When I visited the gardens I was told the house was haunted. The derelict mansion at the Lost Garden of Aberglasney, in the Towy Valley of Wales, certainly looked the part, with a missing roof and crumbling stone walls. A riot of weeds grew on muddy ground where floors once stood. The once grand mansion was a long way from being habitable.
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Today, the centre of the mansion is now covered by a glass roof and is home to the ‘Ninfarium’, Aberglasney’s award winning sub-tropical indoor garden, where plants grow amongst the ruinous remains. The rest of the ground floor has been fully restored and is used for art & craft exhibitions, wedding ceremonies and as a meeting venue. Even so, it is said five ghostly candle flames still appear in a room of the house where five maidservants mysteriously died one night in the 1630s.
The eight acre (3.24ha) estate was owned by Welsh nobility before coming into the hands of a Bishop Rudd in the mid 1600’s. He built the country house, at the time among the largest in Carmarthenshire. We can only guess what it looked like then, because, in 1710, it was remade with a Queen Ann façade. A portico, added in early Victorian times, disappeared by the time the house and garden were re-discovered. Luckily someone in the know spotted its columns for sale in a Christie’s auction catalogue, and they were restored to the house. Dampness and neglect hastened the downfall of the house. Mrs. Mayhew, the owner in 1908, left the house, refusing to let anyone else occupy it.
The 15th century medieval gardens surrounding the house were even more neglected. In fact, they were buried under debris and dense weeds, when they were discovered by archaeologists, digging in the grounds in 1994. They unearthed remnants of grand gardens, mostly unchanged since medieval times. The frozen-in-time garden is thus considered a rare find.
It was back in the 1470’s that the garden is first mentioned in print. A travelling poet compared the “nine green gardens” around the mansion to the Garden of Eden. The Yew Tunnel is a fascinating glimpse into the ancient garden. The fragile trees are so old—they have probably existed since the Middle Ages—that no one is permitted to walk through the tunnel formed when they were bent to make an archway. Over the centuries the individual trees have intertwined until they are all now one. They survive today as one of the oldest living garden features in Britain.
The Cloister garden, thought to date to the early 1600’s, is the most unusual of Aberglasney’s garden features. In fact, it is unique in Britain because it is a rare survivor of its kind: a broad parapet walkway supported on three sides by arcaded stone walls (the purpose of the arcades remains a mystery). The house itself, set back a bit, forms the fourth side of the rectangle. The Cloister garden was buried under thick vegetation, debris and soil when uncovered. Much restoration took place on the walls. Originally a stairway led to the walk, but a ramp was installed in Victorian times.
From the elevated walkway, there are grand views over other discovered and restored gardens: the pool garden and the walled garden. The pool is fed by rills from hidden water that was channeled beneath the house. East of the house cobbled pathways were uncovered. A kitchen garden that once provided fruit and vegetables for the home’s inhabitants grows them once again along with varieties of perennials, climbers and shrubs.
The ruined courtyard is covered with an atrium to create a garden within the walls of the ruin, enabling the growing of tender plants rarely seen in cultivation in the UK.
The Victorian aviaries were restored and have been designed to keep birds out. Originally built in the 1870s for ornamental pheasants, they have seen a number of uses over the years including hunt hound kennels and a gardeners’ store. Each of the six runs now have wrought ironwork over the top, and the bird housing has been repaired. A new slate roof and stone walls replaced ruined ones. The aviaries are being used to protect vulnerable plants and trees from birds. Dwarf cherry trees have been under-planted with strawberries in the runs and blueberries will be cultivated within them.
The Asiatic garden was improved and planting was done at the top of Bishop Rudd's walk. Dangerous trees were removed, and more suitable specimens of trees and shrubs such as magnolias, camellias and witch hazel took their place. One of the trees added is an exceptionally rare tree once known as yuchelia, a bi-generic hybrid magnolia.
But all at Aberglasney is not formal. The Pigeon House wood provide natural landscapes. Shaded woods play host to bluebells, wood anemones, and rhododendrons, while oak trees and ancient hedgbanks add atmosphere. On the western slope of the land, a stream garden planted with rhododendrons gives a Zen like atmosphere of peace.
Aberglasney Gardens is off the A40 on minor road at village of Llangathen; 6 km. (4 miles) west of Llandeilo and 19.3km. (12 miles) east of Carmarthen.
Tel. 01558 668 998
Open: Times vary depending on specific dates so best to check website for the day you plan to go.
Website: Aberglasney Gardens