Our North Wales Break, Part 2: Gardens (or Size Isn’t Everything)

A good holiday should make you think. I’ve never really been very set on the idea of using your holiday to ‘escape’ – but from what? From your normal daily life? If the answer to that is yes, then I’d suggest you should be looking for a more permanent answer. I also don’t take a holiday to see places and visit cultures that are completely different from the people and places I’m familiar with in my daily life. I did that when I was younger. These days I’m more interested in seeing things that are just a bit different. I suppose it’s all about subtlety. Put another way, on holiday I hope to discover new ways of looking at, and thinking about, life in general. To my mind, a good holiday should enrich your appreciation of the way you live for the rest of the year. It should give you new ideas and add a much-needed dash of enthusiasm when familiar surroundings and the tasks of the day seem a little tired, and a bit ordinary. This can work at two levels: at the general and the particular. So in this post I’m going to be thinking about some of the gardens we visited and how they might affect the way we manage our own garden at home. And I plan to do this mainly through pictures rather than words. Cue the first picture:

The double herbaceous border at Arley Hall, Cheshire.

The double herbaceous border at Arley Hall, Cheshire.

The double herbaceous border at Arley Hall, Cheshire, is one of the glories of the British country house garden. It is also one of the earliest, appearing on a garden plan of 1846. We had long planned to visit, but sadly Cheshire is a pig to reach from south Lincolnshire, especially when the roads are as crowded as they are these days. But it was well worth the effort. A team of about half-a-dozen gardeners refresh the borders every winter and make hazel frames for the taller plants, which are soon covered-up in the spring. It’s an extraordinary task to have to do every year, but it does allow for subtle changes and improvements. Certainly the borders at Arley had a life of their own and did not feel at all over-designed and somehow institutionalised, as do some of the borders in country house gardens run by big national institutions.

One side of our own mixed (shrubs and herbaceous perennials) double border.

One side of our own mixed (shrubs and herbaceous perennials) double border.

As we drove home I couldn’t help wondering whether our own herbaceous borders would look very drab when set alongside Arley. But when I got home and strolled round the garden the next day, I was quite encouraged by what I saw – and smelled. Although the scale of the two gardens was so very different the borders worked in their own, different ways. The Arley borders were more formal and far deeper than ours, but not being burdened by so much distinguished history, we allowed ourselves the luxury of mixing-in roses and other shrubs, such as Philadelphus which provided both height and scent. More to the point, a sprinkling of grasses and shrubs does cut down hugely on the dividing-up and splitting of herbaceous perennials in late autumn and winter. We’re also lucky, given our heavy fen silts, to be able to grow the Day Lily, Hemerocallis, and these don’t need constant division to rejuvenate. They really make the small border come alive in the late spring, right through to high summer.

Our small mixed border, with the Hemerocallis ‘Hornby Castle’.

Our small mixed border, with the Hemerocallis ‘Hornby Castle’.

The gardens at Bodnant, near Colwyn Bay, Conwy, are extraordinarily beautiful and varied. Laid out by the same family (plus a remarkable dynasty of gardeners) since 1874, the gardens exploit the dramatic rise-and-fall of the natural landscape, while at the same time including some remarkable set-pieces, such as rose terraces, pergolas and the wonderful use of both still and flowing water. It’s also a plantsman’s garden and contains a huge variety of unusual trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Although we were there for a full day, we didn’t manage to see half the garden. Instead, we concentrated on the more formal areas closer to the house.

I don’t think any garden feature I have ever encountered has made such a big impression on me as the rose terraces and pergolas at Bodnant. The scent filled my head and the soft colours were warm and comforting. They never jarred nor clashed. Many of the roses were bred by David Austin whose new varieties known as English Roses have re-introduced scented flowers, with softer, more pastel colours. The flowers themselves stand-up to rain far better than old varieties which were often washed-out after a short shower. We grow several of his English varieties.

The ultimate in formal gardening: the lower rose terrace at Bodnant Gardens, Conwy.

The ultimate in formal gardening: the lower rose terrace at Bodnant Gardens, Conwy.

I often think the way gardens handle water is a good indication of their quality and Bodnant scored highly here. I particularly liked the formal-yet-informal Lily Pond with the house, itself no architectural jewel, sitting pleasingly in the background. It was impossible not to feel relaxed here.

The Lily Pond, with the Lily Terrace and Bodnant Hall in the background.

The Lily Pond, with the Lily Terrace and Bodnant Hall in the background.

I know it’s ridiculous to compare our amateur, run-on-a-shoestring garden with places like Bodnant and Arley, but any gardener worth his or her salt cannot visit another garden without drawing some inspiration for their own garden. And our visit to these two great gardens confirmed our belief that even a low-budget rural garden must have elements of formality to give it cohesion. With us it’s all about clipped hedges and a few garden structures, most of which are fairly home-made from stuff you can get at garden centres. I like to make shelters and suchlike from posts and trellis. On the whole I try to steer-clear of things that are ready-made. One exception is a superb wirework four-way dome, which was given to us by my brother Felix as a house-warming present some twenty years ago. Felix’s dome now sits in the small cottage-style front garden which we are at last trying to knock into shape. The trouble is, the soil was puddled and damaged when the house was being built, back in ’95, and we’re always having to remove broken roof tiles, bits of concrete and rubble. But I think at last we’ve got the ground into better heart. Anyhow, last winter Maisie had the idea of incorporating the wirework dome into a more formal central path, part gravel and part stepping-stones, which led up to a small urn. Here’s a view of that path taken from the gate that leads through to the Pond Garden (our pond is just a puddle compared with Bodnant!). But I’ll return to Felix’s dome shortly.

Formality Fen-style: the path through our front garden.

Formality Fen-style: the path through our front garden.

In my last blog post I featured the extraordinary Victorian pseudo-castle at Penrhyn, but I didn’t say that it’s surrounded by a remarkable garden of quite considerable charm – and well worth a visit. A particularly successful feature was a Fuchsia arch walk. Now arch walks are something of a speciality in British gardens and most often feature Laburnum (as at Arley, for instance) or sometimes Wisteria. But at Penrhyn they use Fuchsias. Admittedly their Fuchsia arches are a quarter the size of the giant Laburnum walk at Bodnant, but then the flowering season is very much longer (all summer and most of autumn). And besides, garden features don’t have to be big to be beautiful. Setting is important for such features and the Penrhyn arches were set alongside a superb bog garden which is currently being restored. I do hope the restoration (which slightly ominously will feature children’s dipping platforms) does not tame or suburbanise it too much. I loved the massive and very wild-looking Gunneras.

The Fuchsia arch walk at Penrhyn Castle, Bangor.

The Fuchsia arch walk at Penrhyn Castle, Bangor.

Sadly our ground is too wet for Laburnum, but we can grow Fuchsia very well and being quite close to The Wash we are spared the harshest winter frosts, unlike many other gardens in eastern England our Fuchsias are rarely cut to the ground. So last year Maisie started weaving Fuchsia stems into the wirework of Felix’s dome and rather to our surprise the effect worked and the Fuchsias looked very good alongside the Clematis texensis ‘Princess Diana’. Sustaining interest from summer into autumn is always a problem, so we plan to make greater use of trained Fuchsias in the future.

Hardy Fuchsias trained up a wirework arch dome in our front garden.

Hardy Fuchsias trained up a wirework arch dome in our front garden.

And finally… No holiday would ever be complete without a surprise, and ours came when we visited the National Trust property at Plas-yn-Rhiw on the southern shores of the Lleyn Peninsula. This charming Georgian (and earlier) farmhouse sits in a sheltered spot on the hillside overlooking the bay of Porth Neigwl, or Hell’s Mouth, which aptly describes the weather here in the stormy times of the year. In the last century Plas-yn-Rhiw was owned by three remarkable sisters of the Keating family, who restored the house which has become something of a time capsule of the ’50s and ‘60s. The sisters loved art and archaeology and I spotted two woodcuts by my great-aunt, Gwen Raverat (best known for her book Period Piece), and an excavation report on Coygan Camp by an old friend, Geoff Wainwright, published in 1967. I’m not sure he’ll be over-pleased to discover that he has become something of a museum piece. The youngest sister, Honora Keating, who owned Geoff’s book, also wrote an erudite, but very readable and fully illustrated account of the house and garden in 1957, which quite rightly has been reprinted ten times – the last in 2011, by the National Trust who still sell copies at a very reasonable £2.00. It’s worth ten times that.

The sisters also created a stunning garden. I hesitate to use the word, but it was a very feminine creation: intimate, warm and modest, but all done with superb panache and a profound understanding of plants. I’ve always loved it when gardeners ‘borrow’ views of the surrounding countryside and incorporate them into the garden. The landscaped park was frequently borrowed at Arley, for example. But at Plas-yn-Rhiw the view across a small terrace garden out across Hell’s Mouth was literally breath-taking. It proved that good gardening is indeed about art and inspiration; it is not just a craft. I will never forget that scene.

The view from the gardens at Plas-yn-Rhiw, on the southern Lleyn Peninsula, towards the coast at Porth Neigwl, or Hell’s Mouth.

The view from the gardens at Plas-yn-Rhiw, on the southern Lleyn Peninsula, towards the coast at Porth Neigwl, or Hell’s Mouth.

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