Ten Gothic Gardens

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Bindon Abbey
Bindon Abbey in Dorset suffers, as far as Gothic (or any other kind) of tourism is concerned, as it's split into two. You can get fairly free access to part of the garden as it's occupied by a health spa, but the most interesting and certainly the gloomiest bit - is owned by Abbey Mill, part of the Weld Estate, and not easy to see, although Timothy Mowl managed it for his book Historic Gardens of Dorset in 2003. It does occasionally get thrown open for charity, and we've just managed to see it - for the first time since 1987.

What's striking about Bindon is the layering of history which makes this so strange a location. First, there was the Cistercian Abbey of Bindon, constructed here in the water meadows of the River Frome, landscape which Mr Mowl characterises as 'scenically rather dull', in 1172. The monks channelled and controlled the watercourses, converting marsh into meadow and millstream. The first post-Dissolution owner of the Abbey site, a Thomas Poynings, raided the ruins for building material for his house at Lulworth but otherwise went nowhere near the place. He was succeeded a mere four years later by Thomas Howard, second son of the Duke of Norfolk, who in 1544 began converting the Abbey buildings into a house and the grounds into a water garden - the oldest surviving in Britain. A lozenge-shaped island appeared surrounded by canals, and accompanied a 'pleasaunce' or viewing mound. Both features were elements in walks laid out around the grounds. This was the second phase of the garden.

In 1641 the Howards sold Bindon, along with other Dorset estates, to their Catholic convert kinsfolk, the Welds. As Timothy Mowl describes, Bindon 'haunted the consciences of the Welds in almost every generation': they were aware they were occupying the remains of a monastery and, in common with other Catholic and Anglican gentry in this situation, felt its ambiguities. Although the house itself was demolished in 1644, the family kept returning to the site in their imaginations, and seem to have contemplated restoring the Abbey, while never quite getting round to it: 'An obsession, a challenge, a pious duty shirked'.

The third phase of the garden at Bindon was due to Thomas 'The Builder' Weld, who between 1793 and 1798 constructed a beautifully Gothick lodge and dwelling house (which contained a small chapel upstairs) and pierced the Mount in the water garden to create what Timothy Mowl calls 'the most depressingly dank brick-vaulted garden room in Dorset'. It's best characterised as a grotto, and contains three Gothic-arched niches at the end of its lightless, featureless tunnel. (Amended) water garden, medieval ruins and Gothick fancies together created an entirely different experience from what the Howards intended - one that simultaneously reminded the Welds of the Age of Faith they fantasised of returning to and their own ambiguous role in occupying, in a manner of speaking, its grave.

Over the years neglect has changed the regularity of the original Tudor plan into a damp, claustrophobic, haunted landscape: 'a solemn world of dark trees over wide, shadowed waters ... a quiet green gloom of short vistas, its silence broken only by the occasional splash of a brown trout rising in the moat. Everything is enclosed: a world of leaves and water with no sky'; a place of 'magical melancholy', 'a mood creator for gloom and introversion'.

On our long-awaited visit in 2015 the garden was full of sightseers and sunshine, and the sense of pervading ruin was less perceptible than Mr Mowl found, or than I remember from nearly thirty years past. But the imagination can still do its work on this melancholy raw material.

Bindon Abbey house
Bindon Abbey gatehouse
Bindon Abbey House
The Abbey House and Gatehouse are polite though still delightful 18th-century Gothick, and are viewed across neat gravel and swards of mown grass. But the lumpen ivy-choked ruins of the medieval abbey nevertheless exercise their haunting presence.
Bindon Abbey ruins
Bindon Abbey water garden Bindon Abbey Mound
The ruins aren't extensive and won't delay you long no matter what the weather. Soon you're treading the grassy walks between the watercourses, as sluices pour and fish make their way beneath the  plank bridges. It's not exactly a maze, but with so little to go on by way of orientation you end up thoroughly confused. Suddenly another tiny bridge appears and, in the centre of the tangle of paths, you discover the Mount, where the centrepiece of Bindon's offerings awaits.
Bindon Abbey grotto entrance
Bindon Abbey Grotto
It looks a bit like a Bronze Age round barrow (and who knows? perhaps was meant to), but this is no archaeological feature and surely not an ice house as has been speculated.  On our visit, the grotto was being touted as 'The Bear Cave' with notices bearing (no pun intended) images of teddy bears against a rocky cavern, but we discerned no ursine presence. There were candles and lamps. And damp.
A final incarnation of gloomy Bindon was a fictional one, given it by that Dorset master of the miserable, Thomas Hardy. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles Tess and Angel Clare spend their ill-fated honeymoon at Wellbridge House, in reality Woolbridge Manor just upstream from the ruined Abbey. Driven to distraction on discovering that Tess is not the virginal creature of his fantasies, Angel sleepwalks from the House with his bride in his arms, across the plank bridges and sluices of the Frome, and, on reaching what we know are the dread remains of the haunted Abbey, lays her in an open stone coffin set into the damp earth, once occupied by the bones of some monkish prelate. And the coffin, you see, is still there.

Bindon Abbey - the grave

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