Completing the Garden
One of the Countryside Agency's Projects - 2002 to 2006
"Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes."
These lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest are inscribed on a Doorstep Green sign in Chiswell on the Isle of Portland, Dorset. It is a dedication to the memory of the 28 people who died in the Great Storm which swept over the Chesil Beach in 1824, destroying more than 100 houses and causing a long slow decay to this coastal community. In 2003, local people formed a Trust, and with the help of the Countryside Agency, acquired a derelict site just in time to save it from municipal housing. This was to be our Green.
The site of our proposed Walled Garden, September 2004. In the right hand corner was an Air-raid warden's shelter and in front of it a concrete plinth where the Council stored sand-bags ( against sea flooding). In the foreground are the tops of walls which we later discovered were the walls of a fine 17th Century house.Most of the floor seen here is tarmac and concrete.
The Chiswell Walled Garden is one of the smallest Doorstep Greens in the South West, less than half an acre. But it is precious to a community which has so little, no community centre and no real stake in the regeneration process. In 2001, what had been a large greenfield site, the old village common, was allowed to go to a housing corporation for development. The residents in Chiswell, in despair at losing their open space, asked the Doorstep Green advisors to help find another site in the village which would be suitable as a green space. The two advisors from Bristol were wonderfully supportive; they encouraged the group to apply to the Council for a long lease on a derelict walled compound near the beach.
The local authority was bemused…”a dark gloomy place, hardly the site for a Green…” they demurred. That was true. Once the boatyard had cleared out their lumber, a reinforced concrete air-raid shelter and a large concrete bunker appeared at one end, and at the other were the remains of 1960’s public lavatories. Between them were several alternating layers of concrete and tarmacadam. Nonethess, the three to four metre high walls were well built of Portland stone and people began to realise that the gloom was man-made and not intrinsic to the site.
Ray and children bagging up all the pebbles found in the 1960's concrete plinth
The removal of all concrete began in September 2004. Today the 380 square metres of walling has been repaired and re-pointed with lime mortar; the South West Regional Development Agency has donated a substantial amount of new Portland stone paving to the courtyard area and the compound is light, airy, full of sun and a haven for small birds and people sitting in the sun and meeting their neighbours.
A small wattle & daub garden shed to house electricity and water has been built close to the courtyard entrance so that people can have community events, exhibitions and parties. The two metre square building has been constructed of locally grown timber, hazel hurdles (the wattle) and a lot of mud. Fortunately, teenagers from the local High School have volunteered the mud slinging! The process of then applying the lime render is both technical and time consuming. With the unstinting help of the Dorset Centre for Rural skills our volunteers are mastering this ancient craft. The sturdy building supports a ‘living roof’ where we will grow beach plants, probably sea campion- Silene uniflorum.
But the journey to get to this stage has been hard, very hard. It was left to a handful of local residents whose enthusiasm and dedication kept the vision alive. In December 2004,as soon as the unforgiving render was removed from the north end where the lavatories had once been (smelly ‘cottages’ we were informed by old timers) everybody got a shock. One wall was comprised of ashlar stone with vestiges of doorways and mullioned windows. Research quickly revealed that there had been two fine stone houses on this site. They were dated to the early 17th Century. A watercolour of Chiswell by a well–known topographical artist, John Upham, painted in 1804, 20 years before the devastation of the Great Storm, showed them silhouetted against the beach, smoke drifting from their chimneys. The discovery of this message from the past, though only a ghostly footprint, delighted the community. Photographs were taken, poems written; little boys briefly became archaeologists, abandoning their usual guise of gun-toting terrorist! Everybody was keen to dig up the rubble, soot and compacted sand and find stone hearths, stone paving, stone drains and the other smaller treasures, sherds of glass, pottery and clay pipes.
It was at this point that certain members of the Trust came into conflict with the local authority who insisted on partial demolition of the historic wall. It was an unreasonable demand, but the planning authority was inflexible, the negotiations protracted. Finally the management committee had to capitulate otherwise the community would have lost their Green. It was a damaging conflict and trust was lost all around. To further fund the project another grant was applied for and awarded, this time from the Local Heritage Initiative. This was a godsend for it meant that the walls could be restored and pointed with the correct lime mortar, and historical information on the site could be published. In the centre of the garden volunteers have carefully excavated the council-laid compacted soil to reveal a large area of Portland stone paving from what appears to be a third cottage. Some of these beautifully crafted paving stones have been relocated to form an irregular path. Tons of gravel, pebbles and oyster shells have been spread either side of the stone walkway so that shingle ridge plants, (sea kale, Danish scurvy grass, sea campion and the yellow horned poppy) can colonise the area and provide our wild life garden, funded by a Breathing Places Lottery grant.
At the south end of the compound a raised bed was formed from the ashlars found on site. The bed is about a metre high and intersected by gravel paths. Chiswell is built on shingle (the potato sized pebbles of the Chesil Beach), therefore, in order to grow trees and shrubs, tons of soil had to be imported to the raised beds. Help was at hand in December 2005 for supplying the new soil with worms bought on the internet; the help came from a class of five year olds from the local Infant’s School. Their creative teachers will help them monitor the new garden for the next three years.