NINETY years since they were commissioned, the Southsea Rock Gardens are still as important a hotspot as ever.
Built by gangs of unskilled workmen as part of a government ‘Back to Work’ scheme following the First World War – when botanical gardens were all the rage – they were used by tourists and locals alike as a tranquil place to shelter from cold, sea winds and relax.
In no time at all, their exotic aviaries, colourful flowers and beautiful fountain became a major seafront attraction for thousands of Portsmouth visitors in the summer seasons of the 1930s.
However, such joy was brought to a halt in the Second World War, during which they were closed to the public and neglected as conflict raged on.
Post-war restoration was tough – scuppered in part by storms and flooding in 1949 – but thanks to a swift and efficient emergency response, limited damage meant they could prosper and return to their original, colourful glory by 1950.
Today they live on and are just as well-loved, but face an altogether different challenge with a dramatically different climate, more extreme seasons and fewer resources in the way of maintenance.
Jackie Baynes is the publicity officer for The Friends of Southsea Rock Gardens, the team which gives up its own time to meet each week and tend to the gardens’ needs to keep them proper and presentable for the public .
Having begun with a 90th anniversary exhibition at Portsmouth Central Library earlier this year, she will be spending 2018 celebrating the milestone.
‘This is a wildlife oasis. A lot of people in Portsmouth live in apartments and don’t have their own gardens, so they can enjoy the fresh air in the Rock Gardens instead,’ she said.
‘We’re delighted to celebrate 90 years and it’s events like the exhibition that will share the story of how it all began.’
That notion of universal belonging at the garden is consistent with its volunteers too – who don’t visit just to enjoy it, but cultivate it as if it were their own.
Maureen Gutkin became a Friend after moving to Southsea four-and-a-half years ago.
The 69-year-old said: ‘I came here from Marlborough in Wiltshire because we had to downsize dramatically. We had an enormous garden there and only a few pots on a balcony here.
‘But after hearing about the Friends at a volunteering day, I came down to lend a hand and now I absolutely adore it.
‘I’ve seen it during every season, but to see other people walking through in the summer – being able to think “I’ve helped create that” – is the most wonderful feeling.’
Mostly retired, the Friends of Southsea Rock Gardens join contractors in maintaining the site – but through cascading funding from the successful Victorious Festival on the Common, are able to buy their own tools, benches and plants to keep it flourishing.
Today, it is home to a beautiful pond, a catalogue of trees, shrubs and sensory plants such as myrtle, rosemary and daphne odera.
But fear not if you don’t know the ins-and-outs of those, because the Friends are willing to teach you – and you’ll certainly make friends, and future Rock Gardens history – perhaps shaping its next 90 years.
‘For many people this is a fantastic way to socialise and share a love of all things gardening,’ said Friend Malcolm Reeves, 80.
‘It’s incredibly therapeutic and I would encourage anyone who is interested in coming down and seeing what we’re all about.
‘You don’t have to be an expert gardener, just be willing to learn some new skills and meet some new people.’
If you would like to join or learn more about The Friends of Southsea Rock Gardens, call (023) 9083 1461.
Alternatively, visit yourself and feel free to take a pamphlet from the information points surrounding the gardens.
Brian Kidd: Southsea Rock Gardens were ‘perfection’
DURING his apprenticeship with Portsmouth City Council in 1954, our resident gardening expert Brian Kidd spent much of his time working at Southsea Rock Gardens.
Under the watchful eye of head gardener Ernie Flowers, it was where he cut his teeth – and where he went on to meet the man who would become his best friend, Michael Vaux.
Reflecting on the appearance of the landmark during that decade, Brian said: ‘The gardens were perfection.
‘They were so beautiful that they were the most popular area with tourists along the entire seafront.
‘And it’s worth remembering that was back in the day when the promenade would be so full of people enjoying the beach that it was difficult to get around, like something from a football match.’
Only a young man at the time, along with the learning curve that turned him into the guru he is today came ups-and-downs.
Two very poignant, offbeat memories from the Rock Gardens still stick in his mind today.
‘On Saturdays, the first job to do there would be to get all of the benches and chairs out of the pool.
Friday was obviously quite a rowdy night for the people of Portsmouth!’ said Brian.
‘Another day I’ll never forget was when Michael and I were asked to clean out the pigeons’ aviary.
‘We opened the door, they all flew off and perched on top of the hotels across the Common.
‘We got them back in later – after we’d cleaned the aviary – by shaking a tin of corn.’
But above that silliness, Brian holds a deep admiration for the gardens that kick-started his career.
He said: ‘To all those involved in maintaining the gardens, congratulations on this achievement of 90 years.
‘What you do is wonderful and you are very much appreciated.’