The early seaside promenades I wrote about last week were artificial creations, designed to separate land and sea, and often ornamented or disguised with gardens and other features.
Later in the 19thc another form of artificiality began to make its appearance there: the mock rock invented by James Pulham and by the early 20thc this was being used to create seaside landscapes on a grand scale.
The 18th and 19thc were the great age of artificial stone. The best known manufacturer was Eleanor Coade and I’ve written a series of posts on here about her and her many imitators. Generally they specialised in decorative and architectural pieces. However James Pulham was her equal in terms of talent and inventiveness although his company specialised in artificial landscapes rather than finer ornamental work.
During the 19thc Pulham’s company built large rock gardens in both public and domestic settings. They incorporated pools, cascades and fountains and rather than create haphazard heaps of rock they took great care to imitate natural rock formations. They created their artificial ‘rocks’ by building rough shapes from rubble and crushed bricks, before coating them with a secret recipe cement which set in a seemingly natural stone colour. Their ambitions seemed to know no end and by the last years of the 19thc they were creating larger and larger rock formations and although the business was eventually to close with the outbreak of war in 1939, most of its final major commissions came in the 1920s from seaside resorts, such as Lytham St Anne’s, Ramsgate and Folkestone, who wanted to attract and impress visitors.
Amongst their earliest seaside gardens were those at Bournemouth which I covered last week and those at Felixstowe in Suffolk. These days renowned as a large container port and ferry terminal in the 1890s Felixstowe was more famous as a holiday and spa destination. The first public gardens were laid out on the seafront by the Felixstowe Spa and Winter Garden Company in 1897 but it took the building of a promenade on a new sea wall in In 1902 for things to really get under way. In the end there were eight separate gardens linked together to earn Felixstowe the title of “The Garden Resort of East Anglia”.
The Spa gardens were laid out by Notcutts, a local nursery firm, who created an intricate series of terraces and paths with a bandstand, seats, shelters, and enclosures, and rock-work formations constructed out of Pulhamite. There is a very short Pathe News film clip of the gardens being opened by the Lord Mayor of London in 1928.
Despite the fact that over the years, they had fallen into disrepair these have all largely survived intact and in 2003 they were given a Grade II designation by Historic England. That must have prompted Suffolk Coastal District Council to organise a restoration project that got underway in 2011 and the gardens re-opened in 2015. Unfortunately I can’t find any more detailed information about their history but perhaps the Gardens Trust’s new Suffolk Stories project will reveal more.
A much large project got underway around the same time at Ramsgate. Like Brighton and Scarborough which I covered last week, Ramsgate was one of the small fishing villages that was slowly transformed into a seaside resort during the 18thc. Originally quite fashionable, most of its seafront terraces looked out to the sea over communal gardens open only to residents or subscribers. However after the railway arrived in 1846 visitor numbers increased dramatically and it soon became less exclusive and more commercial.
Although a short clifftop promenade was laid out by Augustus Pugin [of House of Commons fame] after he moved to Ramsgate with his family in 1843 and began building new houses and hotels, it really wasn’t until the Borough of Ramsgate was created in 1884 that the town started to boom. The corporation began by acquiring and throwing open those communal gardens, then in 1890 they asked their borough engineer, W. McIntosh Valon, to draw up ambitious plans to improve the seafront. This was difficult as you can see from the image below:
The harbour, and old town sat in a dip with cliffs rising on either side, and there was not much beach. There was little room for expansion and only steep roads for access to the new residential developments higher up.
Valon’s scheme widened the quay, built a new sea wall and created new roadways to the clifftops. On the west side an arcaded retaining wall was constructed between 1893 and 1895 using Pulhamite with terracotta brick facing to carry Royal Parade upwards across the cliff to the town above. But for the eastern Valon, presumably working in partnership with Pulhams came up with an even more novel solution which showed off their skills in no uncertain terms.
In 1894 their commission was to create an entire faux landscape ‘in an artistic, substantial and workmanlike manner’ which would surround a new serpentine road that was to climb the hill from the harbour to the East Cliff. Called Madeira Walk it appears to run along a gorge, with steep cliffs on either side ending with a balustraded terrace at the top.
The rocks were laid in strata coloured bands some even containing crushed shells to create a sense of greater realism and they incorporated planting pockets and recesses for sheltered seats and tunnels. At one bend in the road Pulhams built a cascade – naturally an artificial one -with a bridge The vast expense of the whole scheme – all of £700 – earned the cascade the nickname of the ‘ratepayers’ tears’.It was to be the first of a complete makeover by Pulhams of most of the town’s public open spaces and gardens. The next sea front improvement and gardens scheme got underway after the First World War under the auspices of the town’s first woman mayor, Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills. She had inherited a large estate on the east cliffs from her uncle Lord Winterstoke, and there, on an eight acre site she commissioned an Italianate garden which was laid out in 1921–3. It included not only formal lawns, a fountain and semi-circular sun shelter but terraced rock gardens by Pulham. As much use as possible was made of local labour and locally sourced materials to relieve the high levels of unemployment in the area in the aftermath of the Great War.
On the western side the existing promenade was extended by the Prince Edward Promenade and wide tree-lined Royal Esplanade, which were opened in 1926 by the Prince of Wales.
Here Pulham’s worked on the West Cliff Chine, where they built more artificial cliffs crossed by a giant arch. Interestingly Pulham’s name doesn’t feature in the Thanet Conservation Plan for the area.
Pulham’s final involvement came in 1935–6 when the corporation devised a scheme to connect the Winterstoke gardens with the sea some 25m below and build a new bathing pool at the base. Pulham built a parapet wall and two long flights of steps which take about 100m to descend the cliff to a concrete promenade reclaimed from the sea. These are stratified and moulded imitating natural rock and contains seams of flints, with small gullies, rock pools, and recesses at intervals containing shelters [I should have included in my recent post about seaside shelters.]
Ramsgate has a large amount of Pulhamite work, and after years of lack of maintenance Thanet District Council did some repairs at the end of the 20th century. A further £50,000 from the Coastal Revival Fund in 2019 carried out some more work and set up training courses to develop local skills so that the correct methods of care and repair are used to preserve this unique physical heritage….but there is still a lot to be done.
For more information about Ramsgate the best place to look is Historic England’s on-line book which details the development of the town in a very readable form,
Unlike Ramsgate Lytham St Anne’s was an entirely new development. Before 1875, the area was just sand hills and rabbit warrens sandwiched between the rapidly developing seaside resort of Blackpool and the fishing village of Lytham. A group of local businessmen realised the potential and formed the Saint Anne’s on the Sea Land & Building Company to create an up-market residential town and seaside resort. A pier opened in 1885 and in 1896 the first St Anne’s Improvement Act led to the building of a promenade on reclaimed sand dunes with informal planting and paths behind it, and a little further inland the laying out of pleasure gardens now known as Ashton Park.
The local parks friends group has compiled a detailed history , showing how the company tried to cover their costs by charging sixpence admission and then when that failed leased them to local nurseries before selling to a developer. A large area was built on before Lord Ashton stepped in and bought the remaining land giving it to the town as a public park in 1914.
Pulham’s were then commissioned to remodel and improve the new park. They imported nearly 1000 tonnes of rock from Derbyshire and Clitheroe to form the basis for a new alpine garden. But they were now also carrying out more “ordinary” landscaping and planting work. In Ashton Gardens they created “a circular garden” and planted a rose garden with 6,000 rose trees. From there said the local paper in 1916 “a short path leads to the Rock and Water Garden …This garden is a reintroduction of Nature, and something new in public gardens. It is, in fact, more like a nobleman’s private garden than a park….One of the first effects which enraptures the visitor is the waterfall and cascade. The water falls over layers of water-worn rock, a direct fall in the centre, with a cascade on the left side. The water gives the appearance of falling from a beck, and is received into a winding lake made in a bed of glacier stone. This lake is over 200 feet long and is bridged by a quaint one-span low bridge.”Following the completion of St.Anne’s Pier in 1885, the sea front was developed with footpaths and garden walks during the 1890s. While most of the seashore is still sand dunes one long section running south from the pier was reclaimed and formalised by Pulhams with all the features you’d expect to find in one of their gardens: rock gardens, waterfalls, winding rocky paths, walls and bridges and of course a lake.
There is a walkthrough of it by a local resident on youtube, although you must be prepared for an account of what she had for lunch amongst many other asides!
The Promenade Gardens was later dubbed as ‘the prettiest esplanade in the country’. Much of the rock-work still survives today and there was a restoration project in 2015.
Some seaside councils went further than just having Pulham create artificial landscapes or even ornamental cliff faces and used Pulhamite on the seafront itself to create sea defences. Between 1922 and 1923, for example, they ‘rockified’ the cliffs of the Coastal Cliff Park in Blackpool just to the north of Lytham to help protect a vulnerable section.
Perhaps the last major project that Pulham’s were involved with was at Folkestone’s The Leas. On top of the cliffs there were private communal gardens – the Upper Leas – laid out by Decimus Burton for Lord Radnor with more gardens- the Lower Leas – at their foot. Later Radnor also built a water-powered lift to take visitors up and down between the two. They were all part of plans to make Folkestone an attractive visitor resort.
As as Ramsgate, a scheme was devised to relieve as much local unemployment as possible by building a walkway as an alternative to the lift, and the commission went to Pulham’s.
In 1921 they began creating an artificial rock face, about 50m high by 50m wide that was crossed by a zigzag path that provided an easy and ornamental walk without steps or steep slopes from the Upper to the Lower Leas – all done in Pulhamite.
Work took 3 years to complete. Apart from including plenty of planting pockets there where were seats and shelters, short tunnels and a Pulhamite Rock arch about 8 feet high and 8 feet wide. Most spectacular were the linked artificial caves -the largest one about 30 feet by 20 feet – cut into the cliff which have now listed at Grade 2 by Historic England.
There is an illustrated on-line guide to the area published by the local Shepway Council called Promenading on the Leas which a lot of interesting information about the buildings and landscape but which doesn’t mention Pulham at all!
Sadly when Pulham’s closed all there records were destroyed but there is a wealth of information about them easily available. A Good places to start is the website of the Pulham Legacy or if you want to jump straight in at the deep end then gazetteer Claude Hitching’s book: Rock Landscapes – The Pulham Legacy which you can buy from the site.
There is also a free on-line English Heritage booklet – Durability Guaranteed: Pulham Rock-work about the conservation of Pulhamite which also has a gazetteer of their sites.
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