Dewstow House, near Caerwent, is not far from Chepstow in Monmouthshire, and one of the incredible things about this garden is that it was only discovered in 2000, after lying buried for nearly sixty years.1
Anybody who has attended one of Claude Hitching’s Pulham Legacy Presentations will recall that he declares that Dewstow is the ‘jewel’ of all the sites he has ever looked at, and a quick glance at his wonderful book demonstrates that there cannot be many sites that he and Val Christman (descendant of the Pulham family) have not visited.
My wife and I visited Dewstow in July 2017 on our way from Hertfordshire to visit our son and his family who live in Cheltenham. A quick glance at any map will show that this was a considerable diversion, and it is worth noting that this is not an easy site to find and the location advice given on the website should be carefully studied before setting out.
I took some photos while we were there, and I have included just a few with this report. But aficionados are recommended to go to the Dewstow website to get a proper impression of just what this site has to offer visitors, not just on their first visit, but also on (irresistible) subsequent visits.
Driving to Dewstow down the M4 on a busy Friday is not to be recommended. We arrived mid-afternoon and had only two hours, which was just enough time, but in all truth nothing like enough time, to see everything that we should have looked for.
The astonishing Grade 1 listed garden has been found to be one of the most significant examples of Pulham’s landscape gardens.
While there are many examples of the Pulhams’ work in stately homes in the UK, Dewstow is unique in its scale and subterranean focus. 2
Because we were a little late we benefited from a personal welcome from the proprietor John Harris and his staff in their Tea Room. I explained our interest in Pulhamite and presented John with our Danesbury Fernery Leaflet, and explained how the Friends of Danesbury were recovering the Danesbury Fernery from underneath 24″ builders spoil. John showed us the Dewstow video which showed how their site was buried under tens of thousands of tons of soil, excavated and developed into the jewel that Claude Hitching rightly describes it. The scale of their enterprise is staggering.
But putting aside contrasts of scale, it was when my wife and I declared plaintively that at Danesbury we had no water on our site, John Harris proudly declared that Dewstow did not have water either! At the time we were gaping at a large, surface level, Lily Pond, having just passed a duck pond, a Waterfall and a subterranean set of underground tunnels with water channels, koi carp, caves, grottoes and ferneries.
John Harris went on to explain in his gentle way, that the Dewstow site was half way up a hill, miles away from the River Severn and with no natural springs to feed it. He explained that the Lily Pond was at the bottom of the run of their water features, and the rain water filled Lily Pond was pumped all the way back to the top where it started on its underground journey.
Even though I immediately dreamed of the opportunities for us to pump water around the Danesbury Fernery, I stopped short of a Lily Pond – we just do not have the space at Danesbury!
The ground level at Dewstow is indeed spectacular as their leaflet proclaims, but it is when we started to explore the subterranean network of (Pulham) rock gardens, water features and ornamental areas that our breath was taken away.
Putting aside the magic of subterranean Pulhamite caves and grottoes and water features, the gardens were in full spring colour and it was quite easy to imagine how we might develop the gardens at Danesbury, even though on a vastly smaller scale. The team of gardeners at Dewstow had planted ferns, rock plants and perennials in herbaceous borders among Pulhamite stones and tufa rock (or so it seemed to me). There is no reason why we should not try to emulate that approach at Danesbury as we move forward.
We will visit Dewstow again, even though my son might wonder how it is that the journey from Hertfordshire to his home at Cheltenham seems to be taking us many hours longer that it used to.
1 Rock Landscapes, The Pulham Legacy, Claude Hitching, p.162
2 Dewstow Visitors Leaflet