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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