Prospect Cottage

 In Garden Design, News

With the new exhibition that has opened up at the Garden Museum of Derek Jarman and his garden at Prospect Cottage I picked up my copy of the book ‘Derek Jarman’s Garden’ which has been thoughtfully photographed by Howard Sooley.

I recently did a trip to Dungeness and had very mixed feelings before going. It was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies and fluffy white clouds. On arrival I noticed a scattering of barn like fisherman’s cottages. I particularly like the black tarred clapper board ones. You cannot miss Prospect Cottage with its sunflower yellow painted windows and door frame and against black tar boards.

Although this Dungeness looks beautiful, I can only imagine how bleak it must be in winter. The gravel beach stretched relentlessly as far as the eye could see. I can only describe it as a desert without the dunes. There is something quite beautiful, magical and peaceful about Dungeness. I feel I have arrived in the wild west and any minute now I will see some tumbleweed blowing along in the wind. Living in suburbia I guess I have preconceived ideas of what a garden is. A garden has boundaries, hedges and fences and trees. There are none of these at Dungeness and it feels eerie.

PROSPECT COTTAGE Photo credit: Manoj Malde

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage

The cottage makes a real statement with its bright yellow frames of the windows and door. Out of the many scattered cottages along the coast it is one of the very few that has a curated garden. The nuclear power station stands like a ghost in the background.

The landscape looks inhospitable. This is a harsh environment to create a garden in. I wonder how anything manages to survive here. The salt spray brought in through the easterly winds would scorch everything. The westerly winds would batter everything. Dungeness is open to the vast expanse of sky with the sun beating down and low levels of rainfall. One would expect everything to erode and wither, yet things do survive, and plants do grow. Infact there are 600 varieties of plants that grow here. That is approximately one third of the British flora and fauna. It also has flourishing wildlife population.

Derek Jarman moved to Dungeness in the mid-eighties. He had already been diagnosed with HIV. Derek seems to have been a bit of a hunter gatherer. He hunted the loot left on the beach or washed ashore from times gone by. A lot of these are legacies of the Second World War but in the mix are discarded fishing tools, rusty spoons, forks and spanners. His collection gathered in what was to become the garden of Prospect Cottage, overlooked by a ghostly power station.


Photo credit: Manoj Malde

Eschscholzia californica (Californian poppies) are self-seeding all around Prospect Cottage. They have taken up residence among one of the stone circles in the front garden. Derek gathered these stones along the beach bringing them back to cottage to create these circles.

Photo credit: Manoj Malde

Studying Garden Design

One of the things that I remember when studying garden design, was how that the garden must always anchor the property in its place. Derek’s garden at Prospect Cottage certainly does this. Its success has nothing to do with the layout of the garden but the materials he has used to create it. Derek has used materials that were right on his doorstep. Planting borders are defined with edges of large pebbles or weathered sleepers and driftwood. I find it hard to call them plant borders as there is no loamy rich soil here, but that is exactly what they are. There is a sense of formality at the front of the cottage. The entrance defined by a stone circle either side of the cottage and a long oblong border in front bit like an alternative parterre.

Derek’s treasure trove of finds along the coastline of Dungeness nestled among the Crambie maritima. The weather materials blend in seamlessly with the area helping to harness the cottage in place

Derek was a creative at heart. He had been a director, stage designer, author, diarist, artist and gardener. His hands and mind created art out of rubbish. Isn’t that what contemporary artists do? Old fence posts found on the beach from the war are turned into frames for climbing plants whilst thick rusty metal chains and other gatherings are left in a creative sculptural arrangement. Driftwood placed in the garden totem like. The garden at Prospect Cottage is a reflection of Derek. It seems in his last years, Derek has immersed himself into the garden at Prospect Cottage. He has created a stage set and the plants are the actors.


Umbels of Fennel self-seeded through the planting. The yellow flowers pick up on the yellow frames of the windows and door. Was this a design thought on Derek’s part or just an accident that worked? Whichever it is the Fennel works really well and whilst it looks quite spindly and delicate it does stand up to the wind. A lonesome red poppy growing among garden treasures. Another of those self-seeding plants found throughout Dungeness.


Photo credit: Manoj Malde

I am creating a garden in Crete and it is a huge learning curve. Whilst working with some knowledge there is still a lot of experimenting. I recognise some similarities between gardening at Dungeness and the coastal landscape around Crete even though both environments are vastly different. The heat and the coastal winds in Crete can be un-relenting. Then there are wild goats who nibble at everything. Plants are kept compact and low. Likewise, plants at Dungeness crouch close to the ground, not through nibbling goats but the battle the plants have with the elements. Don’t think this is the place for blousy flora and fauna. I suspect Derek also must have experimented in his early years of gardening at Dungeness.

Keeping a log of what has survived and what has perished helped along his journey? The Crambie maritima seems a native to this area and can be found everywhere. It has an enormous tap root and when it pops it’s head it looks a little like purple sprouting broccoli.

Prospect Cottage

During my trip, I saw gorse growing which could quite successfully be used as hedging and wind brakes to protect other plants. Californian poppies are all around Prospect Cottage dancing in the breeze. There are globes of Santolina. Valerian provides colour through the garden. A dog rose that was planted by Derek still survives. I spotted some sedum. There were umbels of Fennel swaying gently. I saw Cistus, Teasels and seed heads of poppies. Red poppies and opium poppies seed freely here. Helichrysum, Borage and Nigella also succeeds.

There were lots of people around Prospect Cottage the day I visited. Whilst Dungeness may not have nibbling goats the trampling of human feet could possibly cause greater damage and my fear is that the charm of the garden at Prospect Cottage may diminish. I hope I am wrong. I hope the garden continues to move on in a positive way and Derek Jarman’s spirit will continue to guide this beautiful place.


Photo credit: Manoj Malde

One can see the formality of the front garden in the photo. On the right there are the driftwood totems.


Photo credit: Manoj Malde

Looking at this photo it does remind me of a stage set. After all Derek was a stage designer. Elder, Gorse, Crambie maritima, Santolina can all be seen growing here.

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