History in Structure

The remains of a fernery approximately 100m north-east of East Dene house

A Grade II Listed Building in Ventnor, Isle of Wight

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Latitude: 50.6006 / 50°36'2"N

Longitude: -1.1839 / 1°11'2"W

OS Eastings: 457851

OS Northings: 78193

OS Grid: SZ578781

Mapcode National: GBR 9F5.7HQ

Mapcode Global: FRA 87DH.4KT

Plus Code: 9C2WJR28+6C

Entry Name: The remains of a fernery approximately 100m north-east of East Dene house

Listing Date: 23 March 2023

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1485424

ID on this website: 101485424

Location: Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, PO38

County: Isle of Wight

Civil Parish: Ventnor

Traditional County: Hampshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Isle of Wight


The remains of a fernery with a grotto at the north end, built in the mid or late C19, part of the former East Dene estate.


The remains of a fernery with a grotto at the north end, built in the mid or late C19, part of the former East Dene estate.

MATERIALS: the walls are constructed of large rubble stone.

EXTERIOR: the building is partially sunken and has become covered in vegetation. The south gable-end wall has a central pointed-arch entranceway; the door is no longer extant. The side stone walls are low and their external face sits partially below the surrounding ground level. The north end, containing the grotto, extends beyond the main wall and is covered by an earthen mound. The glass roof is no longer extant.

INTERIOR: at the centre of the building is a stone-lined oblong planting area. The north-end wall incorporates bowl-shaped stone shelves which would have been used to propagate and display ferns. In the middle of the north wall is the entrance to the round-arch roofed grotto-style deep alcove; this part of the building includes a central sunken stone-lined floor which may have held water, and there are further stone shelves within the grotto walls.


The house known as East Dene was built in around 1825 to 1826, on the site of the Bonchurch Farm. It was built for William H Surman and designed by Samuel Beazley. The 42-acre estate of East Dene was sold at auction in 1833. An advertisement of the estate describes East Dene as ‘the most perfect bijou’ and details that the site as including ‘verdant lawns…scenic beauties …woodland scenery…shrubbery walks, fruitful plantations…American plants’. It also notes the existence of ‘the secluded hermitage and an icehouse’ within the ‘extensive gardens. (Maidstone and Kentish Journal Advertisement, 21 May 1833, 1). Another contemporary report, confirming the sale, describes the estate as ‘comprising the cottage residence erected in the Elizabethan style, commanding extensive views of the sea, the rocks, hills and cascades and containing numerous apartments, lawn, horticultural and other gardens, a range of conservatories, hot and succession houses, orchard, and land extending to the sea cliffs, lodge, stables, laundry, fruit house, gardeners; and fishermen’s cottages, farm-buildings and yard, coach house, stables and premises’ (Morning Herald, 12 July 1833, 4). These descriptions indicate that many aspects of the marine villa's landscape design have been in place since the ownership of WH Surman.

The estate was bought by Mr Cartwright in 1833. In 1836 the house was leased to Captain, later Admiral, Charles Henry Swinburne (1797-1877)’. He later purchased East Dene in 1841 and lived there with his family, including the poet and literary reviewer Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), who spent his summers at the estate as a child. The Bonchurch Tithe Map (1843) depicts East Dene house and estate under his ownership. The house is shown at the end of a curving drive, the entrance of the drive is flanked by buildings which are the predecessors of East Dene Lodge and Turret House (former coach house). It shows the walled kitchen garden to the east with three compartments including an apsidal end, along with various surrounding buildings. In 1861 East Dene was for sale again. Adverts gave detailed descriptions of the site, including noting that a labourer’s cottage with a private bathing machine was located near the beach, possibly referring to the pair of cottages located by the shoreline. An undated catalogue plan shows the East Dene estate with a detailed depiction of the garden layout. Although the plan is undated, it is associated with the 1860s sales agent and appears to date to this sale (MP89). A shrubbery between the east side of the house and the walled garden is shown to include a series of winding paths, narrow bands of dense planting interspersed with more formal lines of planting. The First Edition Ordnance Survey (OS) Map (surveyed 1862-1863, published 1866, 1:2500) shows some of the details depicted on the sales plan.

In 1865 the estate was sold to John Snowden-Henry (1824-1896), Member of Parliament for South-East Lancashire and a magistrate. Snowden-Henry’s is understood to have had a strong interest in horticulture, with records of plant growing and forcing houses, greenhouses, bushes and shrubberies, and accounts of tropical plants on the estate during his ownership

In 1899 East Dene was sold to JE Gordon member of Parliament for Elgin and Nain. In 1904 the estate was bought to serve as a convent school run by the nuns of the Convent of the Sacred Heart. In 1949 East Dene was sold and the ownership of the estate began to be subdivided. The western side of the estate, including the main house, entrance lodge, coach house, pleasure grounds and half of the upper woodland became known as the Workers Travel Association Holiday House, East Dene. The east side of the estate, including the walled garden, surrounding buildings and east half of the upper woodland became part of Carrigdene Farm; many of the cottages, farm and garden buildings in this area have been converted to residential accommodation since the mid-C20. In 1979 East Dene house and its grounds were sold and became an educational activity centre. In 2020 the activity centre closed and it was sold in 2022.

The fernery, incorporating a grotto at its north end, stands on the north edge of the shrubbery. The 1833 sales advert mentions a secluded hermitage; its location is unknown and it is not clear whether this refers to an earlier phase of the fernery structure. The Tithe Map (1843) shows a building in the vicinity of the site of the fernery; however, it has a different, irregular footprint and it is not depicted on the First Edition OS Map (1866). The Frist Edition OS Map does depict a semi-circular enclosure in this location. The fernery appears on the Second Edition OS Map (revised: 1896, published: 1898; 1:2500) with a rectangular footprint and covered by a glass roof; it stands within the pre-existing semi-circular enclosure. John Snowden-Henry passed away in 1896 and the following year East Dene was put up for auction, with reference made to various aspects of the site, including, ‘ferns and exotic houses’ (Morning Post, 5 June 1897, 12). The glass roof was removed at an unknown date.

The fernery was created during the period of pteridomania, or fern madness, which swept through Britain between 1837 and 1914. The interest in ferns had begun in the late 1830s when the British countryside attracted an increasing number of amateur and professional botanists. Ferns were a particularly fruitful group of plants to study because much less was known about them compared with flowering plants. Methods of cultivating and displaying ferns varied from small indoor glass cases to glasshouses and outdoor ferneries.

Reasons for Listing

The remains of a fernery approximately 100m north-east of East Dene house, Ventnor, Isle of Wight is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* the outer envelope of the semi-sunken structure survives well, despite the loss of the glass roof, with a rustic design intended to invoke a primeval-style setting for the ferns.

* it includes several characteristic features of ferneries, including bowl-shaped stone shelves, a central stone-lined planting area, and a grotto-style alcove at the north end.

Historic interest:

* it is a good and relatively rare example of a specialised garden structure built during the ‘fern craze’ which was particularly prevalent during the mid to late C19, and also illustrates well the wider interest of plant cultivation and collection during this period.

Group value:

* it has strong group value as part of a marine villa estate ensemble, including East Dene house (listed Grade II*, NHLE 1224413), several other listed buildings (Grade II), and the registered landscape (Grade II, NHLE 1485242).

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