Powis Castle: a review by Tristan Gregory

April 29, 2013

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

Gardens are reopening, and it’s garden reviews time again. Remember thinkingardens when you make a visit..

And, just by the way, – I am now blogging regularly and personally  here. (Even about gardening. Sometimes… here’s piece on weeding and one on ‘What not to do in your garden in April’  – you are nearly too late!)

The photographs here are all by Charles Hawes.

Anne Wareham, editor

Powis Castle, Welshpool, Powys, Wales. October copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Pink Powis (the editor’s fault but it’s fun..)

Tristan Gregory:

A couple of weeks ago (well, a little longer, actually, now.. editor) I decided to make an effort and go and see the Gardens of Powis Castle, something I had been meaning to do since first seeing pictures of it in The Garden some years ago.  It required effort, for on an earlier pilgrimage to a famous National Trust Garden somewhere in Wales I found myself so comprehensively disappointed that the experience might have been tailor made to shake my faith in gardening as a worthwhile occupation. (umm, wonder if it was this one? editor)

For those unfamiliar with Powis Castle it is a perfect example of a medieval fortress perched high above the land and the people it was intended to dominate.  For those who enjoy the dusty corners of the overtaken overlords the house is open for scrutiny.  Part of the magic of the garden is that the defensive merits of an exposed boulder make the creation of a garden incredibly difficult, and to all but those with an overwhelming need to express something, not worth the effort and expense.

Powis Castle, Welshpool, Powys, Wales. October copyright Charles Hawes, Veddw, for thinkingardens

The most famous, justifiably so, part of the garden is the series of terraces running down the hillside from the house and connected via contouring paths or if you prefer steep steps.  The central axis makes use of the steps and to encourage you to make the effort surrounds you with fine statuary, balustrades and the ubiquitous flowery urns which here are quite excellent.

Powis urn copyright Charles Hawes, Veddw for thinkingardens

Powis Urn

Added to the architecture are the famous cloud pruned yews which as well as being magnificent features in their own right serve to create cohesion through the garden and also focus the visitor’s attention on the borders and human endeavours rather than the distractingly beautiful views.  The message may be “look at my work not God’s” but by doing it this way rather than a more explicit, solid, hedge I felt as though I was being asked to admire the confection, rather than ordered.

Powis Castle, Welshpool, Powys, Wales. October

Powis Yew lump

The planting of the terraces is marvellous with great use made of Salvias, Dahlias, Paulownias and other familiar and less familiar staples of the mock-tropical border. What separates the display here from other less successful attempts is the variety, the confidence and the intelligence with which they are used. Even though it was the middle of October it felt like a garden in its early June boom.

Moving down the slope the planting gets more “English Herbaceous” and more familiar as the effects of the Mid-Wales frost becomes more difficult to mitigate against and while it is only honest to say October is not their month what was on display was good horticultural practice and with that in evidence one is able to predict a fine, albeit earlier, season of interest.

Powis border copyright Charles Hawes, Veddw, for thinkingardens

Earlier season of interest…

Taking the terraces as a whole, had the site been flat there probably would have been too much going on with different colours of stone and architectural styles, formal hedging and cloud pruned monsters, cliffs, woods, lawns and borders. But draped as it is, over this great Welsh boulder, it is a profound success.

The genius of the terraces, however, creates problems for the flat areas at their feet.

Powis Castle, Welshpool, Powys, Wales. October copyright Charles Hawes, Veddw, for thinkingardens

To the left is a rather traditional formal herbaceous garden and yew hedge combo with a rather nice, if small fountain.

Powis Castle, Welshpool, Powys, Wales. October, Copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Fountain, from Discovering Welsh Gardens, photographed by Charles Hawes.

There are also impressive avenues of pyramid trained apples and rather odd poles of climbing stuff and of course the rose borders.  This lower area is nicely put together and immaculately kept and though lacking a particular focus if you moved it a couple of miles away it might well be worth a look.  But here it could only ever feel dowdy, even if it was swept away into the distance like some Jekyll version of Versailles it could not compete.  While on the subject of flaws the collection of Acers at the foot of the terraces should be removed and that is all I have to say about them.

There is also a woodland garden which though not large by the standard of some others of its type is commendable and should not be missed in all the excitement of what you have already seen and the rush to get back for the tour of someone else’s family history.  As this area hangs off a frame of native trees, in particular oaks, it does not seem like an alien experiment in experimental forestry slapped into the landscape.

The other benefit to this abundance of native species is that the Rhododendrons and imported species feel like a compliment to something naturally beautiful rather than an attempt to apologise for something common and everyday.   The grassy paths and dumped (in a nice way) sculpture all add to the feeling that you are somewhere good.  Why they have planted Wellingtonias here is beyond me but at least it won’t be ruined in my lifetime.

Powis Castle, Welshpool, Powys, Wales. October copyright Charles Hawes, Veddw, for thinkingardens

There are many other reasons to visit Powis Castle, from the friendly garden cat, the little family of peacocks, the drive through the deer park or the couple that arrived walking separately but left holding hands. When you visit you will find yours.  I am not prone to emotional incontinence but I think I needed to see it when I did.  As a professional gardener your plot can seem like the centre of the world and when it fails to live up to your ambitions it can be troubling, especially when you go looking to find answers elsewhere and don’t.  For me Powis delivered a little bit of perfection and confirmation that gardening is worthwhile.

Tristan Gregory  

Tristan is Head Gardener at Kentchurch Court

Powis peacock copyright Charles Hawes, Veddw for thinkingardens


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Helen May 8, 2013 at 11:48 am

I havent been to Powis for about 9 years but I completely agree that the flat area did seem a little flat in comparison to the terraces. It is interesting that there used to be a water garden there which I think would have bought the whole effect together better and you would have had more of a destination to descend to. I must visit again but there are so many to visit

annewareham May 8, 2013 at 3:01 pm

So many – but not so many worth visiting….

Weeding the Web April 30, 2013 at 9:17 am

I rather liked the quieter lower levels. They’re more restful than the terraces, especially when there are a lot of visitors (the terraces aren’t that wide), and of course the main point of interest is the castle above, so that forms a focal point wherever one is.

annewareham April 30, 2013 at 9:42 am

Stephen Anderton famously described the view of the lower levels in Discovering Welsh Gardens (http://ow.ly/kyF1R ) – “imagine a Christmas Cake sitting in a plate of stew and you get the picture” !

Weeding the Web April 30, 2013 at 10:44 am

Oh, unkind!

annewareham April 30, 2013 at 10:46 am

Robust garden criticism will seem that way until we get used to it.

Weeding the Web April 30, 2013 at 10:55 am

Yes, I didn’t mean he shouldn’t have said it. I’m on a slippery slope here myself (hah!) as I haven’t read the rest of his description, but, based on that one sentence, unless the slopes below the castle were virtually plain, I think that’s a description he could probably have applied whatever the garden beneath and therefore is more of a description of the situation than a critique of the gardens per se.

annewareham April 30, 2013 at 11:01 am

O, there’s a challenge – could it be done better? I do believe that it could – but would love to hear a proposal from someone..

Weeding the Web April 30, 2013 at 11:06 am

Of course, they could have gone for the whole wedding cake effect – pathway spiralling down around the mound, lots of frothy pear and apple blossom… Now you’ve got me thinking (as ever…)

annewareham April 30, 2013 at 11:15 am


Tristan Gregory April 30, 2013 at 5:56 pm

I think the Acers fail because they are a bit of a collectors pic n mix. Better to pick 3 species that do well and compliment each other and plant in drifts – like a proper piece of woodland. That big green space at the bottom could be used to continue such plantings and blend them with the woodland garden and wider landscape. That means no more Wellingtonias!

John April 30, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Those interested in the history of Powis Castle and its gardens might enjoy reading the account of their history at: http://www.cpat.org.uk/ycom/wpool/32982.htm.

Perhaps the “wedding cake” or “bowl of stew” effect results from the removal of the old water garden (which became unfashionable) in the late C18 but the retention of the higher terraces (which had also become unfashionable), so destroying half of the original design and, at the same time, creating that “big green space” which today seems such a waste of space.

Wellingtonias were a Victorian fad and so their presence is representative of the work undertaken for the 4th Earl (or, more correctly, his wife) to improve the gardens at the beginning of the last century (and the end of the one before it). A bit of drama now and then doesn’t go amiss and at least they divert discussion from that waste of space.

Amy Murphy April 29, 2013 at 9:40 pm

I read somewhere years ago that some speculate that the reason the giant yews at Powis are so strangely shaped is because mice or squirrels or something chewed on them at some point in their long history. THe attempt by the yews to heal the wounds inflicted by the whatever (or whomever) caused them to grow over the wounds in odd ways creating the odd shapes. Can anyone confirm (or deny) this theory?

Marie McLeish, My Garden Coach April 29, 2013 at 8:37 pm

I so agree that Powys is a garden that merits visiting. The gardeners are ambitious in their planting combinations and are not afraid to trial plants. So as a result it is often a source of inspiration at that level of detail. I lived near by up till last year, and for several years treated it as my garden, popping in most weeks for a quick whip round. It never failed to enchant me at some level!

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