Portland Castle

Garden at Portland Castle

Portland Castle near Weymouth, and its sheltered Governor's Garden overlooking the sea, was once part of a series of 16th century defensive buildings called Device Forts, which ran from Kent to Cornwall.

Plans show that there's been a garden here on and off for almost 300 years, part of a long tradition of governors and captains of military forts establishing gardens for themselves in the places they commanded

The Contemporary Heritage Garden at Portland Garden
The Contemporary Heritage Garden

The Device Forts were constructed under Henry Vlll to defend the south coast of England against the ever-present threat of French and Spanish invaders. In Georgian times the castle was leased as a private gentleman's residence then taken back under Government control in 1870 as a residence for senior military officers from the nearby Verne citadel. From the First World War onwards Portland Castle was used by senior officers from the naval base, and in the Second World War it was instrumental in the build-up to the D-Day landings. The residence continued to be used by the Royal Navy until 1999, when English Heritage took over.

The exact use of the Governor's Garden isn't clear, though it's thought that it would have been used for growing fruit and vegetables as well as providing some rest and recreation. The garden was abandoned after the Second World War.

View of Portland Castle from Portland Harbour
Portland Castle from Portland Harbour

A New Garden Created

In 2002, as part of English Heritage's scheme to create a series of Contemporary Heritage Gardens, a competition was held to design the quarter of an acre garden - it was won by Christopher Bradley-Hole, a designer renowned for his minimalist approach.

By that point the garden, set on three sides by rubble walls, was very run down with a few straggling shrubs and trees set within beds of old metal railway lines, and reinforced concrete paths leading to broken down sheds and greenhouses.

The new design was to planned to reflect the long connection between Portland Castle and its garden, as well as provide a quiet contemplative space within a rather run-down area.

The hotch-potch of old buildings and paths were dismantled with the help of a working party of prisoners from a local prison ship. Upon this blank canvas the garden, full of sweeping curves to echo the circular castle, was established.

Bridge to the gardens at Portland Castle
Bridge into the Contemporary Heritage Garden

Maritime Theme

You enter the garden from the Gun Platform next to the castle over a metal and timber bridge that crosses the dry moat, bringing to mind a pontoon, and the metal rails on the harbour side make you feel like you're on a ship.

Beyond is the rounded bulk of the fort of Portland Castle. Within the dry moat there are ornamental grasses, Euphorbia and white Geranium with naturalised bulbs for spring interest.

The central design is based on a series of circular shapes and at the heart of the garden is an amphitheatre bound by a low, drystone wall topped with Portland stone cut from a local quarry. Clipped balls of box add a sculptural note and visitors can sit and look out to sea to the boats in the harbour through stands of tough evergreen Corsican pines (Pinus nigra).

Within the circular lawn, beds are cut into the turf set at various compass points to echo Portland's maritime history. They're planted with tough plants such as sedum and geranium as well as tall grasses like Miscanthus and Stipa, which don't mind the scouring winds and the high light levels.

Bradley-Hole wanted the coastal weather to add to the effect of the garden, so as the wind blows the grasses sway and rustle, catching the constantly changing light from the sea.

The Governors Garden reformed to make the Contemporary Heritage Garden at Portland Castle
The Contemporary Heritage Garden