Gardens to visit in North Wales

Walled garden at Bodnant. Photo: Oliver Parsons

I’ve loved Wales ever since university days in Swansea, so we always try to fit in a family holiday or weekend there. This August, we hired a cottage on Anglesey for a week to take advantage of its wonderful sandy beaches, the epic landscape of nearby Snowdonia and the many wonderful historic gardens on offer. With my wife, two teenage sons and mother coming, there was something for everyone – perfect for a varied, budget-friendly, three-generation holiday (even if the car on the way up was a bit of a squeeze).

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Bodnant Garden. Photo: Oliver Parsons

One real horticultural highlight of our trip was visiting Bodnant Garden, a mile or two inland from Conwy. It’s in a spot where you’d hardly believe a garden could be made, descending down a steep hillside to a wooded valley, with spectacular views of Snowdonia.

The site was bought in 1874 by Victorian inventor and industrialist Henry David Pochin, who after a career that included revolutionising the soap industry (it’s thanks to him that soap today is a pleasingly white, scented product rather than a dull, brown blob), decided to retire to the Welsh coast.

This was an extremely energetic form of retirement, however, as he used his latter years to kick-start the redevelopment of the garden, in particular planting large numbers of exotic trees and shrubs. Upon his death he passed on the site to his daughter Laura, who in turn developed the upper formal gardens with exuberant herbaceous planting.

I almost felt sorry for Pochin as I was walking around with my mum, as he will never have had the chance to see the saplings that he planted mature into the grand specimens they are today. Sadly, 50-70 trees, including a 50m sequoia, were lost to storm damage in the winter of 2021 and the National Trust, which has managed the garden since shortly after World War Two, is still working to repair much of this damage.

It’s one of the hilliest gardens I’ve ever visited, so I can only imagine how hard it is clear up major storm damage in such a landscape. And while those inclines were certainly at the challenging end of the scale for mum, we had a wonderful day – perhaps aided ahead of our ascent back to the gift shop and car park by an ice cream and a pot of tea at the gorgeous dell-side tea hut.

Bodnant offers views of the distant hills. Photo Oliver Parsons
Bodnant offers views of the distant hills. Photo Oliver Parsons

Quietly emboldened by our own hill-scaling abilities as proven at Bodnant, we also decided to pay a visit to Powis Castle – another remarkably vertiginous garden – on our return journey at the end of the holiday.

Situated near Welshpool just a few miles into Wales, this garden has an eye-popping border along the length of its sun-baked Top Terrace, packed with tender and exotic planting that nestles between huge yew topiary pieces. There were many familiar favourites such as violently poisonous Ricinus communis and dinosaur-esque Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’  – looking much bigger than I have ever been able to grow them – but also lots of exotic unknowns that had me reaching for the plant ID app on my smartphone.

And, in total contrast, the enormous yews dotted around the garden have a beautiful natural simplicity to them – even if their ‘natural’ appearance is actually thanks to the hundreds of hours every year spent by the gardeners wielding five-kilo hedgetrimmers atop hydraulic cherry pickers. It seems a very long time since I received my hedgetrimmer training, but I don’t envy them in the task one little bit – although the sense of achievement must be tremendous.

Unfortunately with a long drive back home ahead of us, we didn’t have time to linger for very long, but I’ll definitely be setting the sat nav for Powis Castle as a stop-off on our next trip to North Wales. Roll on next year.

Factfile

  • Getting there: Oliver travelled on the M4 and M6 from London
  • Where to stay: Holiday cottage outside Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, Anglesey
  • When to visit: July-September for best weather

Other horticultural highlights

Plas Cadnant Hidden Gardens, Anglesey

Unfortunately Plas Cadnant Hidden Gardens is only open from midday and closed on Saturdays, so we never quite got around to visiting, but gaining a strong reputation as a plantsperson’s paradise (with a cracking tea room).

Penrhryn Castle and Gardens, Bangor

Penrhryn Castle and Gardens are richly historic, both inside and outside. Don’t miss the bog garden, complete with giant tree ferns and gunnera.

Portmeirion Village, Minffordd

Part Italian Riviera-themed folly, part tropical garden, part 1960s TV location, Portmeirion Village charges £18 for adult tickets. It’s an investment to get in, but well worth it.

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