Gardens should be above ground, shouldn’t they? Plants need sunshine and rainwater to survive, so how could life be sustained underground?
In 2000 a garden was discovered in South Wales. It had been lost for over 50 years under tonnes of soil, buried just after WWII. There were ponds and rills (small streams cut into rocks), and also an underground labyrinth of grottoes, tunnels and sunken ferneries. Henry Roger Oakley bought Dewstowe Estate in 1893 and created a network of tunnels and underground gardens. He died in 1940 and the gardens were abandoned. During the construction of M4 motorway and the Severn Bridge the huge quantity of soil excavated was used to fill in the grottoes.
Natural grottoes are formed by tidal waves or on hillsides of limestone where rainwater dissolves the carbonates in the rock. Grottoes became popular in the mid-16th century, especially in Italian and French gardens. They served as baths, chapels and were often combined with water features, which is the case at Dewstowe. By 18th Century artificial grottoes were all the craze. Some were built indoors and decorated with sea shells. There are grottoes at Stowe and Stourhead parks, highly decorated and tucked under bridges. But by the middle of the century natural looking grottoes were the latest fad. The shells and minerals imbedded in the walls were removed and an attempt was made to recreate natural limestone caverns.
Grottoes weren’t the only gardening craze to hit England. Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, coined the term pteridomania to describe the ‘fern fever’ that gripped England from the 1830s. People from all walks of life – factory workers and farmers, wealthy landowners and women – developed a fascination with having ferneries in or around your house. Why women? Unlike many plants, ferns lack obvious reproductive features, making their cultivation a suitable endeavour for prudish Victorian women who clearly were not allowed to discuss the sexual activities of anything. Ferns were planted in glazed fern houses or small patches of the garden. Fern cases – mini indoor greenhouses – offered the plant protection from the smoky Victorian city. The craze led to fern decorations appearing on wallpaper, ceramics and textiles.
Now when you visit Dewstowe and walk in the tunnels, the light shines through glazed openings, water trickles along by your feet and the grottoes are green once again. All the soil has been removed, and in such a short space of time, the gardens and ponds are once more a reminder of the rare world of underground gardens.
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