There is a tremendous sense of space, of openness, of great skies and distant views at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales. Shortly after entering the gardens one comes to a circular pond with fountain, fed by a meandering rill which has run downhill for over 100 metres. The temptation is to follow the rill to the feature location of the gardens – the enormous glass dome – but my eye was taken by the naturalistic lake to the right and the footpath which ran alongside it.
I was delighted to have taken this path around the gardens as it led, unexpectedly on my part, to the origins of the garden, the pater-noster series of created lakes, the view down the valley, the folly on the distant hill, a perfect landscape garden – perfectly “picturesque”. The property was originally, 17th century, owned by the Middleton family and was bought by William Paxton in 1789. He set out to create a “water park”, the series of lakes which are presently being restored. Samuel Pepys Cockerell was employed to build a new house while the old Middleton Hall was turned to use as farm buildings. Samuel Pepys Cockrell also designed the Neo-Gothic Paxton’s Tower, erected in honour of Lord Nelson, on a hilltop in the Towy Valley.
Presently, the landscape is being cleared of trees which over the years have cluttered the view and I expect the finished project to be a wonderful success – with one reservation: the viewing area in front of the house has a modern sculpture in place which, though it is interesting and attractive, is very poorly placed as it stands between the viewer and the view. It could be moved.
On Paxton’s death in 1824 the estate covered some 2,650 acres and was described by the sales agent: “ Richly ornamented by nature, and greatly improved by art. A beautiful tower erected to the memory of the noble hero the late Lord Nelson, forming a grand and prominent feature in the Property and a Land Mark in the County, opposite to which are the Ruins of Dryslwyn Castle, and the Grongar Hills, with the Towey winding to a great extent, presenting a scenery that may vie with any County. ”
Without doubt, the Great Glasshouse is the centre-piece of the gardens – 95 metres long and metres wide, housing plants from various regions with a Mediterranean climate – and I left visiting it until last but it then failed to impress me. Sure, a big and fabulous structure, but arid conditions and a large fish pond with scummy water will never be more attractive to me than the open meadows, wildflower plantings, the double-walled garden or any of the open areas outside.
The double-walled garden was a very unusual feature to me. Apparently, it is more common – though not really common – in Scotland. The inner garden has brick walls and the outer wall – there is a gap of about 10 metres between them – is made of stone. This provided two areas within walls and two different microclimates which extended the growing season and the space between the two walls was also, apparently, used to shelter animals during inclement weather.
And then, there was The Wallace Garden, the rockery by the house, the Apothecary’s shop, The Apothecary’s Garden, The Butterfly House, The Orchard, The Vegetable Garden, The Japanese Garden etc etc – lots and lots of interest and some not of interest – a birds of prey centre didn’t attract me.
A stop at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales broke our journey from Fishguard to Exeter and it was an enjoyable stop. Will we stop again? Probably not!
Finally, a series of images: