot to sell off the gardens for housing. However after a big public campaign including a lot of fundraising Southport Council were persuaded to buy the Botanic Gardens from the builder for £6000 and they were reopened to the public in 1937. The splendid conservatory which stood between the fernery and the boating lake was thought beyond repair and was demolished but fortunately the fernery was retained.
In more recent years the greatest threat has been from austerity. In the early 2000s along with most of the park’s other facilities the fernery was threatened with closure – and then almost certain decline vandalism and demolition. As earlier it was saved by a vigorous local campaign group which showed how important friends groups can be in influencing public policy. They not only stopped the closure but also helped secure a £300,000 grant to reroof the building, modernise the heating and replant the contents, and set up a charity – Botanic Gardens Community Association – to support it. Their Facebook page shows how successful they’ve been, with award after award for their work and a beautiful and popular park to show for their efforts.
If you want to know more about ferneries then more then apart from Sarah Whittingham’s Fern Fever, the most comprehensive list of surviving as well as contemporary sites is on the website of the British Pteridological Society. This has an extensive county by county list of where to see ferns, although sadly no hyperlinks through to them. The P&G UK database only lists 16 survivors and several of those entries are “thin” to say the least: one demolished, another breeze-blocked up, another only mentioned in passing, yet another ” a terrace garden that was once a fernery” . The Historic England register revealed 10 listed glazed fernery buildings. Unfortunately none of these sources are very clear whether the fernery is a building, a rock work setting- some of which are classified by HE as buildings or merely an area of the gardens where ferns were grown.