Powis Castle | Welshpool, UK

Posted by on June 28, 2004
On warm and sunny June Days, I am reminded of a wondrous day we spent last year at POWIS CASTLE, one of the great gardens of England. Actually it is JUST across the border from England into Wales, and it is what one would think of as the quintessentially English great house garden.The picturesque souvenir brochure which I brought home mentions that gardens are vulnerable to the changing winds of fashion, but that Powis Castle was spared when formal gardens fell out of favor in England in the 18th century. Thus these gardens are the finest surviving example in Britain of a late 17th century terraced garden.

The castle was a medieval stronghold in the “Borders” near Welshpool, and was built in the 13thcentury. It is now part of The National Trust, and for good reason. The dramatic terraces from the castle down to the green meadow below form a stunning picture of green against the brick of the castle itself. The castle’s soft pink brick was quarried from the ground beneath it. A gigantic ancient yew hedge marks the east end of the terraces. It was probably planted in the 1720’s, and being over two hundred and fifty years old, it has some large bulges. Now it may not sound beautiful, but it is. This yew topiary has 14 specimen “tumps” which are trimmed to allow it to bulge naturally and hang over the terrace walls. “Sensitive pruning maintains the effect, which softens the hard lines of the architecture and give the garden a sense of age and plump contentment.”

The name of the original designer of the garden is lost in history, but most likely one William Herbert, the first Marquess of Powis, began it in the early 1680s. When he fled into exile after what is strangely called the 1688 Glorious Revolution (I suppose it depends on whose side you were on), Powis was granted on his death to kin of William of Orange. The threads of history and war wind through the narrative, until we come to Violet, wife of the fourth Earl, who instigated the next, most important period of change.

The brochure reads: “She shared the Edwardian love of flowers and the appreciation of the formal structure of hedges, topiary and architecture, and her main contribution to the garden’s design was the creation of the formal gardens to the north-east of the Great Lawn.

Luckily for us today, these gardens survive partly because they enjoy a very mild exposure, and are protected from the prevailing winds. They are worth a visit not just to romanticize the beauty of early English gardens, but the endurance thereof. In addition, the sheer majesty of this place, in a far corner of England, not well known to Americans, makes this destination almost a must for those who love and care about the preservation of such garden treasures.

We wandered down the terraces past scented flowering shrubs, (abutilons and Gloire de Dijon tea roses, clipped boxwood, and niches filled with fuschias,) wishing we had a huge garden and a staff to tend it. Way at the bottom is the formal garden, envisioned by Violet as “velvet lawns and wide paths: rose gardens, fountains, clipped yews, marble seats, herbaceous borders.” Well she got almost all of what she saw in her mind’s eye, and now those who journey to this place can see it all for real.

One of the most fascinating parts to me was the apple orchard in the Formal Garden. Circles of silver, gold or black groundcover surround each tree to create a very unusual pattern. As I wandered through this orchard, I came across an artist, deeply engrossed in his canvas.

I could go on and on about the various surprises one encounters here, from one part of the garden to another. Powis can be viewed from several different heights and angles, which makes a full day here a necessity. Fortunately there is a National Trust shop, always worth a look. (Who can leave one of these shops empty-handed?) In addition, there is a rather smart tearoom. We enjoyed a leek and onion tart, a green salad and glass of white wine, my idea of a perfect lunch for garden touring.

Powis has one other invaluable feature. It is one of the National Trust properties that is available for rent. Not the whole castle, of course, but if you ever have a yen to stay in a most glorious and very English place, come here and rent one of the best of the National Trust houses. I have written here before of these national treasures that can be shared by anyone with enough sense to find them, and here at Powis there is a wonderful Garden house, which can be rented by the week. Once the home of the Dowager Lady Powis, the Garden House is now one of the National Trust’s most comfortable holiday rentals, offering a large pleasant home in a spectacular setting. It is off on the side of the formal gardens, behind a wall, and has a garden of its own. Staying here would mean that you could wander these gardens for several days, and walk the estate roads in the evenings after all the tourists leave.

Furthermore, you could visit other wondrous places in this area. We stopped at Church Stretton, and wandered in to the Carding Mill Valley, another National Trust property, and a great hill walking area, called the Long Mynd. It is an extensive area of historic upland heath with superb views across the Shropshire and Cheshire Plains and the Black Mountains of Wales. Clearly well known by local hikers, this valley in earlier days saw Bronze Age and Iron Age occupants, followed by Romans who of course built a road, (called in some earlier form of English a street or “stretton.”) There is no lack of history here in the borders, and no lack of feasting for the eye, and the stomach. We even found a gourmet take-away shop in Church Stretton, for the hungry hiker.

Should you want to stay in the area, I recommend a National Trust property. You can find them on the web, where the site shows photos and prices and all sorts of information to get you to this remarkable part of England.

(Betsy Shequine is sad not to be going to England this June, and hopes the pound will be lower against the dollar before too long.)

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