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Stone and concrete are longstanding bedfellows. In a garden centre you can see all manner of concrete paving slabs alongside natural water-worn pebbles, boulders, and hand-finished granite ‘Japanese’ lanterns made in China. At Chelsea Flower Show, travertine and fine Indian sandstone sit beside imaginative and innovative poured concrete, with only a few stone snobs objecting. We accept that concrete and natural stone can sit happily enough together, so long as they are well used.
The conjunction of real and artificial stone (sand and cement, concrete) has been commonplace in English gardens ever since the development of Portland cement in the 19th century, and its greatest practitioner, building naturalistic craggy landscapes, was the Hertfordshire firm of Pulham and Sons which closed in 1939 after almost 140 years. Their proudest invention was Pulhamite, a blend of suitably coloured sand and Portland cement applied to a core of rock and brick rubble, and tooled and fingered to look like natural, stratified rock. As Coade Stone was to fine statuary, so Pulhamite was to craggy rockwork.
Dewstow Lion Grotto
A recent book, Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy, by Claude Hitching, is the result of many years’ patient research, pulling together fascinating information on the Pulhams’ work, which extended from grand gardens, such as Sandringham and Waddesdon, to modest suburban villas. It included rock gardens, grottoes, ferneries, follies, fountains, garden ornaments, bridges, and even ornate ceilings. And, as in our modern gardens, the Pulhams were perfectly happy to mix, in the same eyeful, smooth balustrades and ornate fountains with craggy, naturalistic, fern-clad rocks – natural or artificial or both – and all slashed by a pumped ‘waterfall’.
It has been said that the Pulhams’ work was a link between the craggy landscapes of the 18th-century Picturesque style of gardens, through the Victorian love of rockwork to the late 20th-century rock gardens which did their best to imitate accurately the rock strata and terrain found in nature. Certainly James Pulham, in his Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery, or the Pulhamite System of Forming Rocks, was delighted to quote Wordsworth: ·
There is a spot, as you may know,
If ever you to Langdale go:
Into a asm a mighty block
Hath fallen and made a bridge of rock.
The gulf is deep below,
Worn by the force of water so,
And in a basin, black and small,
Descends a lofty waterfall.’
Whether the Pulhams were building in Pulhamite, or in real stone because it was locally plentiful, their intention was clear: ‘By this naturalistic system of forming rocks, we try to avoid doing anything contrary to nature or to what is consistent with geology, to appear as natural as possible. . .’ Much of the Pulhams’ work has been lost, as Hitching admits. Their 1914 roof garden at Selfridges on Oxford Street is long gone, although it preceded by 22 years the 1½-acre Kensington roof garden, built above the former department store Derry and Toms (1936-1938), which can still be visited today.
Selfridges Roof Garden (Photo provided by Selfridges Archive / History of Advertising) and Madeira Walk at Ramsgate
But there is plenty of other Pulham work to be seen. Dewstow, near Chepstow, is one of their most ambitious projects – a series of underground caverns and tunnels that hark back to that most Picturesque 18th century garden, Hawkstone, in Shropshire. So also does their tunnel-riddled artificial sea cliff at Bawdsey Manor, Suffolk. Dewstow, made circa 1895-1912, was forgotten and covered in soil until the first years of this century, when it was revived by the new owner, and its best remaining features excavated and opened to the public.
Dewstow has the usual Pulham mixture of styles: the fern-clad dripping grotto separated from its path by an immaculate, High Victorian cut stone balustrade, the tunnels made to look as if they were cut through living rock but bizarrely supported by the odd Classical column. It is as if all this would-be naturalism was a game, a delight, a piece of fun.
The Pulhams also worked in the public arena. At Ramsgate there still exists a Pulhamite cliff along Madeira Walk, built in effect as a retaining wall, an ornamental feature commissioned as one might commission a winter garden or a flower garden.
The contract specified that it should be “of brick burr or other suitable rough material and to have plenty of hollows and pockets for planting in. The whole surface to be covered with the Contractors’ special Pulhamite cement of different quiet tones of colour, so that, when done, the rocks will appear massive, bold and picturesque. . “ Surely Pulham wrote his own brief here. The cliff still stands today, curious as ever among the traffic.
At the RHS’s garden Wisley, given to the Society in 1903, the Pulhams built a two-acre rock garden which, although now much repaired, is still one of Britain’s best known rock gardens, along with those of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh.
In the years alter Pulhams closed in 1939, rock gardening was to take itself far more seriously. The countless rock gardens made at Chelsea, even up to the 1990s, set out to imitate far more accurately a real rock landscape, although, in the 1930s and beyond, suburban domestic rockeries flourished – distinctly un-naturalistic mounds of soil scattered with rocks in the plum pudding manner and despised by gardening’s taste police.
Large rock gardens at Chelsea are now rare, not least because of the public’s awareness of the need to preserve our natural landscapes of water-wom limestone from which so many rockery stones were stripped. At Harlow Carr garden in Yorkshire, a water-worn rockery was actually removed, rather than repaired, as a bad example to the public.
The rock garden today is most commonly the preserve of gardeners keen to grow high-alpine plants in our lowland conditions. They like to create the ultimate rocky planting conditions: stone (often slate) whose strata are arranged vertically, like a toast rack, producing long thin slots into which alpine plants can put down long roots for cool moisture, but still be mercifully dry at the neck during a muggy lowland winter. It is a far cry from anything the Pulhams made. Their kind of naturalism was big, and jolly.
Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy by Claude Hitching (Garden Art Press) £35.