Southsea Rock Gardens
Speaker: Jackie Baynes
Date: 22nd October
Jackie started her talk with an introduction describing the natural environment in, for example the Swiss Alps, which inspired our subsequent passion for Rock Gardening. She continued with a run through of other notable Rock Gardens including the Chelsea Physic Garden before launching into the main topic of her talk, the Southsea Rock Gardens, familiar to many of our members from childhood visits.
She told us that the Rock Gardens were created in 1928 on the back of the success of the ornamental seafront gardens. The largest stones were Westmoreland water-worn limestone transported from Cumbria and put in place by hand in an informal non-linear arrangement.
The sunken site affords beneficial shelter from cold winds and ensures the alpines and shrubs flourish. Early features included a grotto garden and aviaries with exotic birds.
In 1934 the popular illuminated fountain and lily pond were added which even today are very popular with visitors.
In 1939 at the start of World War 2 the seafront became a no-go area and the gardens fell into disrepair. They were restored in 1945/49 with improvements to layout and design and plants chosen for their tolerance of maritime conditions.
In 1948 a popular entertainment Pavilion was built on part of the gardens and additional lighting was added, together with small sculptured animals and birds which appeared to be resident in the foliage. Jackie described the 1950s/60s as “the Golden age” helped by the maturing planting of exotic brooms, tamarisk, yuccas and eucalyptus.
In 1949 there was a great storm which resulted in the gardens being flooded. However due to prompt action by the Fire Brigade in pumping out the salt water and by the gardeners saturating the area with fresh water there was very little lasting damage.
However in 1963 the ornamental animals were removed as tastes had changed and in November 1986 the Pavilion was pulled down and construction of the Pyramids started soon after. During these two decades the gardens continued to be maintained and planted with spring bulbs each season and sensory scented plants such as myrtle, rosemary and daphne odera added at the request of the Royal Institute of the Blind.
The aviaries were removed in 1986 and the livestock transferred to Victoria and College Parks. Extensive refurbishment took place in 1987 following a hurricane which damaged the gardens and these improvements to the hard and soft landscaping earned an award to go with other awards gained previously.
Since 2000 the gardens have passed to a contractor for maintenance together with help from the Friends of Southsea Rock Gardens, a volunteer group. On 5th February 2014 there was another flooding incident and many shrubs and alpines died. Much work continues to restore these much loved Gardens, fondly remembered by residents and visitors alike.
Jackie’s well illustrated and well received talk bought back childhood memories (especially of the animals) and probably inspired a generation of gardeners; let’s hope they continue to do so!