A decade ago, when I was doing a gardening correspondence course, I chose to write about the gardens of Powis Castle, which is perched high on a narrow ridge near Welshpool in Mid Wales. But I wrote about it without ever having been there and it has taken me until now to make the journey.
We visited in August this year and as it belongs to the National Trust and we are members, it felt like we got in to see everything free!
There is no doubting the magnificence of the gardens, which fall in terraces cut out of the rocky hillside, down to the valley below. It may well be Britain’s finest example of a late 17th century Baroque garden, with the higher levels inspired by the formal gardens of France and Italy. The precipitous terrain meant it largely escaped becoming a fashion victim of the 18th century, when formal plantings were swept away in favour of open parkland.
My favourite feature of the gardens is the wonderful planting of the herbaceous borders, but the castle itself is so imposing that I’d better say something about its history before showing you the flowers.
I thought the castle had been built of the “old red sandstone” I so love in my homeland of South East Wales, but a bit of digging tells me it is made of the rock on which it stands, known as Powis Castle Conglomerate, of Silurian age. It’s still a form of sandstone, but with bits in it. And it still looks very red to me…
The castle began life as a medieval fortress, built of wood, for Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, prince of Powys, who was fighting off the princes of Gwynedd in the north. In 1274 the castle was burnt down by Llywelyn, a prince of Gwynedd who had declared himself prince of Wales. It’s all ever so complicated but it looks like Gruffudd and his family were very much on the side of Edward I, English conqueror of Wales and not very popular in these parts! It seems to avoid saying this in the guide books, but it makes it pretty clear on Wikipedia. Edward gave Gruffudd’s family back their land, to rebuild Powis Castle, after Llywelyn, known as the last native prince of Wales, was killed.
The castle stayed more or less in the ownership of the same bloodline, although passed on through females, and eventually it was in the hands of the Herbert family, a long line of Anglo-Welsh barons. At various times some of them were known as Earls of Pembroke, Worcester, Beaufort, Carnarvon or Powis. The peerage is so complicated and, although I find it fascinating, I am also a little bit sickened by all these centuries of rich landed gentry lording it over us. Just saying…
But the castle is magnificent. It was extended or improved at various times between the late 16th century and early 18th century, at times when the family had the money, but they were sometimes a little unlucky in their financial investments and took the “wrong” side (Royalist) in the Civil War.
The flat land at the foot of the terraces was at one time a huge water garden built in continental style with the help of French gardener Adrian Duval, after the Herberts returned in 1703 from their exile with King James II in France.
In the time of George III Powis Castle and a big debt were left to a nephew of the line, Edward Clive, son of Robert “Clive of India”, on condition he change his surname to Herbert. This connection is why there is a small museum at Powis Castle displaying much Indian military memorabilia.
In the decades around 1900 the castle and gardens were restored by George Herbert and his wife Violet Lane-Fox, who was responsible for a formal fountain garden at the bottom of the slope and for some of the colourful border plantings. George had several family misfortunes – one son was killed on the Somme in World War I, another died in a plane crash during active service in World War II and Violet died after a car accident in 1929. When the Earl died in 1952, he bequeathed the castle to the National Trust.
Today we approach the castle from behind, from a car park to the west, but when the terraced gardens were first built, the approach was from the east and as you climbed up to the castle itself you would see all the terraces below, this secret valley having been screened until then from the south and west by a wooded range, from the east by tall trees and to the north by the castle itself.
We ambled down from the top of the garden to the bottom, but with our eyes constantly drawn to the castle above…
Among the obvious features of the castle gardens are 14 very old yew tree “tumps” (from the Welsh twmpathau, meaning mounds), which have to be regularly clipped to keep them in shape. These yews date back to the work of architect William Winde in the 1680s.
Here are some of the plants we saw – if I identify them exactly it’s probably because there were plenty of labels!
The texture of the Sedum is mirrored in a smoke tree on the Japanese-maple-clad slope below…
Near the Bothy is a small orchard with many different old varieties of apple tree…
We wandered back up to the castle along a different herbaceous border…
We did look around the inside of the castle, but it was rather depressing, crammed full of portraits of dead ancestors. There were too many to appreciate any of them individually. And because many of the items don’t belong to the National Trust, they protect everything with gloomy lighting and a strict “do not touch” policy here – no photography either. I was barked at by a guide when I accidentally brushed an inlaid marble table with my finger when asking him what a certain feature was!
I enjoyed the little Clive Museum of Indian artefacts a bit better, as you could focus on the items in their glass display cases and there weren’t any crowds of visitors.
After a rather good sandwich in Lady Henrietta’s restaurant, named after Lady Henrietta Clive, we headed back to the car park.