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‘A sunbeam on a winter’s day’: A visit to Aberglasney Gardens

By Horticultural Trainee, Thomas Rutter

As the current Horticultural Trainee at the Garden Museum, one of the special features of my role is the opportunity for placements in gardens, chosen to give a taste of all the possibilities open to a horticulturalist at the beginning of their career. This year-long traineeship has been generously funded by The National Gardens Scheme and the Museum’s Friends Group in Leicestershire and Rutland.

And so in December 2020 I began my horticultural tour and was fortunate enough to be hosted by Aberglasney Gardens, a remarkable and historic estate located in the Tywi Valley, Carmarthenshire. It felt only natural to return home across the border to Wales for my first stop.

Main House, Aberglasney Gardens

The setting of Aberglasney is striking and although seemingly remote, there is much to do for those who with historical or horticultural fancies. The undulating landscape is punctuated with castle ruins, with both Dinefwr Castle and Carreg Cennen Castle a stone’s throw away. The gardens are also only a short drive from the National Botanic Garden of Wales (where the Garden Museum’s Head Gardener Matt Collins trained).

The Aberglasney estate dates back to the 1600s when it caught the eye of Bishop Rudd of St. David’s, although it is possible that part of the gardens date back even earlier. It has since changed hands many times over the centuries that followed; owned in the 18th century by the Dyer family, of whom the poet John Dyer was a member, and the Phillips family after that. Following a tumultuous 20th Century, requisitioned and hosting American Soldiers during the Second World War, the estate fell into disrepair. It was on the brink of collapse, lost to view and overgrown with vegetation, when – thankfully – it was rescued. In 1995, the estate was purchased by the Aberglasney Restoration Trust. The restoration was the focus of the 1999 BBC series, ‘Aberglasney: A Garden Lost in Time’.

Development of the estate has not since stopped, and the gardening team, under the direction of Head Gardener Joseph Atkin, continue to expand and cultivate new sections of the grounds.

What is wonderful about Aberglasney is the distinct rooms (or compartments) in the Gardens, each with unique histories, purposes and flora. This set up is very much in contrast to many large national gardens, with sweeping lawns and commanding vistas; the trademark feature of a Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown design. Aberglasney instead reveals itself not all at once. I was fortunate to not only visit but to work in many of these areas in the gardens, appreciating these spaces in different weathers and at different times of day, as the light changed.

Narcissus minor ‘Cedric Morris’ in Bishop Rudd’s Walk, Aberglasney Gardens

One area of the Gardens I became particularly familiar with was Bishop Rudd’s Walk. Aptly named, this was the route the Bishop would take in the 1600s, walking from the house to the neighbouring Church atop the hill. This secluded area is home to a wide range of woodland shrubs, perennials and bulbs, thriving in dappled shade and drinking up the water that trickles down the gently sloping hill. Time was spent lifting and dividing Blechnum chilense clusters, used to cultivate new fern colonies in designated spots. Working on the woodland slopes was made all the more difficult with the reliably soggy Welsh weather. I was also lucky to see Narcissus minor ‘Cedric Morris’ flowering (which readers may recall from the most recent newsletter post on Cedric’s travels to the Iberian Peninsula). Even in the dark of December, these early-flowering Narcissi pack a starry yellow punch.

Cloister Garden, Aberglasney Gardens

Elsewhere, the unique Cloister Garden, which originates from the time of Bishop Rudd during the reign of Elizabeth I, is enclosed by stone arcades with a parapet walkway above. It is very easy to hear echoes of footsteps from a time gone by whilst wandering here alone at dusk. The walkway above offers a view of the Pool Garden and Grongaer Hill to the West. Interestingly, Grongaer Hill was the subject of the aforementioned John Dyer’s 1726 poem (which includes the line from the title, ‘A sunbeam in a winter’s day’). I can only assume from his words how enraptured he was by the castles, the woods, the rivers and the groves local to the area. Reflecting on my time at Aberglasney, I quite understand.

Ninfarium indoor garden, Aberglasney Gardens

Time was also spent undercover, working in the warmth of the Ninfarium. This atrium is located in the central courtyard of the house, displaying a collection of warm temperate and sub-tropical plants. The name is derived from the gardens at Ninfa, located at the foot of the Lepini Mountains, south of Rome, and drawing inspiration from the range of plants on display here.

Rhododendron ‘Tropic Fanfare’ at the Ninfarium, Aberglansey Gardens

Whilst caring for the collection, one of several plants to catch my eye was Rhododendron ‘Tropic Fanfare’, showing off apricot blooms and enjoying the warmth and the high humidity of the Ninfarium.

Upper Walled Garden, designed by Penelope Hobhouse, Aberglasney Gardens

Finally, I was interested to see the Upper Walled Garden, designed by the garden designer Penelope Hobhouse, whose archive is held at the Garden Museum. I was able to spend some time going through this varied and vast repository of Hobhouse’s letters, plans and reports prior to my visit. Hobhouse was keen to celebrate the Italian garden design that inspired many English and Welsh gardens during Tudor times. Her final design is in the form of a cross with concentric oval beds. Structure is provided by tall yew cones and supported with effusively planted colourful perennials, very much in the tradition of Gertrude Jekyll. Although all of the perennials had received their winter haircut by the time of my visit, it was interesting to see the bare skeleton of Hobhouse’s design, in the knowledge that come June of next year, it will be quite the spectacle.

Read more about Aberglasney Gardens on their website: www.aberglasney.org

Or follow their Instagram account for wonderful images and updates from Head Gardener Joseph Atkin: @aberglasney