An Earthly Fairyland The Story of Southsea Rock Gardens and the Rock Garden Pavilion
by Jackie Baynes £4.95 15 pages
Reviewed by Deane and Celia Clark December 2014
Copies available from the author, tel 02392 831461
Jackie Baynes, the author of this popular booklet, published by the Portsmouth Society in 2013, has traced the history of the Rock Gardens on the seafront at Southsea.
In 1928 Portsmouth Corporation decided to provide £3,500 for the laying out of of a triangular plot of land east of Southsea Castle as a ‘Rockery Garden’. The transformation of an area of shingle behind the beach into the Rock Gardens was undertaken as a Government backed Work Scheme, employing groups of unskilled workmen. The sunken garden contained very large Westmoreland water-worn limestones arranged into an informal non-linear layout. Its microclimate, protected against the wind, enables alpine shrubs and lawns to prosper throughout the year. It has peaceful corners with secluded seating, quiet paths and ponds, which are still there to this day. Jackie Baynes interviewed former apprentices from Portsmouth Parks Department who made a model of the Rock Gardens for the Southsea Show in 1972.
A major seafront attraction, the largest of its kind along the south coast, the Rock Gardens were very popular and drew people from far and wide. The aim was to develop a structured year-round pattern of seasonal colour. In 1934 an illuminated fountain was added on the landward side, which locals and visitors continue to enjoy. The original aviaries which our children loved – we live across the road – were closed in 1986 as an economy measure and the birds and animals were transferred to Victoria Park. In 1948 the Rock Gardens Pavilion was built alongside, linked by steps. The current building The Pyramids, with its triangular grass covered slopes which replaced it, is based on the Palais de Sport in Bercy, Paris.
Later sustainable planting including scented plants was added and improvements were made to the design and layout. In 1949 the sea flooded the gardens, and this happened again in 1987 and on February 5 in 2014. Rapid action to pump out the seawater and saturate the gardens with fresh water saved the majority of the planting, which is now maintained by an enthusiastic band of volunteers and city council staff. Members of the Hampshire Gardens Trust visited the Rock Gardens after a Conservation Meeting at our house, and we can recommend a visit when in Southsea.