Victorian Fern Garden

By Peter Boyd*

During the winter of 2009, heavy snow fell on the branches of the laurel in the old fern garden at Canonteign causing them to break. Once clearing was undertaken, new areas of a fern garden were discovered which had lain dormant for decades and so began the current restoration programme.

The original hardy fern garden at Canonteign was created by Lady Susan Exmouth, wife of the Third Viscount, the then owner of the Canonteign estate. Along with her ambitious programme for the new waterfall, Lady Susan employed the miners, now redundant from the silver mines on the estate, to divert the existing waterfall over a nearby magnificent high rocky outcrop and to develop paths and raised fern beds in which to plant the ferns. The fern garden was planted in a small, quarry-like hanging valley through which the original waterfall stream still flows. Under Lady Susan’s direction, Canonteign thus became a wonderful example of a Victorian fern garden set amidst a truly beautiful natural landscape of rocky outcrops, waterfalls, streams and ancient bluebell woods.

Our Fern Garden Fairies

Ferns are the birth place of fairies and here at Canonteign we have the perfect magical setting for our 12 fairies and their 5 little friends.  These exquisite wire sculptures have been designed and made by internationally renowned wire artist Rachel Ducker and have a wonderful, mystical quality about them.  

Rachel's brief was to provide artistic interest to complement the amazing array of ferns we now have growing up in the Fern Garden, without detracting from the natural beauty of the surroundings.  Said Falls owner, Kate Baylis, "We wanted something that would delight children and adults alike, enticing children to want to visit the Fern Garden again and again to search for them as they dance amongst the trees and ferns.  Rachel has surpassed all our expectations with these beautiful sculptures and has made the Fern Garden feel alive again.  Thank you, Rachel - we love them!" 

Rachel is a British contemporary artist who lives and works between Oxford and Marrakesh.  Her training in life drawing led to her appreciation of the human form and the emotional dynamics of human nature which in turn enables her to capture something ephemeral, whether emotive or active, in each of her pieces.  Her pieces are untitled due to her belief that everyone sees something different in the sculptures.

Rachel Ducker can be contacted at  

Victoria Fern Gardens

The Victorians had a great passion for ferns and their passion was expressed by collecting them, growing them and making a wide range of “ferny” decorative objects. Museums about the country house wonderful examples of Victorian fern cast iron stick stands, garden seats and umbrella stands. Fern motifs decorated nearly every type of utilitarian object from china, glass, textiles and even gravestones!

Although the main period of popularity of ferns as a decorative motif extended from the 1850s until the 1890s, the interest in ferns had really begun in the late 1830s when the British countryside attracted increasing number of amateur and professional botanists. Ferns proved to be a particularly fruitful group of plants for new records because they had been relatively little studied compared with flowering plants. Also, they were most diverse and abundant in the wilder, wetter south western parts of Britain which were becoming more accessible through the development of better roads and, subsequently, in the late 1840s and the 1850s through the development of the railways.

People of many different social backgrounds sought out the species and varieties described in the fern identification books to press the fronds in albums or to collect fern plants to grow in their gardens or homes. Those people with a serious interest in ferns were known as Pteridologists and could be said to be members of a fern cult rather than followers of a craze or fashion. They particularly sought out odd variants of the wild species – unkindly named “monstrosities” by botanists of the time. Although there are only about eighty native British species and natural hybrids of ferns, the Victorians selected hundreds of varieties. Specialist dealers and fern nurseries developed and supplied not only native species and varieties but also exotic species from the Caribbean and other parts of the world.

Most species of ferns favour damp, shaded woodland conditions in which to grow. Various types of outdoor ferneries and conservatory ferneries were also popular and many of the structures have survived in old gardens even though, in most cases, the ferns themselves have not. However, old Victorian fern varieties that were thought extinct have survived in some old gardens.

No other single craze affected so many Victorians or such a cross-section of society. Even the farm labourer (or the miner!) could have a collection of British ferns which he had collected in the wild and a common interest sometimes brought people of very different social backgrounds together.

The Victorian Fern Cult in South-west Britain

South-west Britain has a special place in the history of the Victorian enthusiasm for species of British Ferns and their “varieties”. Victorian fern books include more references to fern varieties discovered in the area from Monmouthshire to the Channel Islands than any other part of the British Isles.

Devon was the most important of these south-western counties as a source of such varieties. Many of the people whose names are linked with the early varieties lived in Devon and adjacent areas and cultivated ferns while others made pilgrimages to the area and removed ferns to their gardens elsewhere. Northern Devon was particularly favoured and boasted three specialist fern nurseries : John Dadds (Ilfracombe), Lewis’s (Ilfracombe) and Edmund Gill (Lynton) – the only ones in the West Country.

The first British Pteridological Society started life as the “West of England Pteridological Society” and one of the most significant publications of the fern cult, Nature-printed Impressions of the Varieties of the British Special of Ferns, was initiated by it and produced within the region. The 50 year period between 1841 and 1891 saw the British Fern cult pass through four phases with changes of emphasis from (a) collecting British fern species, to (b) collecting new varieties of those species in the wild, to (c) raising new varieties from spores of sowings of those varieties already discovery, to (d) raising crosses between varieties by sowing mixtures of spores. New varieties were exhibited at local, regional and national horticultural shows. Most of the pioneers of the British “Fern Cult” in south-west Britain had died by 1891. This encouraged the formation of a new Pteridological Society in the North of England which became the present British Pteridological Society.

Research shows that no fewer than 212 fern varieties had been found in Devon before 1890 (based on information extracted from Lowe, 1890a). As part of the restoration of our fernery here at Canonteign, our gardeners are now looking to replant as many varieties as possible as a new Devon showcase for this wonderful Victorian pastime.

*About the author… Peter Boyd was Museum Curator for The Museum of Barnstaple & North Devon from 1986-1997. The Museum still houses an extensive and diverse collection of Victorian ferny objects built up by Mr Boyd. For more information on Peter Boyd’s research into ferns, see: Canonteign’s Victorian Fern Garden By Peter Boyd

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden is a distinct area of the Falls dominated by a massive Scots Pine, which you walk up through on your way to the 90 Victorian Steps. It is called the Secret Garden because it has a secret feel to it as it is almost fully enclosed and dominated by huge dark rocky outcrops with trailing ivy and dripping water. The sun falls in a particularly seductive way in this area, glittering through the lime green leaves of the tall trees that grow about you. The original waterfall gushes down through Devil's Leap and becomes a meandering stream that feeds into the Lily Lake. Meanwhile, high up to your left you can see the Lady Exmouth Falls crashing down over the rocks on that side.

This area of the Falls is a favourite with artists and photographers alike. The artist John White Abbott (1763-1851) painted a number of scenes of Canonteign, including the one shown on this page. It was painted in or around 1804, over 200 years ago. As you walk up to the top of today’s waterfall, you can still see the cave in this painting alongside the original waterfall. To the top left of the painting you can also see the jutting outcrop of rock over which the diverted Lady Exmouth waterfall flows today.










The Victorian Steps copy90 Victorian Steps
CFTRex0042 web  T rex in our ancient fern landscape
fern garden right 4Canonteign: 1804' by John White Abbott
Fern1 copyFerns
Secret garden with Devils Leap Bridge web Fern garden and fox gloves