Derek Jarman’s Garden

Derek Jarmans Garden Ness wastelandThere are some who don’t like Dungeness because this headland in Kent resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There are those who are bewitched by the unusual pulchritude of its landscape. It is a place where the vast sky is dominant in the summer and the salty winds incessant in the winter.Dungeness boat and shingle and sea

“Dungeness, Dungeness, your beauty is the best, forget the hills and valleys.

This landscape is like the face you overlook, the face of an angel with a naughty smile.”

Derek Jarman – artist, writer, film maker, set designer, poet, cinematographer, gay activist – loved Ness, his nickname for Dungeness. It’s a shingle desert ( as I explained here) jutting out into the sea in south east England. There’s a nuclear power station on its edge with electric pylons like tentacles spreading out across the horizon.Dungeness Nuclear Power Station and Electricity Pylons

“The nuclear power station is a wonderment. At night it looks like a great liner or a small Manhattan ablaze with a thousand lights of different colour.”

In 1986 Jarman bought Prospect Cottage in Ness. The fisherman’s cottage was built in 1900 and painted in black tar with yellow window frames. Jarman didn’t change the cottage’s colours. The last book he wrote was Derek Jarman’s Garden. It’s a mixture of gardening book and memoir about life and death. He records in detail his plantings in this otherworldly place with its shingle base while also revealing in poems and journal entries the anguish of losing friends and his own decline. He died in 1994 of HIV-related complications.  Derek Jarmans Garden and Nuclear Power stations

All the quotes are from this book.

“The garden has been both Gethsemane and Eden. I am at peace.”

Like most of Dungeness, there are no fences around Prospect Cottage’s garden. It’s still private and inside resides Keith Collins, Jarman’s former partner. Travellers make detours to walk along its undefined boundaries, unsure whether they are trespassing or not. It’s not unusual to see cars lined on the road outside with tentative visitors staring at or taking photos of the garden. I was told by a friend that it was a National Trust garden – which it’s not. Perhaps because Derek Jarman’s garden now feels like part of the whole that is Dungeness.

Photos in the book Derek Jarman’s Garden were taken by Howard Sooley, the photographer and Jarman’s friend. He captures the garden at the beginning as well as on its journey with Jarman throughout the seasons. Derek Jarman photo by Howard Sooley in book

My photos were taken in June as well as September – when the colours in the garden’s flowers are strong and then fading.Derek Jarmans Garden Prospect Cottage in June

JuneDerek Jarmans Garden front garden September


The garden continues decades after his death. Growing, changing and thriving according to the weather but it’s still Derek Jarman’s garden. The one he planted, filled with his collections from the shoreline, and found peace in.

Jarman added an extension and covered a side wall with stanzas from John Donne’s seventeenth century love poem “The Sun Rising.”

“Dawn can be a miracle, the sun floating up from the sea and slowly crossing the garden. As it passes it can laugh with John Donne, whose poem fills the southern wall of the house.”

Prospect Cottage side garden and John Donne poem

The front garden he viewed as formal, unlike the back. There are flint stones – “like dragon’s teeth” – in circles and patterns in the front, almost hidden when the flowers bloom but reappearing when winter approaches. Derek Jarmans Garden rock circle and flowersDerek Jarmans Garden round rock circle

“The stones, especially the circles, remind me of dolmens, standing stones. They have the same mysterious power to attract.”

Among the flowers and shrubs he planted were dog rose, lovage, Mrs Sinkins pinks, marigold, santolina, marigold, valerian and bright golden orange California poppies. He writes about why he chose which plants and which suited Ness.Derek Jarmans Garden flower bedDerek Jarmans Garden wild flowers

Sea kale, Crambe maritima, like elsewhere in Dungeness, seems to love the shingle out of which it flowers, seeds, shrivels, dries out and blows away in the wind every year. Derek Jarmans Garden sea kale

“(sea kale)…they have a heavy, honey scent which blows across the Ness. The flowers then turn into seeds – which look like a thousand peas.”

He planted gorse shrubs on each side of the house with a baulk of timber in their centres. Derek Jarmans Garden Gorse bush

“I would have made a gorse hedge here, but the charm of Dungeness is that it has no fences – to build one would go against the grain.”

In the mornings Jarman would ramble along the beach searching for driftwood and other flotsam that would be brought in from the sea. The stones he usually found after a storm. Scattered across the shoreline are rotting boats, rusting metal and abandoned sheds. Dungeness beach with man

“My journey to the sea each morning had purpose.”

Dungeness abandoned boat and shed

Soon the back of Prospect Cottage was transformed with driftwood and objects offered up by Ness. Derek Jarmans Garden sculpture gardenDerek Jarmans Garden flowers and driftwood

“At first, people thought I was building a garden for magical purposes – a white witch out the get the nuclear power station. It did have magic – the magic of surprise, the treasure hunt.”

Derek Jarman’s Garden by Derek Jarman with photographs by Howard Sooley – first published 1995

UK Amazon / US Amazon

Derek Jarmans Garden front gardenProspect Cottage was Derek Jarman’s refuge. The book is moving to read as he shares his feelings on life as well as his work to create a garden in such an improbable setting. I read the book after my first visit in June. When I returned to Dungeness in September, I almost expected to see him kneeling by a flower bed in the garden which he shares with us. Derek Jarman considered a renaissance man was also a gardener.

“Paradise haunts gardens, and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them”

22 thoughts on “Derek Jarman’s Garden”

  1. Pingback: 126. HDYGG? Nerine Display at Five Arrows Gallery, Exbury Gardens. - Mammasaurus

  2. What a beautiful place Kriss – and fantastic photos. Like the sensory garden in Hunstanton it’s clear why he chose the plants he did. And they must be plucky little things to withstand whatever nature throws at them 🙂 #hdygg

  3. Oh wow, Derek’s garden is wonderful, the contrast between June and September is stunning. And the boats, they look so perfect in their decay, nestled between flowers and plants, thank you for sharing so much detail of such a beautiful place

  4. Oh my oh my, how I long to visit Dungeness! I love this post Kriss, the photos, the information, that garden. Lovely to think that after all these years the garden that he planted is still growing.
    I love the landscape there, completely my cup of tea!
    Thank you for joining in again Kriss xx

  5. It is absolutely beautiful and alas I have never been. How striking it is, both the house and the landscape. Great story and so interesting, oh how I long to go.

    1. It’s out of this world but I’m so happy my friend took me there the first time to discover it. Somehow she just knew I’d love it (not surprising as she’s one of my very close friends and knows me well!)

  6. i felt very at peace looking at these. how amazing to have such flowers and the ocean right across. and that cottage with the yellow trimming…. love!

    1. I loved reading in the book how this garden had such an effect on Derek Jarman too. It’s really quite an amazing place. Jarman was travelling with the actress Tilda Swinton and his partner when he saw that the black house with yellow trim was for sale and he just had to buy it!

  7. This garden is amazing; a shingle desert is a good way to describe it. With the sea and the bright flowers in the pebbles I find this space quite enchanting 🙂 I really want to visit and ramble along the beach for bits and bobs. Fantastic photos as always!

  8. Beautiful pictures and I loved hearing the story. I visited Dungeness years ago in my early 20s for a romantic weekend with a boyfriend I was loopy about at the time. We wondered past Jarman’s house, not knowing it was Jarman’s house, and were amazed by the garden. I knew nothing about gardens, or gardening, back then and I think it’s a long overdue place to re-visit…

    I remember being blown away (almost literally, ha ha) by the vast emptiness of it all, peering out at the grey ocean.

  9. Given the location that’s an incredible garden! I like that there are no fences around it but I too would be worried about accidentally trespassing. I’m guessing his partner doesn’t mind though; I’d love to visit.

  10. wonderful photographs, and a fascinating story too, a really interesting read. thank you for your kind comment on my blog xx

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top