|Prospect Cottage and Derek Jarman’s Garden.|
Six months ago it would have been inconceivable to visit any heritage site. With the pandemic lockdown heritage and leisure venues were among the first to be closed. Many people thought that the pandemic would be over by the end of summer and that everything would be back to normal.
Things may never get back to “normal” but one of the steps towards achieving this, taken to help the heritage and leisure industry survive, is the gradual reopening of many sites. Last week the UK held its annual Heritage Open Days. In previous years most heritage sites and museums have been free to enter, and many private heritage sites opened their doors for a couple of days. This year, of course, things are different. There were still celebrations for the Heritage Open Days but many places, including my old place of work, Gainsborough Old Hall, won’t reopen until next year.
The sites that have reopened have implemented social distancing precautions, though with parks and gardens this has not been so much of a problem. Back in January, even before the lockdown, it looked as if one garden in particular was going to be lost, and when the lockdown came into effect its future looked ever gloomier. This garden is of special importance to the lgbt community. It is Derek Jarman’s Garden at Dungeness in Kent.
Derek Jarman (1942-1994) was more well-known in the lgbt community in his lifetime in the UK than he is now. Many people of my generation will know his name and work, though younger generations probably don’t. He was always challenging cinematic norms when it came to depictions of sexuality and gender, leading to him being described as avant garde or the “enfant terrible” of British cinema. Today his films seem tame and harmless. Some of his most famous films are “Sebastiane” (1976) and “Edward II” (1991, based on a play by gay Elizabethan spy Christopher Marlowe).
It isn’t only the fact that the garden was designed and made by Derek Jarman that makes it notable but also the fact that it’s not your typical garden of lush greenery and vivid flowers. It is very much a product of its location, and in his lifetime it attracted a lot of media coverage, as well as being featured in a couple of Derek’s own films.
Derek Jarman’s Garden, and the old fisherman’s collage called Prospect Cottage where Derek lived for the last 17 years of his life, is located on a piece of vast shingle beach not far from an imposing nuclear power station. It is open to the elements, and wind gusts off the English Channel almost continuously. No tree can grow there.
Derek fell in love with the place as soon as he saw it in 1986, alerted by the “For Sale” sign. He made an offer to buy the property almost immediately and very soon moved in and began renovations – not a total modern make-over but a sympathetic restoration to bring more stability to the century-old structure. He once told a journalist that he bought it as a joke, but it is apparent that this quickly turned to a love of the place.
The surrounding shingle garden was virtually a natural wasteland. In fact, the National Trust lists it as a desert. Derek also set about livening up the surrounding beach with a garden. He had always had an interest in flowers and gardening, ever since his parents gave him a gardening book when he was 4.
Derek’s first choice of plants for his new garden were roses. However, the shingle and sandy soil were not a suitable ground for the roses he chose to grow and they withered. Inspired by the surrounding landscape Derek selected roses which could survive in the soil as well as sea kale, red hot pokers, elder, poppies and rare orchids. Because the area is a conservation zone all the plants had to be grown from seed, not transplanted from another location, and no fences are allowed. In among the plants and pathways Derek set up small sculptures and erected pieces of driftwood. At first the locals thought he was building some sort of pagan shrine.
Derek and his partner Keith Collins tended the garden through Derek’s illness. Keith continued after Derek’s death and even after his own diagnosis of a brain tumour in 2018. This was when he decided to put Prospect Cottage and the garden into a trust to preserve it for the nation. Keith died before that trust was completed.
By the end on 2019 the cottage and garden needed to raise £3.5 million to ensure both were saved for the nation or it would go up for private sale in March. A fundraising campaign was formed by the Art Fund, the Tate, and Creative Folkestone. Many of Derek Jarman’s friends and celebrity fans urged the public to help.
When the lockdown came into effect there were fears that the target would not be reached in time. Thankfully, as the deadline approached the target was reached, and Prospect Cottage and Derek Jarman’s Garden were saved. Both will remain pretty much as they were in 2018 when Keith Collins died.
After Keith’s death the Garden Museum in Lambeth, Greater London, decided to mount an exhibition about the garden. Part of the interior of Prospect Cottage was reproduced and actual items from the cottage were loaned to the museum. The opening of the exhibition was delayed by the lockdown. The museum said that the delay actually worked in their favour because the exhibition was expanded to accommodate the new social distancing rules which meant that more items could be included.
The exhibition opened on 4th July and a relatively small number of visitors had the opportunity to see it. The exhibition closed yesterday. Thankfully, more people will be able to see the real thing down at Dungeness when it eventually opens to the public officially – a unique garden created by a unique film-maker.