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13 October 2021

There is unfathomable hope in building a garden in the face of death

Drawn in by its yellow window frames and low shrubs, Derek Jarman's former home, Prospect Cottage, is something of a beacon for me.

By Alice Vincent

Last year, mid-March, I had plans to go to Prospect Cottage. The former home of the late English artist, film-maker and gardener Derek Jarman is something of a beacon for me. I remember the first time I saw its Marmite markings, years ago in a magazine: yellow window frames, black cladding. Strange, low shrubs and a misty power station in the background. Since then, I’ve driven hours to stand outside the cottage; I’ve rented solitary rooms in pink houses down the road to write, look at the sea and walk against the wind. More often, I’ve thought of it.

Prospect Cottage is among the handful of Victorian fisherman’s huts that interrupt the horizon at Dungeness, an unlikely jewel of Kent’s triangular headland and one of the most salt-battered places in the country. It became a retreat: Jarman moved there in 1986 after learning he was HIV positive. Faced with a death sentence, he decided to make a garden out of shingle.

It had taken pleading correspondence and good fortune to be granted entry to the cottage itself, but I had a date. The day before, unnecessary travel was ruled out. During those uneasy early days of the first lockdown I reread Modern Nature, Jarman’s diaries of making a garden, making films and living with HIV between 1989 and 1990. It sounded a new resonance. An entry from 25 March: “There are so many strangers crying in Britain these days.”

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At that time last year, Jarman and his garden were having a moment. I saw his diaries – large sketchbooks, filled with looping, inky writing – displayed as part of a show in a warehouse in London’s Elephant and Castle, a touring retrospective to mark 25 years since his death. There were pieces in the papers, panel events, an ArtFund crowdfunder to preserve the house. The Garden Museum re-created Prospect Cottage, inside and out, in “Derek Jarman: My garden’s boundaries are the horizon”. The first day restrictions lifted I cycled there and walked around this facsimile, and was left unmoored by the beautiful oddity of it all.

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I returned to Dungeness this year during the first, stormy weekend in October. It is flat and expansive; the road curls through plains of shingle and pools of water. A toot, and a tiny steam train rattled over the world’s smallest level crossing. A kestrel flew parallel with the car window, a reminder that this bleak landscape nevertheless provides life; in Modern Nature’s October, the birds sit on the power lines.

It’s not hard to spot Prospect Cottage: the other huts are pastel-hued. Many of the best-known photos show it in the full flush of summer, red hot pokers and yellow California poppies caught in the wind. On my previous visit, yellow flag irises matched the windows. But this time there was only grey-green gorse and sea kale, the stubborn remnants of fennel and stunted, knee-high teasels.

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It is a garden that is more than the sum of its parts. The gaps between the planting make accidental pathways that offer a sense of direction in this endless landscape and entice you to wander. Jarman dug pools of peat beneath the pebbles. He arranged circles of stone and stood hunks of driftwood against the wind. As a sculptor, perhaps he knew that structure is more important in a garden than plants. Despite the rising tide of visitors to the cottage, no ticket booths or signs disrupt the balance of the place. You have to know it is there, and you have to tread lightly. Visitor numbers have been increasing over the years, the anorak-clad making the long pilgrimage to this fishing community.

[See also: How do you preserve the history of something that lives and dies each season?]

To stand in front of Prospect Cottage is to think of Jarman’s early death, of the unfathomable hope of building a garden in the face of it. I thought about that March journey I didn’t make, the doorway I didn’t cross, about the pandemic that has unfolded. I thought about what it was to live somewhere so cut off, so desolate; to mark the year by the changing colour of the sea.

I think I go to Prospect Cottage to better understand why I am so drawn there, but I never do. Instead, it leaves me with something mute and heavy, a guttural weight between gratitude and astonishment.

This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm