The coal barons of South Wales made their wealth from the sweat of miners delving deep beneath the wild moors of the Rhondda and surrounding valleys. The waste from their efforts was built into synthetic mountains of glistening slag that eventually snuffed out the lives of innocent children.
Some of the mansions paid for by this quest for coal have disappeared or are now in public hands. Due to the kind climate along the South Wales coastal strip, many of their gardens and parks have since developed into exquisite botanical gardens, where choice plants can grow with only the need for minimal shelter. We visited three of these, ranging from the St Fagans Castle at Cardiff, with its collection of reconstructed rural houses, to the National Botanical Gardens close by the Waun Las National Nature Reserve.
Standing a little way outside Cardiff, St Fagans castle was the holiday home of Lord Windsor where royalty and the great and the good were liberally entertained. Built on Norman foundations the castle is still very much as it was when shooting parties took their ease. Opened to the public in 1948, St Fagans is in two parts, the castle and its gardens and parkland developed as a Heritage Museum.
The mansion is surrounded by the remains of the original Norman castle’s outer wall. It gives ample protection to the flower beds and glass houses of an Italianate garden, where, on our visit, two ladies who should have been at work inside the castle were enjoying a craftily extended lunch break – and who could blame them? The castle sits on top of rising ground where the west-facing slope is terraced with rose beds and perennial flowers. Below them lies a series of narrow formal ponds, originally supplying fresh water fish to the household. Tucked away at one end is a working woollen mill making colourful Welsh shawls
Trees shade the rest of the park where paths wander around reconstructed old buildings, brought in, with National Heritage funding, from all over rural Wales. They range from a red-walled farmhouse that originally stood at Kennixton on the Gower – it was painted red to ward off evil spirits, to a restored 1940s pre-fab. In between are rows of miners’ cottages, and a working men’s institute, but the real eye opener is St Teilo’s church. From the outside it looks just like a typical Welsh chapel, but the inside gives its true age. When it was brought from Llandeilo Tal-y-bont, restorers were amazed when they removed the interior white wash, to find that it was full of pre-Reformation wall paintings. These have since been carefully restored, bringing the church back to the life it led before 1530. Far from being dull reconstructions, many of the buildings are still working in their original form and you can watch a clog maker at work, or marvel at the strength of a blacksmith and enjoy freshly baked bread and bara bryth, Welsh fruit cake.
Singleton Park- Swansea Botanical Gardens
The gardens, fill what was once the kitchen garden of an estate owned by the Vivian family. Although the house is long-gone, the gardens and surrounding parkland are very much as they would have been in its splendour. Landscaped in the nineteenth century, the park is popular with dog walkers and joggers from the nearby university campus.
Whilst we enjoyed a stroll around the park, we were mainly interested in exploring the gardens, Swansea’s botanical collection. Small by comparison with say Kew, it is mainly an intimate collection of the sort of plants that will thrive in the local environment. Herbaceous flowers, rare shrubs, alpines and vegetables all flourish happily in an attractive setting; glass houses protect tender orchids and weirdly shaped cactus.
It was during my wander around the freshly planted flower beds that I spotted what I suspected to be a great rarity. There was a gardener working nearby so I asked him what it was – plants are deliberately not labelled in order to detract people from stealing cuttings. His answer was ‘a conifer’. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I know it’s a pine, but what variety?’ ‘Don’t know was the reply’. But he called over to a more knowledgeable colleague who confirmed my suspicions. It was a Wollemi Pine from Australia, a tree that was only known from fossilised remains until it was found a decade or so ago in some remote Australian out-back valley. Cuttings sent to Kew have been propagated and sold on as a fund raising venture. This I was told, was one of just two growing in South Wales, where, apparently they are doing quite nicely thank you.
One of the nice things about Singleton Park is that volunteers are encouraged to help run the garden. Wandering into the propagating shed we chatted to groups of ladies busy pricking out seedlings, or working nearby sorting out plants damaged in recent storms – what an excellent idea don’t you think?
The National Botanic Garden of Wales
Here is another garden sitting amidst a one-time wealthy lord’s parkland. Set in rolling hills beyond Swansea on the road to Carmarthen, the garden is a wealth of ideas and innovative suggestions to amaze even the most experienced gardener.
The park and land thereabouts surrounded the Paxton family’s Middleton Hall. Although not related to the great Sir Joseph Paxton of Chatsworth fame, nevertheless they were keen gardeners and had the grounds landscaped in 1793/5 by Samuel Pepys Cockerell (again no relation to the diarist). In 1825 the estate was sold to the Hughes family who lived there until 1925. A fire in 1931 demolished the hall and apart from use during the last war, the park became neglected until it was taken over by Swansea Corporation and developed as a botanical garden.
The park itself is called Waun Las, a National Nature Reserve where paths wander through acres of wildflower meadows, or pass, curiously interested cattle. The gardens themselves are in and around a double-walled enclosure, where even the keenest winds fail to reach. It is here that we explored collections of the weirdest edible plants that grow in Britain – such as chick peas, and did you know that dahlia roots are edible?
Seven lakes which seem to be flowing the wrong way surround the garden. Lined by interesting water features contrasting with slate beds, they lead on to the double-walled garden. Beyond is the old stable block now a restaurant and art gallery, and then to the right a path climbs to a huge geo-dome with its collection of subtropical plants from all over the world. Outside and oddly positioned, for it is not where the original hall once stood, is the scaled down outline plan of what it looked like.
The only way to really enjoy a garden such as this is to wander round and find the oddest or most interesting things. Where else for example would one find a collection of uprooted African trees with roots looking like some Medusa’s hair-style? And to cap it all we came across a most life-like bull made from leather stuffing inside a wire frame.