Postscript to this piece

We just revisited Plas Brondanw (May 2014) and found it transformed. The changes have been sorted and the renovations as successful now as they could be. Wish they would lose the labels and the inappropriate roses but otherwise it’s now a must-visit again. AW.

Dyffryn Garden,(above) described as ‘spectacular’ and “one of Wales’s most beautiful gardens”  has just been taken over by the National Trust, so that “now the council has restored the site to its current wonderful condition the National Trust can take this beautiful location to a higher level.” I wonder if we should be rejoicing or merely thinking ‘out of the frying pan…’ In honour of the occasion I am offering the following:

View over Plas Brondanw copyright Charles Hawes (Veddw)

Institutional Gardens – are they all awful?

Plas Brondanw used to be one of the most satisfying, delightful gardens in Britain. It was originally the private garden of the architect and garden maker Clough  Williams-Ellis, of Portmeirion fame and it is about 100 years old. I visited it many years ago on a never to be forgotten trip, driving up through seemingly endless narrow winding roads beneath spectacular Snowdonian scenery to find an exquisite garden with an honesty box.

It was simple. Beautiful mountain views revealed tellingly from the garden by skilled garden design; delightful topiary; buildings and ironwork highlighted with the classic Clough Williams-Ellis touches of gold and blue paintwork; restraint and quiet pleasure everywhere. A pool with a ridiculous fountain of a child fireman which should have been embarrassing but really was – no other word for it – cute. Few flowers – this was never a flower garden, that was not the Williams-Ellis style. I don’t admire gardens readily but this was one of my all time greats. Fireman in pool at Plas Brondanw copyright Charles Hawes (Veddw)

Now it has a gift shop and a café, a container looking as if it has arrived fresh from a ship from China and a large propane gas container as a new focal point. Roses have appeared, predictably called “Portmerion” and “Clough  Williams-Ellis,” and other flowery plants have snuck in remorselessly. Plant labels have appeared and spread like weeds. The spirit of the personal, private garden has been driven out along with the honesty box.

I was reminded of this price which a garden can pay for survival again recently when I visited Aberglasney, at the other end of Wales. Again, there were those dreaded plant labels. I examined these in detail to discover a dandelion labelled ‘Narcissus’, and ‘Muscari’ looking remarkably like a fern. But the thing that struck me most was the soulless feel of the place. The facilities were excellent, and the basic design has, after all, been principally dug up by archaeologists. But the planting was mostly uninspired, with much bare soil, and an amazing tidiness which felt relentlessly overdone. Seeing staff trim grass edges next to the immaculate gravel paths with religious care and then gather up some of the clippings by hand was rather frighteningly impressive to this rather sloppy gardener. It is no doubt what the visitors expect. Or are expected to expect.

There are other things you might find besides ugly bare stemmed roses, visitor centres and shops when a garden has been transmuted into an attraction. The walled garden which once again has to have vegetables and flowers for cutting, even where there is no longer any sensible use for these commodities. A newly obligatory and unhistorical annual or perennial meadow and the also obligatory and unhistorical William Pye water feature. Roped off areas.

Plas Brondanw 2012 copyright Charles Hawes (Veddw)

Totally neglected and forgotten areas. Sometimes ‘keep off the grass’ signs, though I haven’t the faintest idea why. Do some of these gardens get so many visitors they wear the turf out? Vases and garden urns with decidedly odd mixtures of plants stuffed in and looking miserable. Sometimes the plastic, commercial feel results, as at Plas Brondanw, from a shortage of funds. Sometimes it arises from the reverse. Dyffryn Gardens received over six million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1997 and has recently been taken over by the National Trust. It has all the same features that Aberglasney boasts. Their dandelion was labelled ‘Iris “Katherine Hodkin”( reticulata)’ – last year.

Dyffryn Garden, National Trust garden copyright Anne Wareham

It also has some dreadfully  poor planting Roses at Dyffryn S2 copyright Anne Wareham     and some good planting (just to keep you on your toes and to remind you just what is possible),

Dyffryn Garden borders copyright Anne Wareham (Veddw)

large areas of replanting, algae in the pools, vegetables and cut flowers and a glasshouse for no-one, and an amazingly posh visitor centre. (I wonder where the millions went…?)

New expensive glasshouse at Dyffryn Garden  2012 copyright Anne Wareham

I suspect that the institutional quality, the sense of ‘tourist attraction’ as opposed to garden is possibly also less to do with what is there so much as what isn’t. There may be a certain sensitivity, idiosyncrasy and flair missing.

This was demonstrated graphically at Tintinhull some years ago. Penelope Hobhouse had the lease there from the National Trust, and she managed to persuade them to allow her the freedom to do considerable remaking of Phyllis Reiss’s Arts and Crafts garden. The garden flourished with all the joy of a garden under sensitive, skilled and knowledgeable gardening. I was astonished to discover that almost immediately she left a chill fell over the garden and the spark died. I hardly expected it to be so obvious. It wasn’t as if the garden became neglected or really poor, it was just no longer so special.

Tintinhull border 2009 copyright Anne Wareham

It would have taken deep analysis to work out the components, though the brilliance of the vases of flowers had no doubt changed. There is no recipe for making a garden great or preserving its established greatness, except perhaps the skill of the garden maker. Garden makers, as opposed to designers or gardeners, are a neglected and unglamourised  part of the garden world. They are in short supply and their particular abilities are not well understood and certainly cannot be very well rewarded. So they are a rare breed, and an historic garden which continues to excite us will no doubt continue to be a rare treat.

It takes an individual touch, a heartfelt sympathy with your predecessor and an understanding of their aims and ambitions to begin with. And then the addition of freedom and confidence to remake and to continue to remake a garden. And a total disregard for fashion and what the public are supposed to want. And perhaps the critical extra ingredient. Maybe the problem with most tourist attraction gardens is that no-one responsible for them loves them?

Anne Wareham (I have never managed to get this published. Maybe badly written. Maybe broke some rules..)

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