Aysgarth Edwardian Rock Garden

Aysgarth Edwardian Rock Garden

Aysgarth Edwardian Rock Garden was commissioned by Frank Sayer-Graham (1859-1946). He was a local landowner who traded in silver rabbits fur which he farmed at the purpose built warren, below the renowned Lady Hill, to the west of Aysgarth. It is reputed that he supplied the last Czar of Russia with fur for a stole. He also exported rare gulls eggs to Europe.

Upon his father’s death, Frank and his first wife Mary moved back to Frank’s childhood home, Heather cottage (opposite the rock garden) and proceeded to convert it into a state of the art Edwardian house, embracing the Arts & Crafts movement of the time.

Franks overriding passion however was for things horticultural. He planted fields of tulips and daffodils as well as at least two plantations of trees around the village. Rose Cottage (renamed Springhill) was his own private nursery.

The Rockery in 1907 with seating in front of the rockery


It was of course the era of the great plant hunters, such as Reginald Farrer, who were bringing new and exciting plants into the country for the first time.



Over in York were the famous alpine specialists and nurserymen Mssrs. James Backhouse & Son whose nursery at the time was larger than Kew.

Rock gardening was undergoing a popular revival and the Backhouse nursery led the field in the building of walk-through Rock Gardens, typically in large estates, to house the new and fashionable plants, that were arriving from overseas, in a natural setting.

At the Backhouse nursery at Acomb was their own show piece Rock Garden and also an underground fernery. Sadly the nursery was demolished in the 1950s.

In 1906 Frank Sayer-Graham commissioned Backhouse to create his own personal Rock Garden complete with mountain stream and pool.

The development took the best part of 8 years, the rock being brought down from Stephen’s moor at Thornton Rust. Each boulder was transported on a low horse-drawn cart.

The construction was overseen by one of Backhouses top foremen WA Clark.
He was paid £1 a day, always wore gloves, carried a small gavelock (crowbar) and went home every third week’

Frank 1920
To the rear of the Rock Garden, Frank planted a vegetable garden, his own personal touch. As the sign says on the gate this was very much a private garden.Locals who remember Frank all bear testimony to the fact that they were not welcome in his garden.


This is a photo of Herbert Robinson who was gardener/handyman to Mrs. Sayer. His nickname was Bonar Calino after a famous film star of the time.
Herbert came from Newbiggin in Bishopdale and was employed by Mrs Sayer to re-plant and look after the rock garden. He also made quite a few alterations to the layout of the rock garden. Children of the time recall Mrs Sayer-Graham rapping on the windows of heather cottage if they even touched the railings.



Following Franks death, the Rock Garden has had several owners. In 1988 when it was proposed to demolish the Rock Garden and develop the site, there was local uproar and English Heritage had it emergency Grade 11 listed, highly unusual as listing normally only covers buildings.

One owner, determined to make it a money making venture selling garden gnomes. Having spent good money on a TV advertising campaign the venture was doomed to failure, as the local youth armed with air rifles deemed the gnomes as good target practice.

Evidence of dismembered gnomes was uncovered during restoration.

The Restoration

In 1998 Mr. & Mrs.Jauneikawe bought Heather Cottage, which came complete with Rock Garden. Little did they realise what they were taking on. Self seeded Ash and Sycamore trees covered much of the rock threatening to undermine its structure. Brambles and nettles ran amok, particularly in the vegetable garden. The rockery looked more like a rain forest. Railings were in need of repair, 10cm of stone wall had vanished, the stream and pool defunct.

Following extensive research, they soon began to appreciate the Rock Garden not only as a unique piece of Aysgarth’s history but as being of national horticultural significance too. We resolved to return it to its former glory for the benefit of not only ourselves but others too.

As with all these things though, it soon became apparent that the main stumbling block was money. The following 3 and a half years were spent searching for funding. Just as hope of ever finding money was fading The Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund stepped in with an 80% grant.

Once the grant was obtained the National Park Authority donated their consultancy time, the Royal Horticultural Society and Nat West Bank Made contributions as did some local villagers.  Mr. & Mrs.Jauneikawe  personally funded the remainder and undertook to maintain the Rock Garden for 10 years.

The restoration began in October 2002 and after extensive replanting completed in April 2003. The garden was officially opened in July 2003 by Eric Robson and both the restoration and opening were filmed by Tyne Tees TV.

The two-part documentary “”The Secret Garden”” was first screened in September 2003.

Visitor Information

  • The Rock Garden is open during daylight hours free of charge.
  • Please stay on the paths
  • Please do not climb on the rocks or remove plants
  • Children and dogs are welcome but must be supervised
  • Dogs must be kept on a lead.

A note on parking.

The rock garden in situated on a bend. Please do not park in front of it or the adjacent cottages.There is ample parking in the village.

  • Unfortunately, due to the nature of the site the Rock Garden is unsuitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs.
  • We are sorry for so many rules but your safety is of paramount importance to us.
  • Finally we hope you will respect the garden but moreover enjoy our “not so private, private rock garden”


In January 2012 Adrian and Rosemary Anderson became the owners of the Rock Garden. To contact them or for further information please visit their website: www.aysgarthrockgarden.co.uk


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Contributed Comments
Aysgarth Edwardian Rock Garden

graeme@graemes-digital.co.uk 03-Oct-2010 #1542
I came across the rock garden while having a stroll around Aysgarth, last year. But at time the garden was closed.I recently came back to Aysgarth while driving around Wensleydale one sunny afternoon and the rock garden was open. Luckily I had my camera with me as well.I have not come across a rock garden which is as beautiful as this one and is a credit to the owners and their restoration of it. Indeed ‘A Secret Rock Garden’. I loved the design and little passageways that open out to the miniture falls and grassed area at the rear of the garden.I am so pleased I stopped by again to experience this Edwardian Rock Garden, pure beauty.

rhettstjames1st@sky.com 02-Sep-2008
hello my name is rhett and I am the son of the owners of the rockery in 1988. I would just like to put to you the truth of what happened at the time regarding gnomes. My parents bought the rockery off a lady called Val Carr with the insight to open it to the public which they did after a massive clear up as you have done.My parents did sell gnomes and put a small admission via an honesty box, they did this because at the time there were no grants available to restore the rockery.  I can remember the only authority who was interested was a botanical society who had no funds to help.
The national park, no help, district council, no help, nobody was even interested in the rockery so, in order to restore the waterfall my parents sold gnomes etc.
Tyne Tees did come I remember the day my father was on TV but it was to do an article on the secret garden [they helped]. No charge, it was only on the daily news. I remember there were no youths using air rifles as we lived in the wenslydale farm house and started the b&b next to the Palmer Flatt Hotel.
There were some people in the village who were a bit put out, because they were not offered the rockery first and they were the ones who wanted the venture to fail, you see Val and my parents were friends and she did not want to do anything with the rockery and my parents did, so she sold the property to them privately.
I remember Val was very glamorous and did not fit in the village, she was a lovely lady stunning to look at and some of the women in the village I think felt threatened by her, so she got a reputation as a man eater. To my knowledge, she did not eat any men when her husband was away, so that is why she sold it to my parents as they were outsiders too and they were friends.

People started to complain about addmission charges and selling gnomes because of jealousy as they did not get the chance to buy the rockery. In the end we were shut down. A money making venture was it? let me ask you have you ever heard of any body getting rich off selling gnomes! ha ha.
My parents just wanted to do what you have done but had nothing but trouble with no help off millenium grants etc.
So after closing down my parents were left with a worthless piece of land, so my father was going to use the land to build a house on as everybody had a problem with the rockery,ie, its not safe etc. and it had no use, why not?
Why not use the land? Any way the preservation order was placed so my father put it up for sale. Many of the complainers were very interested and placed silly low offers thinking that he needed the money but they were wrong. A quiet family who had just bought your house, I can’t remember their name showed an interest and did the deal with my dad. I remember my mother telling him to sell to them as that was the house we purchased it off and not to sell to one of the complainers. I think their offer was not the best but at least it meant that the rockery was back with its original home, poetic justice if you like.My parents went on to have dale garth built in the village opposite Mathew and Elaines cheese and wine shop or near opposite, and incidently, on top of an old graveyard used as a field with no complaints in 1990.
This was quite amusing as the complainers did not seem to mind that their ancestors were dug up to make way for a new house but did not want an outsider to own the rockery.
I am not saying that every body who complained had a relative in the grave yard but some certainly did.
The youth with an air rifle was in fact me, yes me, shortly after moving into dale garth I shot at an old broken tractor which was parked in an open fronted shack behind the rockery, I broke the head lights.
I was 10 years old and I honestly thought it had been abandoned. It was not melicious, it was nothing more than pot shots. I found out later that the tractor was owned by the clogg man who was your next door neighbour.
my father made me pay for the damage out of my pocket money and I learnt my lesson.
I hope this has shed some light on the negative statement about the owners in 1988 and that you might re-phrase that part.
By the way my parents were called Mike and Lorraine Thompson

Thankyou for taking the time to read this letter
regards rhett st james.

graham.porter@ntlworld.com 18-Nov-2007
A truly stunning piece of Edwardian madness - it would not be allowed thesedays of course but we have to stand in awe of them. Everyone should see this garden which, in its own right, is more breathtaking than the Aysgarth Falls that, on a calm day in mid November 2007, were trickling rather than gushing.


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