Many people start planning their spring and summer European trips at this time of year. It’s a great time to think of the out of doors: sun, fun, and gardens. If you’re thinking of England, please remember that Wales is a part of England. (don’t say that too loudly in Wales, though) and that its gardens are also fabulous. We recently spent a whole week at one of Wales most famous castle gardens. Thanks to the UK National Trust, which organizes rentals of interesting holiday places all over the British Isles, we were able to rent a large house at Powis Castle Gardens, which proved to be nothing short of sensational. We flew to Manchester, in the midlands of England. It was much easier and cheaper than flying to Heathrow, and actually a good deal closer to our destination, Welshpool, Wales.
We had no trouble getting to the castle grounds, where our friends had already arrived at our charming National Trust home-for-a-week. From our bedroom bay window, we viewed the wide perennial border, awash in June color along one side of a wide green expanse of lawn. In the distance was the green of Long Mountain and the Breidden Hills. In the middle distance were the sharp yew hedges, fronted by the glorious rose gardens. On the right was the tan gravel path, bordered with ancient rare specimen apple trees, each underplanted with a different color ground cover (stachys, golden marjoram, ajuga.) Cream-colored wooden benches lined the paths. This was the view we got every day, all day. I had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.
We spent many hours in this part of the garden, but this was only the beginning. The path up to the pink brick castle winds upward along four terrace levels, each successively more formal, full of statuary, wide stairs, fuchsia filled basket-weave planters, yew hedges of prodigious size and shape. Waves of the “Powis Castle” artemisia were everywhere, often planted in pots with melianthus major and double-flowered nasturtiums. The roses were in full bloom, including the scented tea rose “Gloire de Dijon” which flanked the entrance to the Orangery. Whatever sort of garden you favor is somewhere in this massive property. The woodlands were just finishing the bloom of the rhododendrons and the azaleas. Our morning walks in these woods were often punctuated with sudden dazzling views of far away hills.
From this special place we could walk the mile to the town of Welshpool, past the ancient oak-lined road, where herds of deer, many with huge antlers, enjoyed their evening stroll in complete protection.
And from this special place, when we could drag ourselves away, we took day trips to other castles and gardens. Conwy and Caernarfon were two castles on the sea, and worth the time to visit.
One of those day trips ended at the “garden lost in time” – Aberglasney Gardens in Llangathen, Carmarthenshire. It was a very long ride, but well worth the effort. Sadly we only got there at the end of the day, so our visit was short but sweet.
This garden is hundreds of years old, its origins “shrouded in obscurity” the depths of decay coming in 1995, only 10 years ago, “the house was derelict and its unique gardens drowning in a sea of weeds.” The Aberglasney Restoration Trust was formed around that time, and has saved this marvelous place from total obscurity. Now it is filled with gardens and paths and gray granite walls, and one can not only have lunch at the delightful terrace café, but one can rent a charming apartment in newly restored stone barns.
The Ninfarium at Aberglasney has been built within the ruined central rooms and courtyard with a donation from the Hudson Valley’s Frank and Anne Cabot. It is covered with a huge glass atrium and now contains a wonderful collection of warm temperate and sub-tropical plants, including orchids, palms, magnolias and cycads.
Outside, walking up the hilly paths past a flowing brook one is suddenly caught in a huge surround of wildly colored primulas, a Cabot trademark. There are so many plants unknown to me, that I really want to go back again and stay much longer.
We went to Chirk Castle on our way back to Manchester. This is another National Trust property, where once again, rental apartments are available. Chirk was built in 1295 and has been continuously occupied for the past 700 years by a succession of influential owners, mostly the Myddelton family (for the last 400 of those years.) Here in these gardens, strictly clipped yews guard the waves of perovskia and the double rows of roses. There is also a most compelling view out over the vast plain of North Wales for 50 miles distance. Half way down the vast green lawn to the left is a marvelous garden house with a thatched roof surrounded by blooming perennials.
In addition to discovering gardens in Wales, we somehow managed to discover great drives and good food. They make wonderful ice cream in Wales, and we went to the home of honey ice cream in Aberaeron, a charming harbor town on the mid-south coast.
This town, like many others, has very good food in a couple of places. It might take a bit of a search. But when it came to honey ice cream, everyone in town seemed to be headed toward the Hive on the Quay. We weren’t sure what we were getting in to, but we managed to claim a table and have a superb lunch, followed, of course, by cinnamon honey ginger ice cream. Make a note of this one. Les Routiers (the truck drivers) call this “the best café in the UK.”
In our own little town of Welshpool, near our castle/garden house, we avoided an odd looking storefront called the Corn Store for the first few days. When we finally read the posted menu, we knew we had probably been mistaken. We corrected the error of our ways by taking two meals there in quick succession. Among the sampled offerings were roasted vegetable and goat’s cheese lasagna, chicken asparagus stilton lasagna, rhubarb and raspberry crumble. Need I say more? Luckily the Welsh have also discovered the joy of fresh local products, which are even more local in a country still full of farms and dairy cattle.
Try Wales and if you go, be sure that you find a Welsh men’s choir to listen to. It was the most memorable evening of our visit.