Dewstow Hidden Gardens and Grottoes is a place where you want to dip a finger into every rock pool, poke a head through every crevice and dare to run across every stepping-stone until you get your feet wet.
It’s astonishing to think that, only 10 years ago, this strange and wonderful garden was buried beneath tons of soil, lost and forgotten for half a century.
In 1893, Dewstow was owned by eccentric recluse Henry Keane Oakley. He created a garden – his own personal wonderland – that was described by the few who saw it as a “magical and wondrous place”.
He hired renowned landscape gardener James Pulham to undertake most of the work, which ended up being a 25-year project. Pulham specialised in rock gardens, ferneries and grottoes, and used his own special cement to create artificial, but very natural looking ‘volcanic’ rock, underground tunnels, caves and stalactites. When Oakley died in 1940, the land was passed on to a local solicitor, who didn’t share Oakley’s enthusiasm for the extravagant garden. It fell into disrepair, and was eventually covered with earth and turned into farmland.
For years no one knew what was hidden beneath, until John Harris moved to Dewstow in 1999. It was while carrying out renovation work on the grounds that a workman tripped over an entrance to the lost garden. The more soil John removed, the stranger his discoveries.
“It was like having an archaeological dig in my own back garden,” John told me. He’s still perplexed by it all – it must be daunting to discover a labyrinth beneath your lawn. It’s taken a lot of graft to renovate the gardens, but I’m sure he’s more than happy with his buried treasure.
I felt like a child again as I explored the subterranean Fern grotto with its fairies lurking behind tiny waterfalls, and ran fingers over strangely named flowers such as Heartbreaker and Dragon’s Claw Willow.
In the Tropical House, you’ll find Canary Island date palm and black bamboo, and in the Lion grotto there is an enticing network of streams criss-crossed with stepping-stones. There are so many tunnels and archways, creeping with ivy and cascades of blue ceonathus, that it’s overwhelming choosing where to go next.
Emerge into the sunlight and cross the bridge into the South Gardens, where you can meander past rockeries, the Bog Garden of rhubarb, the duck pond and chain of lily ponds, surrounded by towering yew trees and majestic lawns.
It all feels grown up now, but you can always nip back to the labyrinth if you fancy unleashing the child within again.
How to get there
From Chepstow take the A48 towards Caldicot then turn left for Dewstow Road. Hourly buses run from Chepstow to Caerwent.
Find out more
Dewstow Hidden Gardens & Grottoes
Caerwent NP26 5AH
Open daily, 10am-4.30pm,
19 Mar-30 Oct. Adult £6.50, child £4. There are disabled toilet facilities in the café, but limited access for wheelchair users in the garden, and no access to underground areas.
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