Pulhamite rocks – an extraordinary Victorian fashion
Ideally flicking through a Summers Place Auctions (summersplaceauctions.com) catalogue of their forthcoming auction of Garden and Natural History on 14th and 15th April, my eye was caught by Lot 336: ‘A collection of Pulhamite stone: 19th-century’. What on earth is Pulhamite stone? you are probably asking yourself. The answer is that it is a miraculous Victorian invention of hefty stones that made using a mixture of rubble and cement, cunningly modelled to simulate the texture and colour of natural stone. The skilled craftsmen who made them were known as ‘rock workers’.
If you are a keen garden visitor you have almost certainly seen a Pulhamite rock garden without realising it: the great Rothschild treasure house Waddesdon, in Buckinghamshire, Audley End, Essex, St. Fagans Castle near Cardiff and Leonoardslee in Sussex all to this day retain splendid examples of this now largely forgotten but once eminently fashionable rock. If one can call it that. And there must be scores of Londoners who daily run or walk past the Pulhamite rock garden in Battersea Park. ‘Visitors to Battersea Park cannot fail to notice the various rockworks near the lake…. The impression created is of a geological fault near the lake, with strata of sandstone dipping inland…. One may reflect on the ingenuity with which they have been placed’ Brent Elliott in Country Life 5.1.1984
The story of Pulham stone which was used in over a hundred gardens is lovingly told by Claude Hitching in ‘Rock Landscapes, the Pulham Legacy, Rock Gardens, Grottoes, Ferneries, Follies, Fountains and Garden Ornaments’ published by Garden Art Press in 2012. Claude can proudly boast of five relatives who worked for Pulham including his grandfather, Frederick, who was the foreman responsible for the construction of the rock garden at Buckingham Palace. It is a riveting read with page after page of photographs of beguilingly dotty gardens – for example the rock garden at Madresfield in Worcestershire is a tour de force reaching up to some 30ft high in places. Or the extraordinary gardens at Dewstowe (www.dewstowgardens.co.uk) near Chepstow in Wales created for Henry Oakley, an odd reclusive character who commissioned a large rock garden with streams
cascades and pools as well as a labyrinth of underground tunnels, caves, grottoes and ferneries. Oakley’s garden was buried for many years under mounds of topsoil dug up to create the M4. Soon after buying Dewstow House in 2000 John and Elwyn Harris spotted bizarre pieces of rock poking through the ground in their garden.
Lo and behold they discovered that they had accidentally bought a forgotten Pulhamite masterpiece. It took three years to excavate the garden. It is now restored and open to the public.
Ramsgate, an elegant seaside town at the very Eastern tip of Kent, is in the news at the moment due to Nigel Farage hoping to become its first UKIP MP, but it also deserves to be known for its dramatic Pulhamite garden on Madeira Walk.
It gives the appearance of a rocky gorge that has been hacked through to make way for the road that winds up from the harbour to East Cliff.
It was commissioned at the end of the 19th by the local Council who wanted to attract more visitors to the town with picturesque gardens and promenades.
If however these ‘fake’ rocks do nothing for you, Sarah Langton Lockton has written a delightful article on our own rock garden at www.doddingtonplacegardens.co.uk in this week’s issue of ‘The Lady’ magazine.