story and photos by Thomas Wheaton
Tal-y-Cafn, Wales, October 21, 2015
It was late on a cool, drizzly, Welsh morning when we arrived at Bodnant Estate after a mist-shrouded drive over rain and leaf-slicked roads through the vales of Snowdonia.
We parked in the street, terraced car park outside of the wall, and after some fortifying scones and hot chocolate in the Pavillion Tearoom, followed the ramp down and through a pedestrian tunnel under the road and wall, emerging in front of the welcome center for the 80-acre gardens.
Entrance and Winter Garden
My partner and I were visiting on a recommendation from my former Garden Design Schoolmentor Robin Templar Williams, whom we'd caught up with two days prior during a stop in Bath.
Bodnant lived up to his description from the moment we stepped out the back door of the reception building.
A broad, straight gravel path, lined on one side with a deep herbaceous border along a high wall, led toward a glasshouse at the corner of the hall itself. In the border, maroon and crimsonCotinus contrasted beautifully with tawny drifts of tall grasses puctuated by dwarf evergreens.
Opposite, past a narrower border filled with exuberant sprays of scarlet dahlias and Verbena bonariensis lay a rectagular lawn featuring a small, formal quadrangle of box-fringed beds with a fountain in the center. On the far side of the lawn stands the recently-opened Winter Garden, with its gently curving paved paths connecting to another small formal garden, this one circular in shape.
Crossing the wide lawn to the south of the Hall, we explored the Italiante terraces. These compromise five levels with massive, buttressed granite retaining walls supporting lawns, lily ponds and lush mixed borders.
The uppermost terrace, adjacent to the Hall, features a multitude of roses and offers views of the Carneddau mountains to the west...Well, on a clear day, perhaps -- but not today.
Paths and steps of stone and brick (and beautifully repurposed millstones) led us down to the wide arc of a rose pergola which overlooks a long, narrow reflecting pool on the lowest terrace (known as the Canal Terrace) facing the Pin Mill, an 18th- century structure which was dismantled, moved to Bodnant from Gloucestershire and re-erected in 1938.
From the Pin Mill, we took a path which led behind it, and across a stream and wound its way down the Old Mill, situated at the lower end of the Dell.
The river Hiraethlyn wends its way amongst moss-covered boulders through this steep valley after cascading over a spillway from a small pond higher up.
It was here, under the direction of then-owner Henry Davis Pochin beginning in the 1870's, that designer Edward Milner created a showcase for specimen broadleaf and needle evergreens collected from Asia and North American including a number of Sequoiadendron. Looking up from the floor of the profoundly calm, shady valley at the broad, tall trunks of the century-and-a-half-old trees, I was reminded of the Muir Woods in California (and perhaps this is why).
An assortment of Hydrangeas line the stream bed and paths up to the Waterfall Bridge, where we ascended steep paths and steps up and out of the Dell.
The Shrub Borders
Extending from the Poem back toward the Hall, the Shrub Borders contain aa myriad of rhododendrons, magnolias, Viburnums and camellias as well as shade perennials like astilbes.
Here and there among the taller shrubs, hydrangeas continued to peak (owing, perhaps to north Wales' cool summers?). One in paricular literally stopped me in my tracks, its profusion of cerulean blooms set against a backdrop of golden foliage.
At the end of the shrub borders nearest the Hall sits an oval pool called the Deep Bath, flanked by high walls and steps up to the main lawn. Magenta and red spikes of Agastache and Perisicaria stood out in the planting beds atop the walls.
Departing the Shrub Borders, we crossed the lawn again to exit the garden, stopping to look over the Old Park, where a crew of hooved and wooly experts were tending to a light trim of the grass.
And, of course, just as we were ready to leave, the sun decided to make an appearance.
Stopping once again to admire the border we'd seen as we arrived -- now glimmering gold and orange, bathed in mid-afternoon sunlight -- before bidding Bodnant goodbye...until our next visit.