Four corners of the Earth
Steffie Shields meets Lynn Ritson, saviour of Lincoln’s Dawber Garden.
Some gardens have good bones… and good stories! New Year started with Lynn Ritson’s exciting email reporting on progress regarding a new garden charity recently founded in Lincoln: The Dawber Garden Community Trust (dawbergarden.co.uk).
This garden is tucked beside a children’s playpark, mostly unnoticed, beyond the car park in the north-west corner of Lincoln’s Lawn complex. Archaeological investigation has recorded this car park, rather than a final resting place of royalty, like Leicester, as once a Roman cemetery.
Centuries later in 1820, the Lawn, built in fashionable Greek Revival country house style, opened as an asylum within a peaceful, picturesque setting.
In 1985, with the hospital’s closure, Lincoln City Council took possession, planning a new visitor centre.
Prior to this, they had championed productive twinning moves between the city and Port Lincoln in Austraila, as well as Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, in Germany’s largest wine growing region (inspiring the Christmas Market); also with Radomsko, one of Poland’s oldest cities, and Tangshan, an industrial city and birthplace of China’s first standard-gauge railway, south-east of Beijing – also known for hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the horrendous 1976 earthquake.
World famous explorer
What better way to attract tourists than by celebrating the extraordinary vision of Lincolnshire-born naturalist Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) at the Lawn?
How marvellous to trumpet the famous world explorer and founder of the Royal Horticultural Society, by housing multitudes of exotic plants from around the globe in a conservatory and by designing a “new world” garden?
Glynn Stocker, city engineer, commissioned Jonathan Dix, a young landscape architect on the council staff, for a garden conjuring the “Four Corners of the Earth” in the Lawn’s approximately one-acre walled area.
The John Dawber Trust, a legacy of the Victorian founder of the Lincoln brewery, agreed to fund this ambitious project, which eventually cost a considerable £55,000.
Unfortunately, with many strands to the visitor centre development, it seems provision for ongoing management of both conservatory and garden fell by the wayside.
2016 saw the Lawn sold and today’s car park replacing the conservatory, which moved to Woodside Wildlife Park, Newball, near Langworth.
Digging for history
Lincoln residents witnessed their unusual local garden declining. Exploring two years later, I found much of its original hard landscaping remained and, despite a municipal feel in shrub handling, was impressed by an intriguing pergola, reminiscent of a heavily engineered railway viaduct.
It has proved difficult thus far to ascertain the exact date of the walling and any previous purpose. After requesting information in the Lincolnshire Gardens Trust (LGT) newsletter, I discovered that a member lived next door to Jonathan Dix’s mother! She kindly sent me his current contact details, based in Bury St Edmunds and working for Natural England.
Invited to my home in March 2019, Jonathan recalled his excitement, back in the early 1990s, when as a young recruit on the council staff, fresh from landscape architecture studies at Sheffield University, he was given the job of designing this grand, late 20th-century garden. Together we pored over his plans and early photographs charting the making of the “Four Corners of the Earth” almost three decades ago.
Jonathan envisioned several areas divided by various hedging, a trellis, ornamental arches, and samples of exceptional trees and shrubs introduced by Banks to represent Lincoln, threaded by a circuit path: a ‘Phoenix Garden’, an ‘Australian Garden’, a ‘Water Garden’, a ‘Neustadt Square’, a ‘Medieval Garden’, a ‘Memorial Garden’ and since the Empress of Russia took part in the first 1772 partition of Poland, a ‘Catherine the Great Garden’ and a ‘Fern Garden’.
Harmony with nature
A ‘Banks Memorial Garden’ – a rose arbour covered with assorted Banksian roses – was to be the outstanding centrepiece to overlook, and be reflected in, a circular pool symbolising earth’s life-enhancing waters and man-made works in harmony with nature.
Imagine my delight when Jonathan decided to donate copies of all his original archive to Lincolnshire Gardens Trust (LGT): drawings, before and after photos, planting lists and press cuttings, the latter including the official garden opening and the visit of a Chinese delegation.
Fast forward to December 2022, when the Council agreed to allow the new Dawber Garden CommunityTrust, led by Lynn Ritson, to take responsibility for the restoration on a five-year peppercorn lease, the only stipulation being that trustees must report to the Council at the end of the first year.
With charitable status awarded by the Charity Commission, amazingly in record speed, and a bank account organised for funds raised, Lynn wasted no time, ordering a digger to begin major works. She organised for all the memorial benches to go into a joinery workshop for renovation.
The focal point of the Australian Garden, a small grove of evergreen eucalyptus trees with blue-green leaves and peeling, coloured bark – a species first collected by Banks in Botany Bay – thrived too vigorously and were deemed dangerously overbearing.
The Council insisted on pollarding trees that should have been pruned regularly to keep them compact.
This lopping has made a big difference, bringing in light and it is hoped to recycle the hard wood imaginatively within the garden.
She then pressed the local authority for permission for volunteers to start clearing the garden before the birds and other wildlife began nesting.
On a gloomy, dank February weekday, I accompanied Frazer Chapman, LGT vice-chairman, to meet Lynn’s small, determined band of volunteers hard at work in temperatures that chilled to the bone.
They have already unearthed the trellised pergola from its variegated ivy jungle, now crying out for repair.
Pond restoration has begun to encourage wildlife. They were busy shearing yet more creeper from strangled hornbeam in the Fern Garden corner. Lynn laughed as she indicated where they raised the crown on an old yew tree in the Memorial Garden. “It thought it was a bush!”
Nearby, a small square stone strewn with fallen black oak leaves, engraved ‘The Gardener’s Proverb: One Day at a Time’, makes a pausing point, a great motto for valiant volunteers.
Frazer, a retired London parks professional, recommended that the trustees develop a management plan for the whole garden. This should show the team’s intentions going forward and definite commitment to encouraging possible funders.
We chatted beside a striking wall framing the Phoenix Garden. This still bears Chinese lettering and a translation plaque, ‘A sense of the past explains the present and foretells the future’ – an opportune moment for me to surprise Lynn with copies of the old plans and photos.
These will help inform the team tackling tough groundwork and brick-lined paths. Jonathan Dix’s original planting lists should prove invaluable for identifying surviving plants, and a starting point for new planting.
Lynn spoke recently on Radio Lincolnshire to raise awareness of their ambition to resurrect this special place and to ask for gardening volunteers. She welcomes anyone with time and energy to get in touch and get involved as the weather improves.
Once the heavy work is complete, the restored Dawber Garden will remain open every day of the year, a unique oasis of peace away from city hubbub. Given local support, Lynn’s enthusiastic leadership and gardening “know-how” will hopefully pay off ‘in spades’! Lain hidden and unloved, the sap is already rising in this season of new life.
Happy Easter everyone!
Update from Lynn: “We’ve completed the pond, filled it full of plants from Lincolnshire Pond Plants at Binbrook and split some of the bamboo at one end of the pond and replanted along with bearded irises from my allotment. A huge piece of luck, Lincs Civil Engineering & Paving said they would replace paving in the Memorial Garden free of charge and started the same day, which was so exciting and extremely generous!”