Aberglasney, a review by Anne Wareham

September 27, 2012

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

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

Melianthus beautifully punctuating end of border © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Veddw, garden review

Aberglasney

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.

Yew Tunnel © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

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. Cloister Garden © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

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.

Upper Garden © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review   Box Blight and lots of soil © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

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 (?) –

Alpinum  © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

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 =

Corydalis © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

Corydalis?

Says muscari, looks like fern © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

Says muscari, looks like fern

Hosta 'Wide Brim' -noooo...© Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

Hosta ‘Wide Brim’ – noooo…

Label says narcissus, looks like dandelion © Anne WarehamThinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

Label says narcissus, looks like dandelion

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.

Lower Walled Garden © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

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.

Upper Walled garden  © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

Though the rows of herbs look pleasingly full:

Herbs in Lower Walled Garden© Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

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:

Good planting by cafe © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

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:

Sunken Garden © Anne Wareham Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

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.

Conclusion.

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

Anne Wareham website (and book!

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

Anne Wareham portrait copyright Charles Hawes Thinkingardens, think gardens, think in gardens, Aberglasney, Aberglasney Garden, South Wales Garden, Welsh garden, Anne Wareham, Veddw, garden review

 

 

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Helen May 8, 2013 at 12:07 pm

I visited in April 2011 and the borders were as you describe and I was quite disappointed with the whole thing. I didnt find the sunken garden but we quite liked the Ninafarium as it was so different but possibly only for this reason. I suspected that the problem is that its a garden run by a group/committee (?) and not with one person overseeing it (well that was the impression I had from the guide book) and therefore it become diluted which is a pity and there is so much scope there.

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annewareham May 8, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Yes – so much to be said for strong, idiosyncratic leadership in a garden with gardeners..

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catharinehoward March 12, 2013 at 11:36 am

Dear Anne – trying to find a third garden to put with Biddulph and Trentham. My ancient garden visit book has not made it out of the packing cases and google searching recommends gardens on the basis of “a nice tea-room”. Help please, this fringes on your stamping ground: how do I hunt down a good garden in those parts? Have you time to reply and what about a TG book on the subject?

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annewareham March 12, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Well, I’m working on it as you can see from this piece. A review of Powis is coming up soon. And the twitter reviews (http://thinkingardens.co.uk/garden-tweets/) are, I hope, a help.
The trouble is the amount of work it is to provide such a source – and to keep it up to date. The Good Gardens Guide was ruined by the unevenness of its reports and its silly, over the top praise of indifferent gardens. It familiarised us (Charles was an inspector for them, which is why the Welsh gardens seem so much poorer than the rest!) with the multitude of problems.
It’s a shame. We do need it. I’ll continue to ask our contributors for critical, discerning reviews both as tweets and full articles, and it may be the best I can offer.
Maybe you could write for us about the need for it and someone might offer a sloution or even decide they could do it!?? Meanwhile, I hope you’ll send me reviews from all your garden visits. They are not simply a guide to gardens but are conciousness raising and illuminating in themselves.
O – and competiton for the best review of 2013 is currently being organised. Fingers crossed… XXXXx

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Tristan Gregory October 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm

I am very fond of this garden for the way it feels as opposed to the excellence of the horticulture.
The Kitchen Garden did not seem to be a complete waste of space as everyone who grows vegetables also enjoys comparing. The problem is that without a proper house to serve it is a fairly pointless enterprise and there is something uncomfortable about making a folly out of something practical.
As for the future I suppose time will see the garden grow into its history and setting though for a garden that size a large plant propagation system is needed to fuel the progress. I can vouch for the viability of the Trillium seed.

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A. Louard September 28, 2012 at 11:55 pm

You have a few valid points in your “review” of Aberglasney and as you perceptively acknowledged there is room for improvement, but like many other gardens in similar circumstances im sure being a Private Charitable trust makes things some what harder ( relying on volunteers to carrry out tasks, such as edging ). I pressume you have contacted Joseph Atkin ( Current Head Gadener- who is Kew Trained) with your reservations and concerns. I do often email him with my thoughts and feedback . Regarding your thoughts on the Ninfarium however i disagree, I find it a captivating and ingenious use of the space providing signifcant intrest for visitors. You cant condem a feature just because you find the name some what peculiar, the space requires no interpretation board or explanation. It should be evaluated in person… Saying that i look forward to you’re review of it.It is so good to read a honest review, even if it some what close to the bone and a touch negative, as i dearly admire the feats already conqured at Aberglasney.

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A. Louard September 28, 2012 at 11:57 pm

Interest*

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annewareham September 29, 2012 at 9:04 am

? interest?

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Paul Steer September 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Ninfarium comes from Ninfa, the Italian Garden which is crafted out of the ruins of a town. I suppose this is a pretentious nod to Ninfa, because it is a ruin with plants under glass ? Strangely since visiting gardens, I have become more satisfied with my little paradise, although not grand I think it looks more coherent than a lot of the larger gardens. I suppose the challenge of having more space could mean a lack of coherence ?

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annewareham September 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm

That’s part of the challenge, Paul. Gardens often fail at it and end up a collection of gardens with collections of plants.

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Abbie Jury September 27, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Ah, so having seen the glasshouses at Kew which have a splendid collection of exotic plants which we grow outdoors here, that could explain why Ninfariums have not caught on.

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annewareham September 27, 2012 at 9:40 pm

I don’t think anyone outside South wales has ever heard of one before.

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Abbie Jury September 27, 2012 at 8:18 pm

So pleased by your comments on the kitchen garden but pray tell, what is a Ninfarium? While New Zealanders are magpies by nature, gathering ideas from all over and proudly boasting garden features from laburnum arch to stumpery to rill to knot garden, I can not think that I have see a Ninfarium yet.

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annewareham September 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Apparently it’s a collection of exotics in the house, under glass, I presume. I have no idea why Ninfarium. I also have no idea of its infectious qualities…..

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