Step outside the famous Italianate village of Portmeirion, and you find yourself in an equally exotic, but lesser known, world of greenery and plants that shouldn’t really survive in north Wales at all. Portmeirion is built on a narrow peninsular, surrounded by sea warmed by the Gulf Stream and so very rarely troubled by frost. In this balmy haven, exotics brought home by collectors over centuries survive and thrive.
Paths wind their way between lakes, passing over a Chinese bridge and through arches of rare camellias and rhododendron, past the twisting branches of a giant monkey puzzle tree, and the huge leaves of tropical ferns. At the heart of the Gwyllt is a tiny cemetery, an oddly touching place, where family pets were laid to rest, each with its own headstone and guarded by the wooden carving of a dog.
The best way to explore the Gwyllt is to simply wander: following trails as they open up, finding yourself in a hidden valley one moment and on a rocky shore next to a miniature lighthouse the next. It’s impossible to get lost, as each path leads back eventually to glimpses of the roofs and painted buildings of the village, and the murmur of visitors enjoying the magic of Portmeirion.
Just inland from Portmeirion lies a real hidden gem. Plas Brondanw was the family home of Clough Williams-Ellis, who created the Italianate village, and while on a far smaller scale than the gardens of Portmeirion, and not nearly so well known, Brondanw has a beautiful and mischievous magic all of its own. These are my favourite gardens, and one of the main inspirations behind my novel Eden’s Garden.
In front of the house, lawns stretch down between flowerbeds and paths, opening up to views of the surrounding mountains. But it is the formal garden, to one side of the house, that is an unexpected delight. It is a grand garden in miniature, with a formal pond surrounded by overgrown flowerbeds. Paved paths make their way between arching greenery, passing urns and statues peeping unexpectedly from among the planting.
Behind the house, there is also a wilderness area, which leads through trees to a folly, a castle in miniature on top of a small hill. A short climb to the top of the tower leads to a truly spectacular vantage point to see the mountains and coastline of southern Snowdonia.
The grounds of Penrhyn Castle are best visited in spring. First, the slopes leading down from the castle walls are covered in snowdrops as far as the eye can see. A little later, and these are replaced by the yellow of daffodils peeping out of every corner.
The 60 acres of garden and parkland are more than enough to get wonderfully lost in, but my favourite part is the Victorian walled garden, surrounding exotic species collected by the inhabitants of the castle over centuries. It’s quite small and hidden away, and very peaceful. And if you're adventurous, you can venture outside the walls to the bog garden, with its enormous covering of gunnera leaves. It’s like stepping into another world – and the best place for a game of hide and seek!
Bodnant Gardens lie in the Conwy Valley and, covering 80 acres, they are the largest of my secret gardens. Bodnant is the kind of garden where you can spend a couple of hours admiring the laburnum arch or wandering along the formal ponds of the terraced gardens, before heading off for the temptations of the plant sale and the tea room. But it is also a garden where you can spend all day, whatever the season, and where there is always something new to be found.
Beyond the more formal gardens, paths and streams lead down to the Dell, a huge wilderness area centred round a natural river and surrounded by many colours and scents of rhododendron and azaleas and the blooms of Hydrangeas. In summer, meadows bloom between the trees where you can sit and simply enjoy being surrounded by wildflowers, before heading back to the roses and tranquil pools of the more formal gardens. And finally succumb to the siren call of the plant sale and the inspiration to make a Bodnant all of your own.
The garden in Plas Mawr is tiny, but well worth a visit. Like most people, I was drawn into Plas Mawr, set on the High Street in the historic medieval walled town of Conwy on the north Wales coast, by the house. Plas Mawr is an Elizabethan town house that has been lovingly restored, from the kitchens to the little private bedrooms and the richly decorated chamber that was definitely designed to impress the neighbours.
But step out into the secret centre of Plas Mawr and there is the tiny formal garden, restored to its Elizabethan beauty and overflowing with traditional country cottage flowers and herbs. Surrounded by high, whitewashed walls, it is a place of peace and quiet, where you can sit and simply absorb the scents and the beauty of the plants around you. It must have been a place of secret flirtations and outdoing your neighbours. But I like to imagine the lady of the house escaping from her household duties for a short while to sit and read or catch up with friends within this colourful little haven in the middle of a busy town.
Juliet Greenwood lives in a traditional Welsh cottage in Snowdonia and is a keen gardener. You can find out more about Juliet and her work by visiting her website. Juliet's book, Eden's Garden, is available on Amazon now.
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