Bodnant Garden: a review by Tristan Gregory

July 11, 2012

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

The last time two times I have visited Bodnant I have been entranced by the trees (see below) and much less entranced by everything else. It seems that I’m not alone, and I’m grateful to Tristan for the review below. Tristan didn’t take any photographs when he visited so I have added some of my own and one stolen from Charles Hawes, taken on different occasions and not necessarily directly relevant. Take them as illustrative of the garden generally..

By the way – I think the acid test of  a garden is does it seem better (or even as good as you thought) on a second visit? – but that’s another topic….

I would welcome more reviews of major gardens.

Anne Wareham, editor

Bodnant trees copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens, Veddw, Monmouthshire, South Wales garden

Tristan Gregory:

I am writing at the end of May, having just visited Bodnant gardens – though perhaps it was more a pilgrimage that I made.  As a professional, I went seeking something more than confirmation that I am on the right track but rather a humbling example of the gardener’s art that would spur me on to improve and try harder. If that sounds a little high minded then of course there is a small, mean side to most of us that likes to find a little mistake that we would not have made, but a visit to Bodnant is a visit to something so grand and so lauded that it is beyond us to compete and so it is ok to be impressed.

Unfortunately the experience was disappointing and my disappointment is both technical and philosophical.  I will allow the mean little man to deal with technical bits and these  largely involve  the terraces and herbaceous areas.  My more thoughtful side will deal with the Dell and the Rhododendrons.

Mean Little Man says:

Entering the Garden through the quarry and its apologetic Mediterranean planting was a bad start but the dreary borders on the top lawn with their sparse colour and constipated planting in sad little groups was worse.  If the reason for these borders was a welcome then they fail but if they were an attempt to show the diversity of someone’s horticultural skill they should not have been attempted.

As I worked down the terraces the borders were colour free and in the case of the Front Lawn largely free of most of the plants for which there were labels.  This absence of colour and art in the plantings was the only obvious theme as I trudged around the Canal and Lily terraces though I suspect that concepts  abound in the paperwork.  I will say something in support of the Upper Rose terrace which while not the epicentre of horticultural fashion contained beds of well kept and well ordered rose bushes that had I gone a little later would have been lovely.

Bodnant roses copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens Veddw, Monmouthshire South Wales garden

The good thing about the Mean Little Man is he is ready with advice and here it is quite simple.  Give the herbaceous areas to a person with a passion for herbaceous planting.  Let them make their pilgrimages and grow their stock and humour them as they fall in love with their area, dragging the visitors this way and that to show off their treasures and lament their failures.

The Thoughtful Side suggests:

The new plantings of rhododendrons between the Laburnum Arch and Round Garden are too big and too bleak.  Ambition is laudable but to put too much on show at once is not classy.  Enough said.  The Dell, though, is difficult: for while its vistas are magnificent, its trees stupendous and its rhododendrons striking,  the overall effect is stunning and in case you were unaware animals are stunned before slaughter. It is not a good thing.

Bodnant Rhododendrons copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens, Veddw Monmouthshire, South Wales gardens

In this state I walked into the Dell, through it and through it again before realising that I was looking for some peace down there, but it is not to be found.  The huge trees and repeated clashing colours from an oppressive population of rhododendrons were claustrophobic and in such a huge space that is an achievement.  The poor, sterilised river – fed from its great marsh behind the weir – offered no relief, as despite having joyful little trout dancing and flashing in the waters everywhere showed signs of Man’s improvements on nature.  There was no pleasure down there for me save for looking up the banks into the less tended areas at individual Rhododendrons in individual, exuberant bloom.  This is the great advantage of these plants, their ability to amaze and tantalize at distance on a Himalayan hillside or in another’s garden as you drive past along a busy road.

Bodnant water- usual green gunge (copyright Anne Wareham)

As for what to do down there, who knows?  You could start by giving up on the thin lawns and allow the return of Wood Sorrel, Yellow Archangel and Red Campion.  Perhaps the river could be freed and allowed to be just a little untidy, wild and interesting.  The huge redwoods could be removed and replaced with the oak and ash for sometimes it is more pleasurable to imagine a giant in the future with all its perfection and grandeur than to be standing next to one with its airless menace.  Then there are the Rhododendrons.  I think what I am saying is that nature was ruined in the Dell and its salvation lies in a return to it.

Then there is Chapel Park.  An afterthought in the great scheme of Bodnant and it is all the better for it.  It was the one place I sat down to look around me. And yet it has been filled with more bloody collections, this time Acers.  Here, as on the terraces, there is hope: just dig them up.

What I have said is not a criticism of the staff and volunteers because the place is immaculate and I do understand how much work that takes.  My criticism is of the management and of those long dead who instituted much of the folly of the Dell and I can say with certainty that the latter group will not be offended.  All I would say to the staff is that on the day I was there an Embothrium was being cut up in full bloom.  The effect on me as a plant person was not positive.

Bodnant, tulips. Copyright Anne Wareham


Perhaps I just didn’t get it or went to find fault even if I can’t admit it to myself, all I can say is ‘yes, perhaps’.  In defence of my argument the empirical test of a garden is visitor hours spent per acre and for me it was forty acres per hour.  I arrived and parked next to a couple at 10:30 and we were both back at our respective cars at 11.30.  As you would, we struck up a polite discussion of our visit and our conclusion was that less is often more, a fitting cliché for polite English small talk.

Bodnant is a fair garden but a dreadful idea.

Tristan Gregory 

Tristan is Head Gardener at Kentchurch Court

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan July 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I’d never thought it possible to organise autumn.

I wonder which came first, the National Trust’s determination to tidy everything or the Visitors’ expectation that everything should be tidy?

Who should we blame?


Nicki Lewis-Smith July 16, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I always thought that my disappointment in Bodnant was just down to me. But after reading your words – ‘the place is immaculate’ – I realise that’s what one of the reasons was that it didn’t feel like a garden to linger in.
We went in the autumn when the leaves should have had wonderful designer coloured drifts around each of them, but unfortunately, there was one of the staff or a volunteer, picking up each leaf as it fell. Poor Bodnant – maybe once it had a heart and maybe one day someone will come along and love it as a garden and not as a business.


Tristan July 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm

The debate about what to do with a landscape and indeed whether to do anything at all is an old thing and for my part I can have little to say that will improve on that already said by some serious minds.

For me the size of the trees is out of proportion to the size of the valley and as they have no peers planted up on the hillside for example the eye is not drawn out of the valley bottom thus expanding the space. Of course I appreciate them as biological specimens but as artistic features they fail. Massively.

Regarding the rest of the plantings they are not so much a collection as a hoard for there is no obvious discipline in how they associate with their neighbours or environment, if the Astilbes and Hydrangeas do then I am delighted but they are more subtle plants and easier to blend. The embothriums they have not cut down would, I am sure, look better next to an oak tree than a pile of Rhododendron lutea.

I suppose to sum up if Bodnant is not an academic collection then it must stand as a piece of art which to my eye it does not. I am content that an already beautiful landscape can be enhanced by gardeners but it can also be spoiled. For a successful example established on more expansive acres and with deeper pockets go to Cragside in Northumberland.


Emmon Scott July 12, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Hi Adam – Having read Tristan’s review, I’d crossed this garden off my “bucket list”. Then I read your reply! Hopefully I’ll get to see it myself someday!


Adam July 11, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Having visited Bodnat about 4 times over the last few years I regretfully understand the sentiments of Tristan’s review in regard to the absence of flowers. Over the last few years the place has been undergoing what one would guess was a major renovation, so a lot of old rhodo./azalea plantings have been ‘managed’ . Some of the new plantings need a few more years to come good although some never will, they don’t appear to have been designed with joyous spreads colours in mind.
In defence I wonder whether the absence of sun and extra rain up in North Wales this year has contributed to the poor flowering show, the roses in a garden I designed in Anglesey have been a major disapointment this year.
Your comments about the Dell leave me a bit bemused. I find the journey from the lake at the top of the valley down to the Mill , especially when the Hydrangeas and Astilbe’s are blooming absolutely delightful..the tall trees including the Redwoods look hugely distinguished, for my money. Your suggestions to let the area go natural will loose the whole point of why Bodnant is so stunning in the late spring when the rhodo. fest is in full blast.
Surely the whole point of gardens like Bodnant was for folk with hugely deep wallets to indulge their passion to collect and arrange their collections of plants from around the world in the expansive acres of countryside they owned,an amalgamation of local and international flora. We are the benefactors of the previous generation’s expenditure and patience. It would be a disaster, as I see it. if this was all swept away to go natural. Where would the glorious streaks of scarlet Embothriums fit in ?


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