Make sure you head to our Visitor Centre first, where you can pick up a beautiful and informative illustrated Gardens map to help you make the most of your visit. You can also hire an all-terrain mobility scooter to navigate our network of fully-accessible paths.
From the much-loved Sunny Border to one of the oldest trees in England, you’ll hear the stories behind individual features and uncover the Garden’s mysteries.
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The Gardens at Dartington are steeped in history; a monument to the vision and enterprise of the great families who have owned it. Dartington originated in the 1390s when John Holand, the half brother to King Richard II, created a medieval manor house on the hillside overlooking the river Dart.
Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, an American heiress and her English husband, took over Dartington with the aim of creating both a home and a unique experiment in rural regeneration, education and the arts.
They repaired and reconstructed the dilapidated historical buildings, built new properties on the estate and worked with a series of landscape designers – clearing the tangle of overgrowth and moving away from rigid Victorian design to reveal the great trees, shapes and curves of the landscape.
Avray Tipping acted as garden advisor from 1925-1930, a time when the hall itself was restored from ruin. During the 1930s and up until war broke out, Beatrix Farrand, a noted American designer, acted as consultant advisor.
She was responsible for the courtyard, which is the only example of her work outside the USA. After WWIIPercy Cane became advisor and he went on to ‘open up’ the outer reaches of the garden.
A closer look: The history behind our Gardens sculptures and features
When the Elmhirsts arrived in 1925, the garden’s central feature was an overgrown formal Dutch-style sunken garden.
Inspired by Dartington’s medieval history and John Holand’s reputation for jousting, Leonard Elmhirst dubbed it the ‘Tiltyard’ and had its tiered shape accentuated.
The South-west side of the Tiltyard is flanked by a series of grassy banks, each with a flat terrace stepping up to a row of ancient Chestnut trees, where Henry Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure’ sculpture quietly spends her days.
A lawn, three more terraces, and a row of twelve Irish yew trees, known as the ‘Twelve Apostles’, separate this area from the 14th C Hall which stands off to the north-east side of the Tiltyard. The Tiltyard lies between a natural spring, which today feeds the Swan Fountain, and the stream that runs through Valley Field, meaning it can become water-logged.
In the 1990s some drawings from the 19thC were discovered, revealing that the Tiltyard had been a lily pond making full use of the nearby water springs. Folklore from the Champernowne era refers to a ‘bear pit’ or ‘dog pit’ in on corner of the Tiltyard, suggesting that it was used for dog or animal fights at one time.
However, the more recent discovery of drainage from medieval kitchens suggests this corner was more likely to be used for kitchen waste – the fights perhaps had been more spontaneous ‘scraps’ for food. Could the Twelve Apostles been planted to screen the house from this unsightly and malodorous corner?
Below image, right: 19thC drawings revealed that the Tiltyard had been a lily pond making full use of the nearby water springs. (source: Dartington archive)
Henry Moore’s Memorial Figure
Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst commissioned Memorial Figure in 1945 as a tribute to Christopher Martin, Dartington’s first Arts Administrator, who had died the previous year. Situated at the top of the Tiltyard, the sculpture is Grade II listed.
Carved from Hornton stone, Moore finished the work in 1946 and chose its site with great care, so that the curves of the sculpture could echo the rolling hills in the distance.
It has been recognised as “perhaps the most serene and elegiac piece of Moore’s entire career, perfectly balanced and harmonious…” (Roger Berthoud).
Moore himself wrote, “I wanted it to convey a sense of permanent tranquillity, a sense of being from which the stir and fret of human ways had been withdrawn.
“All the time I was working on it I was very much aware that I was making a memorial to go into an English scene that is itself a memorial to many generations of men who have engaged in a subtle collaboration with the land.”
The Sunny Border
Spanning the entire length of the terraces the Sunny Border has evolved over a known period from 1928 to the present day. The chief colour scheme of blues, purples, yellows, silvers and whites developed simultaneously with it.
It was redesigned in 1985 by Preben Jacobson (1934-2012) a Danish-born Landscape Architect. Prior to his redesign, the border had all but stood still since the death of Dorothy Elmhirst in 1968, simply being tended to but not developed or altered.
Jacobson modernised and enlivened the border, bringing order and repetition; introducing two Lutyen style benches, replacing the simple midway ‘monks’ style seat that had been before.
Jacobsen created two planting schemes, A and B which make up four repeat units. Pattern A, begins at the opposite end to the twelve apostles, and pattern B begins after the first buttress. The patterns are then repeated along the border.
All gardens have their successes and failures, and this border is no different. The western end is hot and dry with the roots of the great Lucombe Oak behind drawing away all moisture, whilst at the eastern or (Buddha end) it is shaded by the Twelve Apostles (row of trimmed Yew trees opposite).
It is the middle-ground, perhaps, were the plants can be seen growing strongest and at their best.
Great efforts are taken to maintain the colour scheme. The Spiraea Japonica (‘Golden Princess’), for example, is planted here for its beautiful lime yellow foliage, but needs regular trim several times a season to keep the pink flowers from making an appearance.
Dorothy Elmhirst – wife of Leonard and founder of Dartington Hall from 1925 – lovingly worked this border, taking guidance from garden designers H A Tipping, Percy Cane and Beatrix Farrand, up until her death in 1968.
H A Tipping, a garden designer influenced by the naturalistic style of William Robinson, was enlisted to landscape the grounds immediately around the main buildings, and was instructed to raise the height of the sunny border wall, thus making safe the grounds above.
It was at this same time that Stewart Lynch became the Gardens Superintendent, and set about laying out a path and planting up the border.
Dorothy began to garden. Her diaries and detailed sketches of the border, showed how she learnt year on year what colour combinations worked and what didn’t.
During these early stages the Sunny Border contained annuals, shrubs and herbaceous perennials. The walls were clothed with Roses, Mandevilla and Clematis armandii.
Pinks and reds resided here too – in the form of Escalonia, crimson snapdragons and Monarda ‘Cambridge Scarlet’, as Dorothy notes: “Border surprisingly good – effect of yellow & mauve & white – touches of red”.
Later in the same piece she states: “Browssa (Verbascum) is still an amazement – with yellow Antirrhinums clustered around it – like its offspring – the effect is enchanting”.
Dorothy’s passion for the border was remarkable in light of her high society background. It is unlikely that before Dorothy came to Dartington that she would have ever gardened or got her hands dirty.
It is clear from all Dorothy’s records that she loved this garden and in particular the Sunny Border. She passionately stated what she felt worked and what didn’t – and as all passionate gardeners do, planned for the year ahead, ever learning:
“Too much Achillea ‘The Pearl’… Dictamnus suffocated – anyway wrong in colour… extend lilies to where Larkspur is and put Santolina in front of Nepeta.” (Extract: Dorothy Elmhirst, garden notes)
So, as the border continues to evolve, the gardens team will carefully look at areas where the pattern has broken down and re-plant, remove plantings that have all but died out and introduce colours that are lacking where others dominate.
Feeding and mulching to help combat the challenging conditions of the sun-baked soil over shadier spots, and overall enhancing the beauty of the border for all to enjoy.
The Bridge by Peter Randall-Page
Providing improved access to the Hall’s listed gardens for people with limited mobility, The Bridge is made of oak, Blue Lias stone, and Devon Rustic Limestone, and opened in November 2011.
Designed by British sculptor Peter Randall-Page, The Bridge is a piece of functional art in its own right.
Randall-Page commented on the Bridge: “This has been a fantastic opportunity to create my first functional piece of art. It’s a particular privilege that the bridge will enable increased access to a place of such beauty and I hope it will be used and enjoyed by all.”
Beatrix Farrand’s Courtyard Paving
The American landscape architect Beatrix Farrand started working at Dartington for Dorothy Elmhirst in 1933.
Called in to help with the main courtyard, Farrand looked at the college quadrangles of Oxford University for inspiration. She brought order to the courtyard and designed the cobbled drive that circles the central lawn, overcoming problems presented by awkward ground levels.
The applied mix of stone flags, cobbles from the River Dart, and granite setts effectively takes visitors around an ocean of grass.
The following year she began opening out the garden by creating paths and connecting links. Three woodland walks were laid out and planted using Yew, Bay and broadleaved Hollies as background material for a variety of camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons. Dartington is the only known example of her work outside the USA.
This statue, called Flora (also the name of Dorothy’s mother), was presented to Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst on Foundation Day, June 1967, by the people of Dartington.
The statue dates back to the late 17th or early 18th Century but nobody knows who the maker was. Flora now marks the site of the Elmhirsts’ ashes.
The statue is one of the garden’s focal points and is often to be found adorned with flowers, although how they get there has always been a bit of a mystery. Almost every day for years she is found holding flowers. Someone puts them in her arms but no-one knows who or why.
The current resting place of Flora also marks the transition from Beatrix Farrand’s landscaping to Percy Cane’s high meadows.
The statue is of historical and artistic importance to the estate. It is an emotional bond linking to the founders Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst and part of the Dartington legacy.
In 2009 the statue was vandalised and the plaque stolen from the base. The plaque read “For Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst from the community of Dartington on Foundation Day 1967.”
Below: Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst admiring Flora after her unveiling at Foundation Day in 1967.
The Yew Tree
The yew tree is the oldest living resident of our Gardens, and is believed to be 1500-2000 years old.
Long-living and evergreen, yews were pagan sacred simple of eternal life, of new springing from old – this tree would have been a strong sign of life even in the winter and would have been visible from a great distance.
Our senior yew was already more than 1,000 years old when the nearby church tower was built in the 12th century. For several generations its wood provided material for medieval longbows.
St Mary’s Church Tower
St Mary’s Church Tower is the tower of the former Dartington Church. The base of the tower dates from the 13th century and was part of a church which stood here until 1878. The materials from the demolished structure were used to make the new St Mary’s church at the entrance to the estate.
The church yard also contains several yew trees, one of which is believed to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. Long-living and evergreen, yews were pagan sacred symbols of eternal life, of new springing from old and this tree would have been a strong sign of life – even in winter – and visible from a great distance.
A number of gravestones are scattered throughout the grass, the oldest of which ( c17th ) lie beneath the great yew trees. A record of the gravestones has been made and can be found in the base of the tower, together with a couple of fascinating memorials to the Champernowne family who lived at Dartington for 366 years.
During World War II the tower was used by US forces as a radio communications base and the catwalk they built inside the top of the tower is still in place.
The tower was Grade I listed in 1961. This area of the Hall is also listed as the site of a scheduled ancient monument (number 34872). Three of the headstones in the adjacent graveyard are also listed separately.
We have partnered with Silentspace.org.uk to offer two secluded areas of the garden where visitors can enjoy being silent without distraction.
The area around St Mary’s Church Tower – the Church Yard, see above – is the first of these.
The second Silent Space lies adjacent to the Church Yard – the Japanese Meditation Garden, which was designed by Philip Booth and created in 1990. With raked gravel, subtle planting and a small pavilion, it is an ideal spot to sit in quiet contemplation.
We hope you enjoy the peace and solitude.
Virtual Gardens companion
An app using 3D sound effects to bring a slice of history from Dartington’s Gardens to life is available for download (Apple users only). The app dramatises transcripts of a 1925 collection of travel correspondence taken from the Dartington archives.
Deep Time Walk
A walking audio app bringing a deep time perspective to Dartington Gardens. Not geographically specific, the Deep Time Walk dramatises the history of the living Earth. It is available for download on both Android and iOS devices.
Dartington’s Gardens are often seen as a ‘timeless’ feature that has hardly changed in centuries. In fact, the opposite is true – as Gardener Katherine found as part of a historical research project.