The Clackmannanshire situated garden that fell into decline is now open and thriving for the public, promoting peace and tranquillity.
Described in 1925 as ‘the most important Japanese garden in the West’, the Clackmannanshire located oriental garden is full of history and life. At the time of its creation, the garden was the first and only garden of its magnitude to be built by a woman – Taki Handa. Despite the garden suffering a brutal decline, it has now been restored to its former glory and welcomes many visitors from around the globe.
Ella Christie, a Scottish traveller, and landowner had the vision for the Japanese Garden at Cowden after her visits to China and Japan. During her time in Japan, Christie became mesmerised by the Japanese form of gardening – an interest which would soon inspire her to recreate the gardens on her return home.
The garden is located within the grounds of Cowden Castle, Christie’s then home, and spans a total of seven acres. Once it was up and running in 1907, it almost immediately became a much-loved attraction.
Christie’s great-niece, Sara Stewart, explained the garden’s effect on the community at the time to ‘Country Life’ stating, “You can imagine what it was like, having never even seen a photograph of a Japanese garden – they must have seemed so extraordinary; like how we felt when people landed on the moon.”
As displayed within the information house at the garden, Ella Christie returned from Japan with only a handful of reference books to guide her. However, thanks to her riches, the traveller was able to bring aboard Kyoto-trained Taki Handa to design the zen estate.
Handa was tasked with designing the ‘Shā Raku En’, meaning ‘Place of Pleasure and Delight’, having studied at Studley Horticultural and Agricultural College. Upon its completion, the garden was described by Jijo Suzuki, Head of the Soami School of Imperial Garden Design, as ‘the most important garden in the Western World’, in-part because it was designed by a woman.
The garden has a tranquil pond, surrounded by an island garden, tea-house garden, and a stroll garden. Visitors can enjoy an array of scenic shrubs and flowers, with the originals being imported from Japan themselves where possible. The garden is thriving with wildlife including dragonflies, tadpoles, and butterflies.
While the garden was thriving for many years after its original build, closure became imminent in 1955 when finances to upkeep the garden were scarce.
Shortly after the gardens temporary closure in 1955, local school children set fire to it in the late 1960’s. All of the buildings within the closed area had been burned to the ground, with the stone lanterns kicked into the pond. Understandably, Sir Robert ‘Bobby’ Stewart, the owner of the garden at the time, was devastated.
After the vandalism, and with the area seemingly at the point of no return, the garden lay overgrown and dormant for some time until almost 60 years later in 2014 when restoration plans began.
Masao Fukuhara, winner of a Gold medal at the famous Chelsea Flower Show, was in Britain at the time restoration plans had begun. Fukuhara had worked on many Japanese garden restorations before at Kew Gardens and in Cheshire, so was perfectly qualified for the task of restoring the garden to its former glory. When he was invited to visit the garden, he immediately accepted the request to help.
In the beginning, it was estimated to cost £50,000 to return the garden to its original state. However, Sara Stewart, Christie’s great-niece, would soon come to find that this estimate would only cover the first set of months of getting rid of overgrown scenery. Thus, Stewart began a charitable trust to fund the remainder of the work.
Fast-forward to today, and all restoration work has been completed, with the garden receiving funding from the UK government and visitors flocking to the area on a daily basis.
Lewis Lister, a visitor to the garden, voiced his enjoyment of the newly refurbished area, saying, “I love every aspect of the park, especially the upkeep – it’s spectacular, it really is professional.
“It’s a fantastic place, a great day out, and I would highly recommend it.”
It is clear that with such a rich history and stunning views, the small slice of Japanese culture hidden within the Scottish hills is much loved by many. The garden welcomes approximately 45,000 visitors a year, with many purchasing season passes.
“I think Christie would surely approve.” Says Sara Stewart.