Gardens: Waiting for a fern call

Who is going to take on Ascog Hall and its Victorian glasshouse? Picture: Robert Perry
Who is going to take on Ascog Hall and its Victorian glasshouse? Picture: Robert Perry
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AS THE morning haze lifts off the Firth of Clyde, in the garden at Ascog Hall, a Scots baronial house on the Isle of Bute, tentative March sunshine breaks through to illuminate swathes of snowdrops.

It may herald spring, but there is a cloud of uncertainty hanging over this garden, and particularly over the low glass and steel canopy that conceals a sunken Victorian marvel.

This is Ascog Hall fernery, restored from dereliction during the 1990s to create a haven of lush green fronds and trickling water, a miniature temperate rainforest cusped in glass, rock and steel. As the British Pteridological Society holds its annual general meeting at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh this weekend, fern enthusiasts in Britain and abroad are voicing concern about the future of this unique building.

A relic of Victorian “pteridomania”, the craze for ferns, the building was restored by an enterprising retired couple, the late Wallace and Katherine Fyfe, but maintaining it is a major commitment and the couple’s daughter, Susannah Alcorn, and her husband, now living at Ascog Hall, have felt compelled to put the house, garden and fernery on the market.

They hope that, ideally, a buyer will be prepared to maintain the fernery, which, like Ascog Hall itself, is a B-listed building. However, in a sluggish property market, the house and garden have been up for sale for the past year without any takers, while the situation has been further complicated by plans to site three 74-metre tall wind turbines at Ascog Farm some 750 metres behind the Alcorns’ home. Susannah says they have already lost one potential buyer who was enthusiastic about the fernery, until he saw the turbine proposals.

She and her husband Graham, a gardener at the nearby Victorian Gothic mansion of Mount Stuart, want to sell because they feel they cannot manage two full-time jobs (she runs a bed-and-breakfast business at Ascog) and bring up three young boys, as well as properly maintaining the fernery and the surrounding three-acre garden, which is an attraction in itself. “I’ll be devastated to leave, but I think it’s the responsible thing to do and the time is right,” says Susannah as we tread the pebble path winding within the fernery, watching out for the frogs which thrive there.

“My parents were at a very different stage in their lives when they took this on – and they seem to have had superpowers,” she laughs. “I’ll never know how they managed it.”

Originally from Edinburgh, the Fyfes moved to Bute in 1977 and, in the mid-1980s, bought the turreted, Scots baronial Ascog Hall, although it was in such a state of disrepair that they did not move in until 1992. It was a while until they turned their attention to a rusting wrought iron canopy, tangled in brambles and concealing a morass of mud and broken glass. In an astonishing act of vision and commitment, they undertook to restore the fernery, with the help of a grant from Historic Scotland, botanical expertise from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and an 1879 issue of Gardeners’ Chronicle which featured the fernery and became an invaluable guide in replicating its original collection of subtropical and European ferns.

The fernery was excavated around 1870 by the then owner of Ascog Hall, Glasgow businessman and philanthropist Alexander Bannatyne Stewart. Its designer was Edward La Trobe Bateman, who had not long returned from Australia, where he had laid out Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

The structure may be some 140 years old, but its oldest resident may well be over 1,000. This is the imposing Australian fern Todea barbara which radiates its fronds above the fernery’s central pool. When the Fyfes first unearthed the crumbling fernery, there appeared to be a just couple of surviving fronds growing from a large central rock. On further investigation, the “rock” proved to be the compacted root ball of the ancient fern and, after the fernery was reroofed, it flourished. Experts reckon it could be of “immense age”.

Sadly, having carried out this magnificent restoration, the Fyfes both succumbed to cancer: Wallace in 2008, Katherine a year later. Today there is concern among the pteridological community about this magic little place’s future.

Frank McGavigan, Scottish organiser of the British Pteridological Society, has been trying to drum up support, contacting everyone from Prince Charles (the Duke of Rothesay) to the Marquess of Bute, whose family seat is the neighbouring Mount Stuart, and the National Trust for Scotland, all without response so far. His concern is that even if a buyer can be found, there is no guarantee that they will maintain the fernery or keep it open to the public: “There is a real danger that this unique piece of Bute’s Victorian heritage will once again fall into disrepair and be lost as the major tourist attraction it deserves to be.”

David Mitchell of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, who advised on the restoration and planting of the fernery, regards the Fyfes’ vision as “simply extraordinary”, while Professor Mary Gibby, a research fellow at the RBGE and president of the BPS, sympathises with the Alcorns’ position. “It’s been wonderfully restored, and they’ve done their best with it, but the sad situation is that a glasshouse like that is always going to need a lot of maintenance.”

She regards the fernery as important in terms of cultural as much as natural heritage. “It’s part of the history of the island. It would be wonderful if someone who loved Bute and loved ferneries would take the property on.”

Former president of the BPS and eminent fern expert Martin Rickard has visited numerous ferneries at home and abroad, including what is thought to be the only Victorian fernery in the USA, the University of Pennsylvania’s Dorrance Hamilton Fernery, which is believed to have been modelled on Ascog. “It would be a tragedy to lose Ascog,” says Rickard, who regards the Bute structure as “up there among the best in the world”. Meanwhile Sue Olsen, author of the award-winning Encyclopaedia of Garden Ferns, and who runs a fern nursery in Washington State, USA, visited Ascog Hall in 2010 and recalls it as “one of the best fern experiences and presentations in the world, and I have seen many”.

Olsen regards the fernery as being of major importance to the botanical community at large, “and of even greater importance to the world’s many fern enthusiasts and specialists”.

When I first visited Ascog in 2000 and interviewed the Fyfes, Katherine told me, philosophically, that their labour of love had left them “asset-rich and cash-poor”. Many now hope that the unique asset they left can be nurtured, for the island and for the world at large.

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