A Keeper? – The National Botanic Garden of Wales reviewed by Tristan Gregory

June 13, 2014

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

It’s garden visiting time – come to Wales! You could visit Veddw (I know – sorry….but you’d be passing within 4 miles of us if you were visiting the National Botanic).

So here’s a review of the National Botanic Garden of Wales, by our attack dog, Tristan Gregory..

Anne Wareham, editor.

National Botanic Garden of Wales copyright Tristan Gregory

Tristan Gregory:

On my way to observe some Gregory family rites I passed for the umpteenth time the brown sign for the National Botanic Garden (Wales).  I had been once before around five years back in late summer. It was then having one of its financial crises and truth be told there was an air of retreat to the core about the way the place was being gardened. The heart of its troubles is probably why put a thing you need to have visited in a landscape crafted by time to hide things?

This time I had not really intended to visit but the weather was decent enough for mid October and it seems that garden visiting at this time of year should be more about impulse and convenience than pilgrimage and planning.


Entrance to the National Botanic Garden of Wales

As an institution founded on vanity and grandiose ideals money was available for lots of the bits and bobs: as in the profusion of signs and worthy notices, visitor centres and worse still educational experiences that bureaucrats need to see included before the box marked “worthwhile” can be ticked.  In the five years since my last visit it is this detritus that has fared particularly poorly, becoming faded, broken and stained with those little handwritten notices you see on such things imploring the visitor to: “Be gentle, it’s on its last legs.”

This includes the Great Glasshouse. Had Stalin been into gardening this is the greenhouse he’d have had the counter-revolutionaries build for him before sending them to Siberia.

National Botanic garden of Wales Glasshouse copyright Charles Hawes

Glasshouse, copyright Charles Hawes

On the “Bench Meadow” by its northern entrance I pictured myself meeting my agent in the dappled shade of the “Notice Glade” before taking an innocent stroll down the vast, empty boulevards..

National Botanic Garden of Wales copyright Tristan Gregory for thinkingardens


towards the empty Gift Shop and Theatre to shake my KGB tail.

Gift Shop National Botanic Garden of Wales copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens


However, and I will admit now that I had not expected this, the actual horticulture that we proper gardeners go to see has been improved since my last visit.  Indeed throughout the site there was a clear intent to garden well.

The Glasshouse of the People is cared for and arranged in such a way that a scientific collection of unfamiliar oddities performs artistically and effectively dilutes the blunt impact of the structure.  There is real pleasure to be taken from this place when you walk its paths completely alone, the sole beneficiary of so much work.

Stretching around to the south and east is a huge prairie like meadow with the botanical paraphernalia of the New Perennial movement left to fight it out in the poor soil with native weeds.  I am no connoisseur of such plantings but of those that I have seen this is the most comfortable to be in and containing a great deal of seemingly undersigned beauty.

National Botanic Garden of Wales copyright Tristan Gregory


There is a slate garden at the bottom of the slope which to be honest is a bit too slatey for me.

National Botanic Garden of Wales, Slate Garden, Copyright Tristan Gregory

Slate is very Welsh. (as long as it’s not imported to save money..)

The “Necklace of Lakes” is a series of quite overgrown ponds in need of a good dredging but the wildlife is plentiful and jolly.  If I have a quibble it is only a minor one and that is: with areas that are intended as near wild, the structures,- like paths and benches – need to be sharp and well defined to prevent the idea and feeling of wilderness from dominating the horticultural subtleties.

National Botanic Garden of Wales-copyright Anne Wareham

One of the most improved areas from my last visit was the Rock Garden which has undergone major sprucing up.  Almost every one of these ever built has been an aesthetic failure; they are so far away from replicating the feeling of a natural mountain landscape that they end up as collections of silly little things.  This one is large, the rocks are varied in size from large to very large, the planting is generous and in scale with the landscaping but importantly and I’d like to think cleverly, the old manor they surround is painted a similar tone and its simple outline thus draws the composition vicariously over the horizon.

National Botanic Garden of Wales, Copyright Tristan Gregory for thinkingardens

Down to the west there is evidence of the “some of this and some of that” approach to filling up a large area and, though neat enough, it’s as compelling as it sounds.  Within the walled garden there is the monstrously ugly Tropical House with its collection of dark green leaves brightened up by the occasional trip to the accursed Wyevale for some buy and die houseplants.  

The main events here though are the borders which are gardened very well indeed, though the area as a whole suffers from a lack of cohesion. The blame for which lies with the worthy scientific planting scheme and absence of uniformity in the landscaping materials.  Bitty or not there was more colour and interest in these borders in the middle of October than in most of Hidcote’s in the middle of June.     

National Botanic Garden of Wales, Copyright Tristan Gregory for thinkingardens

There you have it: in the ruins of bureaucracy a garden grows to cover the folly.  The large open site permits you to form your own impressions and trusts you to pick up on the very powerful atmosphere of the place. Melancholy, no longer expecting great crowds, merely hoping for enough to survive on. The staff even smile at you, seeming to appreciate that you made the effort to see their work.  You might be tempted to pop in some time, maybe when you’re passing, or perhaps you’ve been and are just happy to hear things are tickling along.

I’m afraid that’s not good enough.  There are cracks here that will only widen and despite the herculean efforts of the gardening staff the ruins of the old gardens are threatening to re-take what has been made anew.  If you think it can’t happen then look back to a previous piece on this blog on the subject of botanical gardens.

National Botanic Garden of Wales, Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

In June..

The Establishment gives little to our world anymore and our world is shrinking as a result.  The BBC limits us to half an hour of Monty a week, unless there is an egg and spoon race being televised somewhere, (there has been a proliferation of egg and spoon type programmes lately , I think?..ed.) and half an hour of The Beechgrove stuff, the “Phoenix Nights” of gardening. 

We need to be seen by the bureaucrats in vigorous support of what’s left to us, flawed or not. So out of your bunkers, all of you, or all there’ll be left is Hidcote and Bodnant.       

Tristan Gregory

Tristan is head gardener at Kentchurch Court

Tristan Gregory Chelsea 2014 Copyright Anne Wareham 104

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Andy Garland June 29, 2014 at 11:12 am

Compare the entrance photo above with a picture of the entrance to the house at Great Dixter.

annewareham June 29, 2014 at 11:22 am

My mistake – that’s the entrance to the glasshouse. But the garden entrance is not totally unlike. At the same time the last time I saw a picture of Great Dixter’s entrance it had gone totally garish ugly. Temporarily, at least..?

Charles Hawes June 15, 2014 at 8:57 am

Although I enjoyed Tristan’s take on the place, I can’t agree with him about the Glasshouse being Stalinesque. I think it sits really well in the landscape; subtle and offering that wonderful curve (the captions’ wrong, Anne, the pic is of one of the entrances to the glasshouse, not the main entrance). I have always found the inside unsatisfactory, though- a lot of space for not very much and there is a bunker feel to its depths (Tristan missed out a good silo simile).
Yes the legacy of its overbearing worthiness is a burden- the Welsh Water activity centre at the entrance takes a nice pic reflected in the lake it sits by but never seems to have any activity. And that ghastly William Pye water feature at the entrance could do with srapping. And I agree it was a serious mistake to ruin the architecture of the Double Walled Garden by bunging a big greenhouse in the corner. But there are lots of gems, too. That avenue of white stemmed birch running form the walled garden to the cafe/shop is both simpe and beautiful (especially since they removed the childrens zoo). And I agree with Tristan about the prairie area (and the over slatiness). I must have been half a dozen times now since it opened and I would still go again. In fact I had suggested doing a book on the garden to the Director and her team but they just didn’t get behind it. Which is a shame as a book on the garden could help raise its profile.
The basic problem of bums on seats is that (there aren’t enough seats and) it is too far away from Wales’ population centres, even with nearby Abergalsney, Carmarthenshire is not enough of a tourist honeypot.

Tristan Gregory June 16, 2014 at 7:50 pm

I think the botanic garden tag with all the worthiness that goes with it is a problem, even if it is not gardened as such. If you look at Bodnant which appears to seethe with punters but is no better connected, they have embraced bluff and bluster and they can sell you lots of stuff.
If they’re to carry on and afford the inevitable refurbishment pitfalls they need the range of food outlets, the vulgar concrete dogs et al garden centre and the easy travel type hotel for foreign travellers from that England. And proper group deals with the other related attractions and the tour operators that ship them in.
Those of us that like it the way it is should consider ourselves lucky to have known it but we are too few.

Adam Hodge June 14, 2014 at 1:47 pm

So, after a quite gracious critique about the place, what is the reason it’s so empty of visitors ? What is missing that could bring in coachloads of visitors and some income !

annewareham June 14, 2014 at 2:55 pm

The Wales factor? If you’re across the bridge I think people think you are in a foreign country, where they speak a foreign language, and that it’s MILES away from England..? It would do better in Cornwall…?

Paul Steer' June 14, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Maybe the glorious RHS would like to hold an event there – could call it ‘Garden Sex ‘ that might bring in the punters ?

John June 15, 2014 at 6:38 pm

I’ve read rumours that the RHS are looking for another garden. Would be nice if outside England. Why couldn’t they partner (or even take over) here? The place will never move forward until it can sever its public sector manacles. Yes, it’s in totally the wrong place (that’s a public sector thing of course – spreading things around Wales and away from Cardiff/Newport/Swansea). But it still has so much potential given a more dynamic management.

But I get enough garden sex as it is thanks. This place is all about coitus interrupticus, particularly for lily beetles!

John June 13, 2014 at 9:57 pm

I was going to visit last year but their website was full of mis-information (which it turns out they knew about but that’s another story) so I went elsewhere.

Good to see that the shop has acquired some taste – selling “Discovering Welsh Gardens” that is. Not sure about the other stuff – must check the local remainder shop.

Seriously, though, this is a place with so much potential, hamstrung by the “public purse”. But, somehow, it does manage to avoid the institutionalisation of Eden (which I never want to revisit, ever, ever, ever). Nowhere is perfect but the NBGW is doing its best and, if nothing else, is somewhere where you can experience a range of situations from over-crowded to peaceful and you can make that experience your own. Unfortunately history has manacled it but it is trying to cut the chains.

Happy to make the 4 a 5 though a pre-tea (or breakfast) at Veddw’s probably impractical. Meet below the coal tip?

Paul Steer' June 14, 2014 at 10:33 pm

You’re welcome to meet at the coal tip garden – as long as you don’t mind a scruffy little place with some dodgy planting. Thinking about it though, I could have some useful advice – just don’t laugh.

Paul Steer' June 13, 2014 at 5:12 pm

A very honest appraisal of a collection of gardens within the grounds of the National Botanic Garden, a garden which I have grown to love. I remember our chat about it when we met Tristan, and I agree about the melancholy! But then I’m melancholic anyway. The hothouse in the walled garden is a plastic monstrosity. It is out of keeping with the rest of the architecture.

The staff there are welcoming and really care about their work. I agree that we shouldn’t loose this place and it needs continued investment. I look forward to visiting every year and have the privilege of showing my paintings there during the orchid festival every September.

Perhaps we could have a thinkinGardens supper there in the future Anne? Or a debate about the fate of botanic gardens Tristan?

annewareham June 13, 2014 at 5:22 pm

A supper there? That’s a thought. Sums it up though – it’s so remote. (unlike Veddw, which isn’t!)

Tristan Gregory June 13, 2014 at 7:58 pm

Many of the people I talk to about the place do seem to love it and are really quite protective of it. The other day someone told me just how few of them there are gardening there and I still can’t quite believe it’s true. The word is impressive.
I like the idea of a supper there, perhaps in the glasshouse?

annewareham June 13, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Four of us, maybe??

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