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Reginald Farrer’s Private Rock Garden

Influential innovations in Edwardian horticulture.

Unassuming survival in the Dales

Plans  to refurbish and replant an important rock garden that was developed in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period have stimulated the first serious study of its layout and history – and the influential innovations trialled at the site.

An empty concrete pond belong to a rock garden
The empty concrete pond within Reginald Farrer’s private rock garden. © Historic England, Alun Bull, DP168956

Within the village of Clapham, below the imposing limestone fells of Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales, are the remains of a rather unassuming rock garden. The garden comprises a crescent-shaped, south-west facing enclave within a former stone quarry. Within the arc sits a curvaceous concrete pond connected to a narrow waterfall channel (both now dry), stone outcrops, limestone-edged beds for marshy plants and a gentle scree-slope. All are artificially made but designed in a very naturalistic style. This is the former private rock garden of Reginald John Farrer (1880–1920): ‘the father of modern rock gardening’.

A dry concrete waterfall channel in a garden
The narrow concrete waterfall channel at Farrer's garden, now dry. © Historic England, Alun Bull, DP168980

A rigorous visionary

In  Farrer’s day the rock garden lay within the grounds of his family home, Ingleborough Hall. He created the garden in 1894 at the age of just 14 and continued to adapt and improve it until his death. Farrer was a significant figure in early 20th-century gardening, garden -writing and international plant-collecting.

By the time of his death in 1920 (during an expedition into Upper Burma), he had published around a dozen horticultural books (alongside several ill-received works of fiction), ensuring that his work, and in particular his enthusiasm for alpine plants, remained influential long afterwards. His impassioned plea for naturalistic but bold horticulture proved very persuasive in Edwardian England, and his influence was exercised through a number of high-profile associations.

For example, he advised on the creation of ‘moraine gardens’ (planted scree) at Myddelton House in Middlesex (home of renowned horticulturalist E A Bowles) and at the Brockhurst Estate in West Sussex. Even the famous rock garden at RHS Wisley in Surrey was allegedly inspired by his book My Rock-Garden (1907). Farrer’s colourful character, adventurous life and distinctive writing style have made him a compelling individual for those interested in the history of gardening.

Farrer did not invent the rock garden, nor the alpine garden, but he was enormously rigorous in his practical research and visionary in his creative ambitions. This set him apart from his predecessors and allowed him to achieve higher standards of exotic planting through a better grasp of alpine environments.

Reginald Farrer in oriental dress.
Reginald Farrer in Buddhist robes acquired during a plant-collecting expedition. © The Farrer Family Collection, c/o the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Archive, GB235 RJF/2/2/5

Farrer's 'Old Garden' fades

Until  recently, and for many years, the Ingleborough rock garden received little attention in terms of maintenance. The lush garden, once dense with exotic plants cared for fastidiously by Farrer and the estate gardeners that followed him, became a shadow of its former self. Most visibly, the pond is no longer watertight and, having stood empty for several decades, its concrete shell has fallen victim to frost damage and decay.

Plans to reverse the garden’s decline were put forward early last year by the current owners, who intend to restore it as sympathetically as possible. These plans were received with great interest by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and Historic England, both of whom were also keen to see a sustainable and appropriate solution.

There was a problem, however. Other than Farrer’s own, often rather grandiloquent written descriptions of his ‘Old Garden’ (Farrer 1907 and 1909), and a mere handful of snippets in various biographical pieces, very little detail had ever been placed on record about the design and development of the Ingleborough rock garden, and not a single plan, by Farrer or anyone else, had been found of it.

First known plan brings clarity

Unsurprisingly then, many questions concerning the garden’s structure, history and integrity, all crucial to the restoration, remained unanswered. Greater clarity and understanding was necessary to inform our advice and so, following an initial visit by the authors, Historic England decided to undertake a rapid programme of survey and research.

Field investigation in the spring of 2015 consisted of a detailed measured survey of the remaining structures and earthwork elements in the garden, a full photographic record, and a general assessment of condition. The resulting plan, with slopes expressed as hachures, provided the first known accurate drawn record of the garden. With this in hand it was now possible to draw together written and photographic evidence from Farrer and his contemporaries, so as to build a more informed picture of the history and importance of Farrer’s work at Ingleborough.

Plan of Farrer's garden from a survey by Historic England.
Historic England’s 2015 survey of the Farrer rock garden. © Historic England, Philip Sinton

It was heartening to find that relatively little had changed in the overall form and layout of the rock garden. It is still recognisable from Farrer’s descriptive tour, published in his 1909 book In a Yorkshire Garden, which provided the main means of identifying named elements of his design within our new plan.

From Farrer’s accounts alone the reader could be forgiven for picturing a magnificent landscape of mountains, lakes and gorges. However Farrer’s choice of grand metaphors to describe the mounds, pond and paths is really just part of his hyperbolic charm. A few photographs in the book and a handful of others taken during Farrer’s lifetime help to give this vision of his garden back its proper scale. Comparing these photographs with Farrer’s written descriptions also confirmed that a number of botanical specimens have survived to the present day.

The main discernible differences between the garden that Farrer would recognise and the site today are that it is now much less densely planted, and that the pond is empty and in need of attention. There have been very little in the way of modern additions.

A black and white archive image of Farrer's rock-garden.
Historic image of the rock-garden as it was around Farrer’s lifetime. © The Farrer Family Collection, c/o the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Archive, GB235 RJF/2/2/5

Private garden was Farrer's test-bed

Hitherto  the specific importance of Farrer’s private rock garden had been little discussed or recognised. Our fieldwork and associated research has revealed evidence that the construction and maintenance methods recommended by Farrer in his books were largely based on techniques developed at Clapham, in an attempt to recreate some of the plant habitats witnessed on his travels.

Farrer was also deeply inspired by the ‘mountain’ habitats created by the nearby crags of Ingleborough, and the garden benefits from a strong home-grown sense of place, instilled through Farrer’s use of water-worn limestone from the slopes above the village.

Some of Farrer’s methods were also tried out at his commercial nursery garden, the Craven Nursery, which was also in the village; however, his private garden appears to have been his primary test-bed. Concepts such as the use of below-ground irrigation systems of perforated pipes, naturalistic moraine-gardens, carefully considered horizontally-laid stonework, and ponds bordered by marshy planting areas can all still be traced to some extent within the rock garden.

Photograph of Farrer's garden pond with other landscaping in the background.
The pond in Farrer's garden, with concrete bog garden shelf and rock face beyond. © Historic England, Alun Bull, DP168994

The evidence also shows that all of the surviving elements listed above are close matches to those depicted in instructive diagrams published in Farrer’s 1919 book, The English Rock-Garden, proving that Farrer ‘practised what he preached’.

Instructive diagrams from Farrer’s 1919 book The English Rock-Garden.
Instructive diagrams from Farrer’s 1919 book The English Rock-Garden.


Our investigation has advanced understanding of the rock garden and recording its physical elements, helping to secure its future through advice based on due recognition of the significance of Farrer’s work.

Historic England continues to work with the owners, who have engaged a conservation-accredited architect, and will use the results of the survey to influence their plans to refurbish and replant the garden, bringing Farrer’s place of experimentation and inspiration back to life.

The authors would like to express their thanks to all those who contributed to the investigation. In particular, to the present owners of the garden, Mr and Mrs Bowes, for kindly granting permission for the site to be surveyed, and to Leonie Patterson, archivist at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, for providing information and support.

Rebecca Pullen


Rebecca Pullen is an Investigator with the Assessment Team (North), Historic England. She joined English Heritage in 2010, having previously worked in commercial field archaeology and on academic landscape research projects. At Historic England she undertakes a wide range of applied research and analytical survey tasks, including the provision of casework support such as that carried out for the Farrer rock garden.

Emma Sharpe


Emma Sharpe is Historic England’s Assistant Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas (Yorkshire). She joined English Heritage in 2009, working initially for the Historic Properties Department. With a degree in Architectural Studies from the University of Nottingham, Emma currently works in the Development Management Team, providing constructive advice to local planning authorities, owners and developers across Yorkshire.

Further Reading

Farrer, R J 1907 My Rock-Garden. London: Edward Arnold
Farrer, R J 1909 In a Yorkshire Garden. London: Edward Arnold
Farrer, R J 1919 The English Rock-Garden, Vol 1. London: T C & E C Jack Ltd
Illingworth, J and Routh, J (eds) 1991 Reginald Farrer: Dalesman, Planthunter, Gardener. Lancaster: Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster
Pullen, R 2016 Reginald Farrer’s Rock Garden, Clapham, North Yorkshire: Analytical Survey and Assessment. Available online as Historic England Research Report Series 7-2016.

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