Derek Jarman’s Garden. Dungeness.

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’. Derek Jarman.

Dungeness is a bleak, but strangely haunting landscape. The area looks like a wilderness but it is rich in bird and plant life.
IMG_0392 It is the one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe and is classified as the only desert in Britain. It comes out into a point in the sea and behind it lies Romney Marsh. For years it was considered as a wasteland and people much preferred the large sandy beaches and dunes down the road at Camber near Rye.

Camber Sands

Camber Sands

The isolation of Dungeness was  probably the reason that Dungeness Nuclear Power Station was built here. Apart from a few fishermens’ huts there was not much here.

Dungeness Power Station

Dungeness Power Station

I think Derek Jarman was one of the first to fall for the charm of the place whilst out for a pub lunch with the actress Tilda Swinton in 1986. He had ventured into Kent in search of a bluebell wood and on a whim decided to drive on to Dungeness. Prospect Cottage, an old fishernman’s hut was for sale for £700 and the rest is history. At the end of 1986 he was diagnosed with HIV, and he seems to have found great peace and comfort in his strange new home. He wrote that for him,  the bleakness was part of its charm.

Prospect House

Prospect Cottage

Many of the huts have been done up now, but it is still a wild, open landscape because hedges or fences are not allowed. Apparently Derek had always been interested in gardening so he set about creating one in the shingle. The area is rich in flora;  there are over 600 species of plants here. He tried as far as possible to use the one ones that are indigenous to the area such as  this Sea Pea Lathyrus

and the beautiful Horned Sea Poppy, Glaucium flavum.

Glaucium flavum

Glaucium flavum

In the picture you see it with Viper’s Bugloss, Echium vulgare which grows everywhere here and is wonderful for insects.
Another ubiquitous plant is Sea Kale, Crambe maritima which has beautiful curly leaves. It is edible, but Derek said that because it is a long-lived plant, it absorbs radiation here so close to the power station.
The proximity of the power station and the pylons radiating out from it strike me as really sinister, specially as there seems to be a low hum coming from the wires. Combined with the loneliness of the place it gives me the shivers. Derek said it reminded him of a liner on the horizon and he seemed to enjoy its twinkling lights as evening fell.
The picture above is the view of the power station as you stand with your back to the side of the house. Along this south wall Derek had the John Donne poem ‘Busy Old Fool, Unruly Sun‘ in raised wood.
Because Dungeness is an SSSI( Site of Specific Scientific Interest) there were restrictions on the plants that could be grown. To create windbreaks he used plants such as native Elder, Broom, Gorse, and prostrate Quickthorn. White leaved plants such as Santolina and Helichrysum italicum will withstand the salt-laden winds.

What makes the garden so original is the use of found objects as art. The whole garden reminds me a bit of a film set, which is appropriate as Derek Jarman was a film director as well as an artist .He loved the wonderful flints which you  find on the beach here and he placed them in circles like dolmens. He made a circular bed surrounded by pointed flints which he called dragons’ teeth. He used stones, wood and old rusty iron and anything he found, as he loved beach combing.

In one of those moments of serendipity, shortly after my visit, I was browsing in an second-hand bookshop when I found the book that Derek Jarman wrote about his garden.
derek jarman’s garden with photographs by howard sooley. This is a beautiful book that I thoroughly recommend. The photos are superb and Derek wrote so lyrically about his beloved garden and how he created it. There are poems he wrote too. A beautiful book about a beautiful garden.

Although Derek died in 1994 his garden remains as a monument to him.

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55 Responses to Derek Jarman’s Garden. Dungeness.

  1. Tina says:

    Fascinating post, Chloris. Dungeness is a familiar name to me, but I didn’t realize that Britain had any desert landform. Love the plants you profiled–very Texas-like. 🙂

  2. Peter/Outlaw says:

    Years ago someone lent me derek jarman’s garden with photographs by howard sooley. Reading it changed my perspective on garden ornament and I was off on a 15 year jag of using found objects, rusty metal, junk in my garden. It’s such a treat to see the garden again through your lens and to know that it still exists.

    • Chloris says:

      How lovely that you know this book, Peter and that it was such an influence on you. I came home and really wanted to create my own shingle garden and if I lived at the seaside I certainly would. I love beachcombing and finding driftwood and stones and shells.

  3. Sam says:

    I’ve just read this book and found it very inspiring as we’ve been thinking about a shingle garden for our front garden. Dungeness isn’t far from us, so I’ll have to venture over there and take a look. Lovely to see it here.

  4. Flighty says:

    A most enjoyable post and wonderful pictures about a place that I’ve visited a couple of times. Once it was warm and sunny, the other cool and misty and rather spooky. xx

    • Chloris says:

      I find it quite spooky at the best of times. The Power Station looks so sinister and all the wires and pylons. I can’ t imagine what it’ s like in Winter when it’ s cold and windy. Very bleak, I should think. But all the same, it does have a sort of magic.

  5. Gina says:

    This garden has recently gone on my list of ones I have to visit. Thanks you for the pics.

  6. Not what one envisions an English garden would be, but there it as and made by someone who truly appreciated plant material, I like it. Please enlighten me as to what a Shingle Garden is?

  7. Some of those iron pieces elevate beach combing to a whole new level. You can tell it was a labor of love.

    • Chloris says:

      Indeed, I read that some of the objects were so big and heavy that it took several men to drag them up the beach.
      I think the garden helped him tremendously in the last months of his life.

  8. Kris P says:

    I remembered seeing photos of this house and garden the moment I saw it in your post but I didn’t recall the back-story or the lovely poem on the side of the house. It’s remarkable that it’s still there. Landscape like this isn’t uncommon along the less-populated areas of California’s coast but you don’t usually see home and gardens with such distinct character there.

  9. rusty duck says:

    It is a remarkable garden. Who tends it now I wonder?

  10. Fascinating, such a haunting landscape, did you get to look round the garden? Thanks, Liz, I shall order Jarman’s book about Prospect Cottage and fit a visit as a side trip to Great Dixter. I think it’s fairly close by ….

    • Chloris says:

      It’ s not actually open to the public but there are no fences and I think that visitors generally have a quick peek round. It is so famous that everyone wants to have a look.

  11. homeslip says:

    I so enjoyed reading this Chloris. You write so well about gardens. I visited during ‘golden hour’ on a glorious October evening last year. We drove slowly past as I didn’t want to linger outside the cottage as it is privately occupied but I felt I knew the garden from DJ’s book and the wonderful photographs by Howard Sooley. It was more the setting and context (hard to divine from photos) that I was interested in. I remember looking back and seeing Donne’s poem highlighted by the setting sun which was DJ’s intention. I have a particular fondness for black weather-boarded cottages as I spent several happy years living in one in Brightlingsea. Have you taken the boat across to Orford Ness? Now that really is a shingle spit to raise awareness that there could be other forces at play.

    • Chloris says:

      It is privately owned by Derek Jarman’ s partner Keith Collins. I think he is quite used to people wanting to pay homage to this famous garden. As long as you are not too intrusive visitors are not discouraged.
      How wonderful to live in a weather- boarded cottage. The only thing I know about Brightlingsea is that it was one of the Cinque ports. I really must pay a visit, it is not far from here.

  12. Brian Skeys says:

    This garden is I think quite unique in this country, it reminds us of Beth Chatto’s mantra, right plant right place. Like you I can see the beauty in the garden but would also find the power station sinister.

    • Chloris says:

      I would love this place if the power station wasn’ t here. Pylons give me the creeps too. But yes the garden looks absolutely right because it is only planted with plants that belong in a sea side garden.

  13. croftgarden says:

    This garden has always inspired me, it maintains the perfect balance of landscape and garden. It is a wonderful example of the use of native plants and growing in harmony with the environment.

  14. bittster says:

    What a desolately beautiful area. Your pictures make me miss the coast, there’s something about the cool foggy light which can’t be duplicated elsewhere. I love your road trips!

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Frank. Indeed, there is a special magic on the coast. This lonely spot is very atmospheric. But I wouldn’ t like to be here when the North winds blow.

  15. What a fascinating place. Not at all the kind of landscape I imagine when I think of England, especially Kent.

  16. snowbird says:

    Well…what an engrossing read! How I enjoyed it!
    I can imagine how bleakness can be attractive when the mindset too is bleak, but to turn that very bleakness into a garden is certainly an achievement! I did find that poem on the raised wood intriguing…as was the opening quote.
    Dungeness does look utterly haunting, yet strangely ethereal to me….
    I thought about all the little getaway huts in Iceland while reading this…another landscape devoid of trees, and vegetation…. although there are certainly an array of plants growing here.
    A power station and humming lines would give me a serious case of the heebie-jeebies too!
    Fascinating stuff….and beautifully written as always, every time I read your posts I slap my wrists and decide that I shall take the time to write more interesting posts….xxx

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Dina. But you do write interesting posts. I love them, they are always so full of interesting and exciting things. Never a dull moment in your life!
      Dungeness is a strange place but beautiful too, if it wasn’ t for the power station I think it would be fun to make a garden here. I wouldn’ t want to live here all the time though.

  17. Christina says:

    You always provide me with just the posts I want to read, Liz, thank you. I’ve always wanted to visit DJ’s garden. As you know I love gardens that are all about place and this is certainly that. I don’t think I realised that the power station was still in use, I would find the humming lines a bit disturbing too.

    • Chloris says:

      Oh good, I am delighted that the post interested you Christina. This garden is a perfect example of a garden that blends into its surroundings with welll chosen plants that belong here. The art work using flotsam from the beach is inspiring too.

  18. Julie says:

    Thank you Chloris for sharing this with us – it is interesting to see how an individual’s interpretation of paradise can be so different. Like you I found this a rather sinister location for a home & garden although I do admire his ability to create something of strange beauty in this unlikely setting.

    • Chloris says:

      The setting is bleak, brutal even. But Derek Jarman created something beautiful here. Many of his films have a weird and brutal edge to them so there was obviously something in this scenery that struck a chord. What he created here is highly theatrical, rather like a film set. Yet it feels organic because it uses plants and objects which are found on the beach.

  19. I enjoyed this post thanks for posting, how I would love this dry landscape, in contrast to Beth Chatto’s gravel garden it’s good to see natives used as garden plants, I like the sparseness too, Frances

    • Chloris says:

      In fact Beth Chatto was an inspiration to Derek and he thoroughly approved of her garden. He hated tidy, manicured gardens and was very fussy about choosing the right sort of plants to suit his landscape.

      • I’m late reading your reply, when I visited Beth Chatto’s garden a few years ago it looked very manicured, not a weed to be seen or a plant out of place, I enjoyed my visit and like her garden but it left me feeling a bit down, it was too perfect, through out the garden were lots of imported plants, right plant for conditions but not native in Britain/Europe, from your photos Derek Jarman’s garden doesn’t have lots of plants from other lands, Chatto may have inspired Jarman but he seems to have used his own style, this is not a criticism of either just an observation, Frances

  20. Annette says:

    Often the most hostile and bleak landscapes harbour great beauty if one is willing to look properly. I wouldn’t have chose it as my home but I can somehow see why Jarman -also under his circumstances- fell for it and certainly managed to create something unique and very beautiful that defies the reality of the place and cleary says: Men can create beauty too!

    • Chloris says:

      I wouldn’ t have chosen this place either but I am drawn to the idea of creating a seaside garden using mostly native plants. And what fun to spend your days beachcombing looking for driftwood and stones, shells or rusty iron to make your own art work with.

  21. Cathy says:

    For some reason I thought the garden was not open to the public these days – or is it just opening a few on specific days. I love the whole concept of using found and indigenous materials and what a splendid setting for one of my favourite poems! Makes me realise that I haven’t any JD quotes in our garden which I need to remedy… Thanks for a lovely post, Chloris

    • Chloris says:

      It’ s not open to the public, it never was. Derek Jarman never discouraged visitors though, he didn’ t even mind people stealing seeds. Now his partner Keith Collins owns the garden, I think he is used to people gawping at the garden as long as they are not intrusive. There are no hedges or fences in this place.
      Good old J D. I think this poem is wonderful and so appropriate on the sunny wall.

  22. Anna says:

    Oh I enjoyed your post Chloris. I came across Derek Jarman’s book some years ago in our local library. I borrowed it enough times to merit buying my own copy. As you say the photography is superb and the writing is exquisite. I’ve wanted to see the house and garden ever since – a magical garden with a real sense of place. It must have given him great joy.

    • Chloris says:

      You and I always seem to enjoy the same sort of books Anna. What a pity we don’ t live closer together and we could share our libraries.
      If you ever do get to this part of the world, as well as Dungeness, you have Sissinghurst and Great Dixter nearby. And of course there is beautiful Rye where I love to stay . Have you ever read the E F Benson Mapp and Lucia books which were set here?

  23. Debra says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Chloris. Jarman’s garden is famous of course but it is so unlikely I’ll get a chance to see it. Thank you so much for sharing the images and your unique insight into the place.

  24. A great review and photos. I have the book you mention and it is one of my all time favourite garden books. Clearly created by an artist who had an understanding and respect for the landscape. Inspirational.

  25. Angie says:

    It’s hard to imagine how one would get inspiration such a beautiful space in such surroundings. DJ has done a remarkable job in creating an oasis in such a bleak corner of Kent and as has been said, not at all what springs to mind when I think of Kent.
    Great post Chloris.

  26. Chloris says:

    Thank you Angie. This garden really is a oasis. You are very meticulous about the right plant in the right place so you will be able to appreciate what he was doing here.

  27. Fascinating story about a place I knew nothing about. Thank you so much for such an engaging post. Thank you also for the follow Chloris.

  28. Pingback: Derek Jarman’s Garden. Dungeness. | Scattergood-Moore

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