The welcome was always warm, the food delicious and the rooms interesting and sometimes luxurious.
But the most wonderful part of the trip was the gardens, a feast for the eyes and the spirit.
By Dorothy Dobbie
When I think of Wales, I think of green: brilliant, rain-nurtured green and plants that have luxuriated in the moist temperate air. I think of singing: beautiful male voices soaring to the heavens and resounding off the hills and castles and keeps beside the sea. I think of gardens: lovely meticulously groomed, half-groomed, half-wild gardens, acres of them illustrating the tastes and talents of a proud, independent people with a unique vision of Utopia.
In the gardens, I see topiary and half-forgotten fruits from another time and long avenues of pleached trees leading through lawns manicured, sometimes, by sheep, and I see huge bruised blossoms of hydrangea. I see roses of every colour climbing and tumbling over rocks and over pergolas and beside ponds. I see ancient trees, festooned with ivy and covered in moss.
Little time for artifice
When I think of Wales, I also think of the people, their soft voices and pleasant manners, their high regard for the beauty around them. They fit with the gardens they build; they have little time for the artificialities of life.
We travelled from north to south, comfortably seated in a bus driven by Hugh, a fellow who used to be one of the Queen’s own guards. He had a wry sense of humour and shared my delight in Welsh male choirs.
We stayed at fine old manor houses and country inns, and at historic hotels. The welcome was always warm, the food delicious and the rooms ranging from interesting to luxurious. But the most wonderful part of the trip was the gardens, even in the occasional rain a feast for the spirit as well as the eyes.
I wanted more time to sit and drink in the wonder of it all, especially our first garden at Bodysgallen Hall. Parts of the house go back to 1620 and parts of the garden are just as old.
Many great memories
A walled knot garden filled with boxwood and herbs that once supplied the kitchen for the many guests was wonderful in its own right. The rectangular reflective pool, the orchard, the vegetable garden and a woodland rockery garden created with clever elevations, water features and plantations stole my heart.
Janie Smith, the great, great niece of Beatrix Potter, now owns the garden that inspired the Tales of the Flopsy Bunnies. Janie lives in the great house of Gwaenynog Hall and tells of how her twice-removed aunt visited the hall a dozen times, dreaming up the wonderful children’s tales that still delight so many.
The Hall itself is inspirational. When asked how many rooms it had, she responded offhandedly, “Oh about 20 or so. It’s awfully hard to heat.” The gardens are much like they were in Beatrix Potter’s day (she visited between 1825 and 1913) and have been largely restored from old paintings by Janie’s daughter.
My other favourite place was the little known Plas Cadnant, an emerging garden being restored by Anthony Tavernor on the Isle of Anglesy (where Kate and William live). Anthony, a former farmer, has been gradually restoring this estate, turning the outhouses into self-contained cottages. The big, Georgian-style farm house built in 1803 is still awaiting restoration, but the cottages are open for business.
It’s the gardens, however, that thrill. They range from pretty cottage gardens filled with roses and perennials to a wilderness area in the woods, leading down to a stream at the bottom of a ravine and then back up into the light where more perennials hug the outer perimeter of a large walled garden.
Vegetable-growing on a slope
We also visited Portmerion, the fabled artificial town built on the edge of the sea out of the bones of an ancient castle and the nearby estates. It was the site of the the TV show Danger Man and The Prisoner and many other films. Some 250,000 visitors flock there every year.
A final highlight was a visit to the allotment gardens at Rhonda where we met up with some dedicated gardeners who coax vegetables out of a steep and often rainy slope above the town. This is the escape place for a group of rugged individuals who have been raising produce and flowers on this hilly spot since the 1950s. Their hospitality made the pouring rain feel as warm as sunshine on our heads.