The garden at Powis Castle is one of the two or three really great gardens of Britain. It seems to have every quality which a great garden requires – history, a perfect site, maturity, fine trees, well chosen plants, good architecture, good statuary, water and last, but by no means least, owners who have loved and looked after it for centuries. In having all these attributes, the garden at Powis must be almost unique.
The Castle is set on a high bluff chosen by old Welsh princes, in almost prehistoric times, on account of its impregnable.
The guide book to the Castle itself admirably sets out the history of the place – the owners of Powis have often changed in the seven or more hundred years of its existence; and the different families who have lived there, and their stories, lie outside the scope of a website about gardens. Suffice it to say that the first gardening family to inhabit the Castle was almost certainly the Dutch Earl of Rochford and his son Lord Enfield, who occupied the castle for some thirty years after William m became King, while the Powis family themselves, ardent Jacobites, were in exile.
During their short tenure, the Rochfords certainly built the terraces, which are the most striking feature of the garden at Powis today; and they probably planted the yews, visible as well established but still small trees in an old print of the Castle dated 1742. They are now enormous, and like the terraces, imposing features of the garden.
In due course the Powis family were allowed to return to their ancient home, and their heiress, Lady Henrietta Herbert, married the son of the celebrated Lord Clive. It is their descendants who still live at Powis, and it was Henrietta’s grandson, the third Earl of Powis, who planted the rare trees and shrubs collected from all over the world which are the glory of the garden today and make it so fascinating botanically.
The garden faces south-east, and though it is 450 feet above sea level benefits to some extent by the Gulf Stream which just touches the north coast of Wales -plants thrive there as they would not further inland, and this is due not only to the remote blessing of the Gulf Stream but also to the perfectof the site of moisture and, almost more important, of frost. It is a recognized fact that cold, frosty air, weighing more than warm air, flows down a hill like water, collecting in hollows and valleys, which can then become harmful ‘frost pockets’. This is a well proven theory, and the garden at Powis is an excellent example of it. It is some miles from the sea, and yet delicate shrubs and trees will flourish there which would not survive in similar latitudes inland.
The visitor to Powis is at once impressed by the taste and original thought shown in the planting of the garden, and of the different terraces. Entering by a gate in the lower garden, his or her eye is at once arrested by a pair of Victorian jardinieres m basket form, set high on pillars, and planted, not, as so often, with tired and thirsty-looking geraniums, but with white fuchsias and soaring dracaenas. These well plantedseem to be a recurring theme in the garden, and some, indeed, do contain geraniums – but they are geraniums with a difference: some with crinkled, scented ; some with leaves that are marbled; and all with a well fed, well watered appearance which speaks of constant care on the part of the garden staff.
The flowerbeds at Powis seem to be planted with a special opulence. One is thickly set with heliotrope, silver cineraria and lilies. Another bed is ‘entirely given over to musk roses, with all their lovely girl-names, Penelope, Felicia and Cornelia, clearly labelled, a rare touch in gardens and a very useful one in gardens open to the public’. It is only a pity that visitors should so often reward the garden-owners’ thought by removing the labels as souvenirs.
At Powis, fuchsias seem to be favourite plants; not only tender varieties in, but also the hardy F. Riccartonii and the beautiful F. megallanica versicolor. There is a whole bed of this lovely fuchsia under the walls of the Castle, its smoky-pink foliage blending beautifully with the soft pink of the stonework.
On the Aviary Terrace there are fine plants of Rosa rubrifolia, with its ruby-coloured leaves, and of the seldom-planted Clerodendron fargesii from China, which gives such a goodin autumn with its shining porcelain blue berries. On the Aviary Terrace, too, and one wonders if that is how it got its name, is a lead figure of a peacock, said to have been brought back to England from India by the great Lord Clive.
The garden at Powis is full of rare plants, and a too-long list of botanical names can become daunting. A few, however, cannot, in any survey of the garden, be overlooked: Pittosporum tenuifolium and Hoheria lyallii from New Zealand; Drimys winteri, the magnolia-like Winter’s Bark from South America; the blue passion flower (Passiflora coerulea); the orange trumpet climber (Campsis radicans); and the Chilean Abutilon vitifolium, of which the deep violet blue variety A. v. sun tense is so spectacularly the best.
Below the terraces, there is a gently sloping bank ‘planted with more flowering trees and shrubs which take the eye with blossom, and spread their differing sweetness on the air’. Trees such as the exquisite Magnolia Wilsonii, from Szechuan in China, two splendid (and rarely seen) dogwoods (chinensis) with white flushed with red as they mature, Feijoa sellowiana and the white Banksian rose. In the autumn, Cercidiphyllum japonicum bursts into dying fire, so brightly coloured are its leaves.
Round the pool at Powis grow gunnera, like giant rhubarbs, the imposing but evil smelling arum (Lysichitum americanum), well named skunk cabbage, and the royal fern, such as we see at Scotney, Osmunda regalis. On the sky-line, stands the tallest tree in Britain, a Douglas fir, which, when last measured, was 181 feet high.
One more feature of the garden must be noticed before, with regret, we make our way – the lead figures on the balustrade of the second terrace. These are by the celebrated Jan Van Nost, and represent shepherds and shepherdesses. They were brought to the garden by the Dutch Lord Rochford two hundred and sixty years ago, and have been there ever since.
The history of the castle itself, the grandeur of its terraces and the consummate taste in the planting of the garden make a visit to Powis a memorable event. Fortunately, protected by the shield of the National Trust, there is reasonable hope that the garden may continue in beauty for years to come. It is one of the greatest of British gardens.
OPEN May 1st – September 30th: daily (except Monday and Tuesday): 2 p.m. – 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sunday in July and August: Gardens open 11.30 a.m. – 6 p.m. Bank Holidays: Easter Saturday, Sunday, Monday: 2 p.m. – 6 p.m. Spring and Late Summer Bank Holiday Monday: 11.30 a.m. – 6 p.m. LOCATION South of Welshpool on A483. Turn right after 1 mile.