Written by Donna Dawson
That about sums up my trip to Wales – genuine and inspirational. There is a graciousness about the country that was felt everywhere: from the gardens to the hotels you could feel the welcome and it was so hard to leave because of it.
The National flag is green on the bottom and white on the top, and right in the middle sits a red dragon. The Leek and the Daffodil are both national emblems of Wales. The Welsh word for daffodil and leek are the same – Cenhinen for leek and Cenhinen Pedr for daffodil. The harp is regarded as the national instrument of Wales. The triple harp is widely known as the Welsh harp. Ahh, the lovespoons. They are carved from one piece of wood by a young man and presented to his sweetheart as a token of his affection. Now they are decorated with various symbols and presented to people for good luck, prosperity, a new birth, good health.
Wales lies to the west of England and is only 170 miles long and 60 miles wide…and yes, there are more sheep in Wales and there are people!
We started out at the Manchester Airport and met our guide Donna who would be with us for the next week. Our luggage loaded into the coach, our able driver Hugh securely in his seat and off we went, a bunch of garden writers, thrilled to be here and excited to see what we had been reading about.
Our first stop was for lunch. This is another thing our group had in common: our love of good food, and we were to discover that Wales has incredibly good food too! After lunch we all wanted to sleep but that was not to be…we had much to do and places to go…our first visit was to Erddig Hall, described as the jewel in the crown of Welsh country houses. How fascinating to see such a place, a home from the early 18th century which reflected a wealthy family's 250 years of upstairs, downstairs life.
You can read the whole history of this wonderful home on the BBC website... but it was the gardens that we were enthralled with. We met with the Head Gardener, Glyn Smith to learn more about this glorious and peaceful place: The park was landscaped by William Eames between 1768 and 1789 and the walled garden is one of the most important surviving 18th Century gardens in Britain and was planned around a canal. It features a Victorian parterre which we were to discover were really Laurel trees planted in the ground surrounded by Versailles planter boxes. Very smart idea, and a yew walk, as well as the National Collection of Ivy.
The walled garden has many rare historical varieties of apples, pears, plums and apricots training along its walls, carefully labeled with names like Bon Chrétien d'Hiver (a pear of the late 15th Century) and Edelsborsdorfer (a 16th Century apple).
After this we were off to meet Janie Smith, the great great niece of Beatrix Potter! This was the garden that stories are made from…and it was a real treat to be standing in it…and hoping that a few bunnies would come out to greet us – but alas, they were off in the woods playing. This was Gwaenynog Hall in Denbigh, the setting for the Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies – and we could see not a one!
The creator of Peter Rabbit was Janie’s great-great-aunt and regularly visited during the 1890s. While there she was inspired to write and illustrate the children's classic.
"Beatrix Potter's mother and my great-grandmother were sisters and she came here to stay with her Uncle Fred. This is going back to the 1890s and she came some 13 times. While she was here she got the inspiration to write the Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and illustrate the book."
For our visit, even though it was September, we could see what this garden must look like during June when in peak flower. Now we had lots of apples to munch on while we walked and talked. Mr McGregor's potting shed was there with some old watering cans hanging from the rafters and apples drying in bins.
After which it was time to head to our hotel…we were ready for Bodysgallen Hall and of course – dinner! Bodysgallen is located in Llandudno and is a Hotel of Distinction. It stands in over 200 acres of its own parkland to the south of Llandudno with spectacular views of Snowdonia and Conwy Castle. Believed to have 13th century origins, Bodysgallen Hall provides all that is best in country house hospitality, in fact, it is the highest rated country house hotel in Wales. Beautiful gardens include a rare 17th century parterre of box hedges filled with sweet-scented herbs, a rockery with a cascade, a walled rose garden, and several follies.
Some of us had rooms in the main house while others had rooms in Hall Cottages: I had the Bailiffs Cottage. The cottages offer a greater degree of privacy and some have their own private garden. They are the ideal place for couples and families travelling together, or for a romantic break, and a perfect base from which to discover the glorious countryside. The cottages have a bedroom - or two or three bedrooms - a bathroom, sitting room and a separate area for making tea or coffee. VERY POSH INDEED and I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful it was to wake up the next morning and see all this incredibly green lush landscape surrounding us. The 17th Century Parterre garden was just below where I was with boxwood planted in 1885. All the cottages have beautiful gardens enveloping them. A joy to get up early, walk and take photographs.
Fifteen minutes from our hotel was our first visit of the day – Bodnant Gardens. What a way to start a day! I had seen it before on my tours but that was a while ago and how things had changed. A brand new guest reception entrance greets you now. Long beds still full of perennials in bloom and the roses were incredible. I can still smell them. The vistas here are so grandiose, with the hills and valley beyond completing this perfection.
There are really two parts to this garden, the higher part being around the house and consisting of terraced lawns, trees and roses close to the house - where they can be enjoyed for their scent.
The lower portion known as the Dell, is formed by the valley and contains not only the wild garden but a beautiful lily terrace, a canal terrace, and at the end of that the Pin Mill which looks out onto the canal terrace and is a lovely spot to sit and watch the birds and water lilies. There is a lot more here but this is all we had time for.
Bodnant Garden was only the second garden without a house given to the National Trust (Hidcote was the first). It was donated in 1949 by Henry McLaren, 2nd Baron Aberconway, and is still managed today by his descendants. The house is not open to the public.
Then we were off for a quick trip to Crug Farm Plants. We were hoping to have the owners present, but they were not, so we didn’t spend as much time there as we could have. In 2011 they won their first Chelsea Gold Medal as well as the RHS President’s Award. They have a nice woodland garden stuffed to the brim with all kinds of shade loving plants, as it was nice that most of them were labeled and for those that are not you can always ask. From there you go to the walled garden again full of plants for sale and show.
Our next visit would totally take us all by surprise…and what a wonderful surprise it was as it was the gardens of Plas Cadnant on the Isle of Anglesey. Anthony Tavernor is obsessed with this place. Lucky are those who get to stay here in one of the holiday cottages, for they are in a little piece of Welsh heaven. We met one of the couples staying here: in fact we were in their cottage checking it out when they pulled up in their 26 year old Morgan. Many people stay here over and over again and I can see why. The cottages are beautiful and have a very long history. They offer so much, but mostly I think, comfortable, quiet, well thought out space in what I think of as one of the most beautiful places on earth. One that is cared for and loved and tended to by a man who is so committed to making sure all who stay or visit are treated like the special people they are.
If you are in this area you must seek this secret garden out for it is a gem worthy of your time and discovery. They're building a Tea Garden which will be open in 2013, but for groups coming now you will not only - for a very small fee - be given an introductory talk about the gardens but you may even get to have a slice of the most delicious walnut cake ever! Don’t forget to look up close at something you will not see very often…and only in this part of Wales – the slate fencing!
This was the ending of the second day. And from there we went on to the hotel: we were staying at the Ty’n Rhos, Seion, Llanddeiniolen, near Caernarfon. The hotel is settled in the wide open lush plain between Snowdonia and the Isle of Anglesey and has a cozy solarium to just curl up in. The owners are Stephen and Hilary Murphy. After another great meal it was off to bed!
We had breakfast, checked out and were on our way through the Snowdonia Mountains. We stopped at the Pen y Pass to get out and take some pictures - so many hikers so early in the morning here. Mist in the mountains, just a beautiful sight to behold. We also saw lots of sheep and Donna was telling us that they are ‘hefted to the hills’ meaning they are born to this, it is in their genes and must be passed down in order to survive. We also saw Welsh black cattle and salt marsh sheep - these are sheep that feed in the salt marshes and are now called designer lamb: more expensive because their meat is much different. We also saw a lot of heather still in bloom.
I had seen Portmeirion before so was looking forward to seeing it again. It's one of Wales' premier visitor attractions, welcoming 250,000 visitors every year. Here you feel in a bubble of time. I think what makes it so special is that it is so personal. You walk around and see what the owner chose and thought about and put in place.
A beautiful old tree, centuries old with a bench circling it now, inviting people to come and sit for a bit and see ‘what I see and why I love it here so much’. A chair to sit and dream about what it must have been like to know him and work with him. The not perfect pruning lines that throw you off a bit and make you smile.
Clough acquired the Portmeirion site in 1925 for something under £5,000. It was then, as Clough wrote, "a neglected wilderness - long abandoned by those romantics who had realized the unique appeal and possibilities of this favoured promontory but who had been carried away by their grandiose landscaping...into sorrowful bankruptcy." Clough immediately changed the name from Aber Iâ (Glacial Estuary) to Portmeirion: Port because of the coastal location and Meirion as this is Welsh for Merioneth, the county in which it lay.’
Taking nearly 50 years to complete, Portmeirion was a homage to Sir Clough Williams-Ellis' love of the Italian Riviera. Possibly why the bust of Inigo Jones in his own garden as Jones loved Italy as well.
The village was the backdrop for Patrick McGoohan in both The Prisoner and Danger Man, as well as providing the setting for episodes of Doctor Who, Citizen Smith and countless films, many of which use it as an alternative to filming on location in Italy.
In 1926 he opened the main house on the shore as the Hotel Portmeirion to finance his venture. Over the years Williams-Ellis designed and added many buildings to the village, completing his work in 1976, when he was over 90 years old.
Portmeirion was developed in two phases, 1926-39 and 1954-72, the break a result of William-Ellis's wartime service. He first acquired the site of the existing village, then the land beyond it, and eventually the lands surrounding Deudraeth Castle - and the 'castle' itself. It was owned by his uncle, Sir Osmond Williams, a descendant of David Williams, an attorney and the first Liberal MP for Meirioneth. The authentic castle has long since been destroyed and is marked by a tablet near the base of the Campanile:
"This tower, built in 1928 by Clough Williams-Ellis, architect and publican, embodies stones from the 12th Century castle of his ancestor Gryffyrd ap Cynan, King of North Wales, that stood on an eminence 150 yards to the west. It was finally razed c.1869 by Sir William Fothergill Cook, inventor of the Electric Telegraph, "lest the ruins should become known and attract visitors to the place." This 19th Century affront to the 12th Century is thus piously redressed in the 20th Century"
Among the stars to say Portmeirion has influenced their work are Noel Coward, Sir Paul McCartney, Frank Lloyd Wright (a close friend) Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman and Jools Holland.
When you visit, see if you can find the wishing trees. The first tree was felled to make way for a path and now there are many tree trunks full of coins.
Portmeirion is owned by a registered charity, the Second Portmeirion Foundation, and managed by Robin Llywelyn, grandson of Willliams-Ellis. Portmeirion is signposted off the A487 at Minffordd between Penrhyndeudraeth and Porthmadog. The village is open for visitors and guests at the resort all year round.
Our last visit of the day was a simple one, not requiring too much walking. It was the place the created the nation’s unofficial anthem, loved by rugby fans and regimental bands alike: spectacularly sited Harlech Castle seems to grow naturally from the rock on which it is perched. Like an all-seeing sentinel, it gazes out across land and sea, keeping a watchful eye over Snowdonia.
The English monarch Edward I built Harlech in the late 13th-century to fulfill this very role. It was one of the most formidable of his 'iron ring' of fortresses designed to contain the Welsh in their mountain fastness. Ironically, in 1404 it was taken by Welsh leader Owain Glyn Dwr who proceeded to hold a parliament here. A long siege here during the Wars of the Roses inspired the stirring song 'Men of Harlech'. Although an imposing edifice, Harlech is at one with its surroundings, a quality rare in the great Edwardian castles. There is a sense of harmony at work here, created by the way in which the castle builders took care to exploit the site's natural advantages.
Tonight we were staying at Dolserau Hall, a Victorian Country House Hotel in Dolgellau, Gwynedd. Set in the heart of the beautiful Snowdonia National Park, Dolgellau, North Wales. The hotel's position is stunning, with panoramic views from every room looking over the surrounding pastures to the hills on either side of the valley. My room (#15) here was cozy, a single bed on the top floor with a dormer window and simply a princess feel with satin comforter. I loved it even though I had to manoeuvre a huge suitcase in. A nice big bathroom, tea making, cookies and a t.v. What more did I need!
Dinner in these types of hotels is wonderful. You come down at a certain time and sit in the lounges until you are called. They want to make sure your whole group is there and then you go in at one time. It’s nice because you have already made your choice so the kitchen is prepared for you.
The area surrounding the hotel is beautiful and this has just recently changed hands so expect even more wonderful things to happen. Especially with the gardens. When walking around the Coach House, I discovered a walled garden in need of some loving care. They will be doing that. The walls are dry stack and covered with shrubs right now but what a sight that will be when renovated.
I forgot to mention all the sheep, it was soothing to hear them in the background….and if you are a guest here every afternoon enjoy Afternoon Tea!
After a hearty breakfast we were off to visit not only a garden but a Relais & Chateaux Country House Hotel, Ynyshir Hall, which means Long Island.
After our welcome by Joan Reen, we were ushered into the parlor for some tea and cookies. Can I tell you how good these Chocolate chip, Ginger and Flapjack cookies were? Fitting cookies for a R & C establishment. Then it was time to visit the gardens. Along with the glorious lawns in that Welsh green, there were dogs to play with and horses to watch…so restful to the eye.
Solitude is precious and readily available at Ynyshir Hall, once owned by Queen Victoria and set amongst breathtaking scenery in the secret heart of Wales. Cradled in 14 acres of glorious gardens, this luxury hotel in Wales sits midst the splendour of the Dyfi Estuary, surrounded by mountains that were once the refuge of the Celtic princes and has been cherished by a succession of eminent owners.
Parts of the hall date back to the 15th Century, but its first recorded owner was David Lloyd, who lived here in the 17th Century. Ynyshir Hall was later owned by three High Sheriffs and later acquired by Queen Victoria who loved the abundance of birds on the estuary part of the estate. She had the hall refurbished and put a lot of effort into establishing the gardens, with many of the trees she had planted still being in evidence today.
In 1928, it was sold to William Hubert Mappin of Mappin and Webb, Jewellers, who did a great deal of work on the gardens. On his death in 1966, he sold 1,000 acres of the estate to the RSPB, to establish the bird reserve that still exists there today, much to the disgust of the shooting parties who had visited the area for generations.
We returned to our parlor to just sit and enjoy the time together and as we were talking some stories were shared about some of the people who had visited there. Wonderful stories and you will just have to go there to hear them for yourself!
After this visit we headed to Llanerchaeron where we enjoyed a quick lunch before our visit. This is another National Trust Property and a rare example of a self-sufficient 18th-century Welsh minor gentry estate has survived virtually unaltered. The villa, designed in the 1790s, is the most complete example of the early work of John Nash. What I loved about the house were the ceilings and trim. Each room was different and in some of the rooms the drawers were custom made to fit the rounded corners..really cool. It has its own service courtyard with dairy, laundry, brewery and salting house, and walled kitchen gardens (with all its produce for sale when in season). The pleasure grounds and ornamental lake and parkland provide peaceful walks.
What gives Llanerchaeron its unique historical value is the fact that later owners allowed the farm and household service outbuildings to languish out of use, with no attempt to demolish or renovate them. As a result, we can clearly see exactly where and how essential tasks were performed with considerable attention to quality standards, and often aided by advanced technology, including electricity generated by a water-wheel.
Tonight we are in Aberaeron and staying at the Feather Royal Hotel. This was a bit different from the other hotels and I think a good idea to show us the different types of accommodation available throughout Wales. It was once upon a time in the 18th century a coaching inn.
The charming town of Aberaeron is famous for its Georgian elegance with brightly painted town houses and an attractive seaside quay. This was most evident as we took a stroll out in the rather breezy weather to see the ocean and the boats. The houses surrounding the quay were lovely in all their finery of bright colours. They have a wonderful little walking map that you can use that guides you by all the famous buildings and tells you about each of them. A great walk to make room for dinner!
Our time was coming to a close yet we still had a couple of fantastic places to visit….
The last time I had been here was 2002 and my, how time had changed things…for the best! It was a joy to see the plants in the great glasshouse, designed by Lord Foster and how they had matured. A wonderful place to visit. They have an amazing collection of over 8000 different plant varieties, spread across 560 acres of beautiful countryside. Our guide, David Hardy, is also the Head of Marketing and Communications. A new post for him and is he excited!
They have developed a stunning range of themed gardens that appeal to a wide range of visitors, from those who just love the sight and smells of flowers to those who want to know about medicinal plants or the latest DNA research into plant evolution.
A great place to take the family and spend the day or just come by yourself and get lost in the beauty of both the gardens and the surrounding countryside. They have a very, very good guidebook so be sure to get it when you arrive.
From here we went to Aberglasny. Now I had never been there before and so wanted to see it. It should be on your must visit list as this again, was another jewel in the crown for Wales.
Spectacularly set in the beautiful Tywi valley of Carmarthenshire, Aberglasney House features one of the finest gardens in Wales. Aberglasney Gardens have been an inspiration to poets since 1477. The story of Aberglasney spans many centuries, but, the house's origins are still shrouded in obscurity, and the most surprising it that not a whole lot of people know it exists.
There is a huge amount of history on this garden and as we toured through it, was stunned at its beauty. The house was stunning too and it is still in the early stages of renovation. To them the gardens are the important part and they want all their efforts put into the garden. The house will evolve as time and money dictate. So for the time being, in the house, you go to a few rooms that are under restoration then you enter another room that you think will be the same but instead they have taken this room and made gardens out of it, the roof was off so why not make use of it until time changes things. It was like going into a secret garden that no one else knew about. A garden filled with ferns, palms, cycads, streptocarpus and orchids - stunning. It’s called the Ninfarium and developed in 2005 and derived from the famous garden at Ninfa in Rome. It now has a glass roof against old stone walls and windows, it was enchanting. As you moved around you were surprised with every turn.
Our last hotel on the tour was the Cawdor in Llandeilo, West Wales. Each of the hotels rooms are different and after we all got our keys we went about visiting each others rooms to see what they were gorgeous!! My room was named Pencader, named after Pencader Castle, and it had a lovely four poster bed and chaise lounge. The Cawdor, one of Carmarthenshire's landmark buildings is now one of Wales' leading boutique hotels. It is a Grade II listed Georgian building and has played ‘a pivotal role’ in the history of Llandeilo.
Needless to say the meal was exquisite and since it was our last dinner together, it made for a memory we shall soon not forget. We dragged ourselves away from the table, but knowing what our rooms looked like and how comfortable those beds were, well, we didn’t drag for long. Tomorrow it was heading back to Cardiff to catch the train to London, then an overnight at the airport, then a flight home