I visited Aberglasney in September this year (2012) and so took the opportunity to review it for thinkingardens. By way of an extra.
Anne Wareham, editor
The garden at Aberglasney burst into the world in a television series some years ago. The series was based round the archaeological work which was going on, and I remember it as following the excavation week by week. So one week we would have great excitement as the Yew Tunnel was estimated to be a thousand years old, followed a few programmes later by , ‘um, no, dendrology indicates 250 years old…’ The unforgiving lump of yew still sits there, going nowhere, reminding us of the highs and lows of the programme.
The joy of Aberglasney is, in spite of that, its history. In particular the arcaded Walkway which surrounds the Cloister Garden. You should get one of these while the planning system is wide open – you’ll get a brilliant view of your garden, and all your neighbours’ gardens. It’s one of the best solutions to a flat garden, as well as adding shelter and enclosure. The Walkway at Aberglasney appears to be a unique survival of this pre Landscape Movement formal feature. Its view inward is of the Cloister Garden – a delightful exercise in simplicity, with the grass rectangles used to display small bulbs in spring and autumn.
Outwards the first, and best sight is of the Upper Walled Garden, originally designed by Penelope Hobhouse. It has been badly afflicted by box blight, for which much sympathy.
A curious feature of the whole garden at present is the sparsity of the planting in almost all of the garden. Bare soil between the plants is everywhere. In some places it looks like new planting which may well blossom beautifully, but here it simply looks rather inexplicable. You will find it too in the Alpinum (?) –
The guiding spirit for years behind the garden was Graham Rankin, who left last year. I’m unable to discover who has taken over, but this may explain the renovation of the planting which appears to be going on, if not these rather derelict looking bits. (above). At this point it may be worth deploring the labels in the garden. I am not fond of labels at all unless the function of the garden is purely botanical. One of the reasons, besides the fact that they draw the eye and undermine any overall effect of planting, is that they are usually wrong =
It’s no good saying the public want it; they can’t possibly want to be so misinformed.
If you retrace your steps from the Alpinum, back through the Upper Walled Garden, you reach the Lower Walled Garden.
I imagine the produce is used in the cafe, along with the cut flowers. I do think this is such a wasted opportunity, an example of the clichéd thinking that haunts our gardens. There is no longer an need or rationale really for a kitchen and cutting garden, especially since any attempt at historical echo has long been abandoned with the Nifarium and the Sunken Garden (see below). It’s a tired and boring concept and the look of it is not much better.
Though the rows of herbs look pleasingly full:
Next, and another sight from the Walkway, is the pond. Inevitably with algae. Is it really impossible to fish out? The (many) staff were meticulously trimming the grass edges of the gravel paths when I visited, – careful trim, chop chop, clippings picked up by hand..If they have time for that they have time to drag algae out of the pond? Has to be a way. The planting next to the cafe in this part of the gardens is a delight and makes me wonder if one day the planting will blossom everywhere like this. Impossible to do justice with my camera phone but here is a glimpse:
A great many of the plants were annuals, offering a long season, and the design was thoughtful and dramatic, sharpened by the white through the whole border. The Stream Garden and Pigeon House Wood are not included in the route shown on the Guide Book plan, and are all new planting with closed off bridges. I did wander round, having ignored the offered route. This carelessness meant I also managed to walk straight past the Ninfarium and miss it. I have been promised a separate review of this, with professional photographs, later. This is too easily done – maybe signing (not of plants but places) is needed. I nearly missed the Sunken Garden. Our Ninfarium reviewer did miss it. So my last treat was the new Sunken Garden:
There is a sad aspect to the design here, given what water features by William Pye must cost, but as I sat in the obviously inviting seat, facing the Bothy, as in the picture, I found my eye was drawn out of the garden and away from the shiny bauble by the paths leading out of the garden at either end of the Bothy – the long, rather blank wall of which added to this effect. The garden looks better as a result from the path, currently going nowhere, to the right of this picture. But it not only leads nowhere, there is no seat.
There is an explanation board of the planting here, – not a list of plants but the thinking and inspiration behind the planting design. Interesting.
Aberglasney has several inbuilt problems. It has a fascinating revealed history, but that will not be enough on its own to draw the crowds it needs to sustain having gardeners pick up clippings by hand in this rather far away part of Wales. So it has had to develop other attractions and they are somewhat oddly bolted on. Antiquated kitchen gardens, historic Walkways, Penelope Hobhouse’s nod to the past and old ponds sit incongruously with William Pye water features in a sharp modern garden. Never mind the addition of the peculiarly named Ninfarium. So the garden lacks integrity and an overall vision. This shows in the planting too, though it is rather both too scrappy and – in places – new to judge properly. Penelope’s vision has vanished. It is a tourist attraction and feels like one: nice cafe with a shop and gardens attached. Aberglasney website
Other pieces by Anne Wareham on thinkingardens: The love that dares not speak its name, Lady Farm reviewed by Anne Wareham and Stpehen Anderton, East Ruston reviewed by Anne Wareham and Sara Maitland