Dorset garden: Little Bindon Abbey
Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell in a unique coastal garden
Published in July ’13
Access is challenging, of that there is no question (it is easy to slip and slither over large pebbles). One walks from one side of Lulworth Cove to the other, then has to clamber up steep unguarded steps, negotiate a narrow, muddy cliff path and in our case arriving in a hailstorm. I had exchanged smiles with several people going in the opposite direction, so it looked as though I wasn’t the only one intrigued enough to visit Little Bindon Abbey last April.
Let us be clear from the start. If you long for colourful borders, lust after unusual shrubs or revel in the manicured perfection that some gardens achieve – Little Bindon is not for you; but if you want a very special experience, head for the beach.
Mr Richard Wilkin, the tenant of Little Bindon for the last twenty years, describes his input as “the ultimate in wild gardening”. He is not fighting the wilderness, but going with it; allowing what happens naturally to continually re-shape the garden with a minimum of interference. This special site embraces the tiny abbey in a pocket of green, where the sound of waves breaking on the shore is ever-present.
It was in the 12th century that twenty Cistercian monks from Forde Abbey established their Community here. The original building still stands solid, its stone walls now weathered by a tiled roof with Purbeck stone eaves and small carved faces looking down from the gable ends. The tall, narrow, leaded windows allow a pale green light to filter in through the trees. On arrival, and on our visit to gain shelter from the storm, the interior of the chapel glowed gently in candlelight. Elderflower cordial and flapjacks are set out invitingly on a long narrow table. The chapel is rustic, yet has a presence beyond its simplicity.
The Cistercians only remained at Little Bindon for forty years, then progressed to Bindon Abbey where they stayed until the Reformation in the mid-16th century. Little Bindon, in its peaceful and isolated location, remained a place of meditation. It was sold to the Weld family, who still own it today, in 1640; the only sale and purchase in nearly one thousand years of history.
The garden occupies what was once a withy bed. Several massive willows have fallen, some branches now anchored to the ground with an encroaching mat of ivy through which bluebells and primroses grow haphazardly. Other branches form sculptures that alter depending on your angle of sight, helping to frame snatches of view beyond the hollow. Through a stand of trees to the west, where horizontal branches have been removed to leave just a vertical screen, there is a glimpse of the Cove; a reminder of Mr Wilkin’s boyhood in Lulworth with a grandfather who passed on his love of gardening.
The central grassed area is edged by rosemary and the bright red stems of dogwood. The rosemary was in flower, encouraged by the micro-climate of this sheltered location with its fertile soil and springs. A copse of twisted lilac also had some trees in flower but the roses, rampaging across rustic supports, are at their colourful best mid-summer. Grey-leaved senecio and hydrangeas have been encouraged to grow large, in interesting shapes. Drastic pruning is undertaken regularly by deer, says Mr Wilkin (with tongue firmly in cheek) speaking of wielding a large hedge-cutter and powerful strimmer from time to time. A rampant Russian vine which threatens to engulf much of the surroundings is also kept in check by the same unorthodox gardening methods.
The garden boundaries, some marked by rustic hurdles, are unclear. The garden becomes trees, becomes gorse, becomes cliffs. A summerhouse perched high above the plot provides views over the chapel roof, towards the fossil forest and an Iron Age settlement. Up in this small shelter the unevenness of the garden can be seen more clearly, banks and hollows which add to the interest as you walk lightly mown paths through foxgloves and lush greenery. Behind the summerhouse, on the cliff top, narcissi flower beneath the canopy.
Wandering back beneath an ancient beech, past a semi-circle of tall beech hedge which encloses one of several pieces of statuary in the garden, cherry blossom provided a pale and delicate contrast to all the different greens. Close to the south-facing chapel wall, two fig trees enjoy the warmth; their fruit is used to make chutney [see box]. A small paved terrace with narrow path leads to the old well.
One can only admire the dedication of someone who, just as caretaker, is determined that this quiet piece of Dorset should not be lost and forgotten. One wonders how many years of neglect it would take for Little Bindon to be reduced to a ruin by toppling trees, its stone disappearing completely beneath that Russian vine, smothered by ivy and the thorny branches of roses revelling in their freedom. Walkers on the coast path would pass the wilderness with no more than a glance, unaware of the history in its depths.
Is it a garden? Not in the conventional sense, perhaps; but it has antiquity and peace and one can only envy Mr Wilkin this little slice of Dorset. Access is challenging and do please check the NGS Yellow Book to see if Little Bindon is included for the year and, if so, the dates the garden is open. Park at West Lulworth (there is a charge) and follow the signs around the Cove. Stout shoes are useful. You will be rewarded with something entirely different and totally unexpected; elderflower and flapjack optional.
Any fruit from the garden is a bonus when, having enjoyed the spring blossom and summer shade, you can take out insurance against autumn and winter with a selection of pies or preserves. Chutney is a great favourite and, inspired by Little Bindon, I hunted down a good recipe which uses figs and which I now dub ‘Chapel Chutney’.
You will need: 850g fresh figs, chopped or quartered; 400g dried figs, chopped; 3 large red onions, finely chopped; 3 medium Bramley apples (optional); 40g fresh root ginger, cut into fine matchsticks; 2 teasp ground allspice; pinch dried chilli flakes; 2 tsp finely grated lemon zest; 700g soft brown or Demerara sugar; 2 teasp salt; 800 ml red wine vinegar (use half balsamic, if you prefer); 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper.
Place all ingredients in a large pan, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Uncover and simmer for a further 30 minutes, until the chutney has thickened. If you have omitted the apples, you can reduce the amount of vinegar slightly to compensate. If the mix becomes too thick, add a little water and stir in. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper and/or chilli flakes to taste.
Keep an eye out for wasps – they love it!
Pour the chutney into warm, clean jars (this makes 4 or 5) and seal while still hot. It should keep for several months, although will probably be eaten remarkably quickly. Home-made preserves also make very acceptable gifts for friends and family. Make a decorative label and tie a pretty piece of fabric over the top of the jar as a ‘hat’.