The legendary gardener of Penrhyn Castle
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‘As a child I had heard tales of my great-great-grandad. They said he had received a medal from Queen Victoria. They said he was the best gardener of his generation and that he worked at Penrhyn Castle. But when you grow up surrounded by these stories, as with a lot of family history, it’s hard to tell how much is true and how much had been mythologised. We’re a fairly working-class Irish family so it was hard to believe that my great-great-grandad had connections to a Welsh castle.’
- Diane Goodwin introduces her great-great-grandad, head gardener at Penrhyn Castle (1862 – 1921).
‘It took me 30 years to get around to finding out if Walter’s tale was true. I started wondering about him when I was living in Australia. Sometimes your curiosity about these things is stronger when you’re far away from them. It was only when we moved home, in 2010, that I was able to do some real research.
‘As I uncovered bits and pieces of information I began to realise that the stories were real. It seems that Walter had a huge impact on the gardens at Penrhyn Castle. Just think of it, growing grapes and orchids in North Wales is no small accomplishment.’
We can back Diane up on that point. Walter’s success as head gardener meant that he became more of a middle-class citizen than an ordinary worker. He helped the Queen of Romania and Queen Victoria to plant commemorative trees when they visited, as was the tradition.
‘I planned to visit Penrhyn last year, after discovering the family connection. I tweeted about my plans and the National Trust at Penrhyn got in touch. They were celebrating Walter’s 150th anniversary as head gardener and organised a tour for me and my family.
‘We were shown the cottage where the family lived and the working gardens. It was nice to have a look behind the scenes, to see where the work had happened, as well as the ornamental gardens. We saw a pot for asparagus that’s bigger than my entire garden. We also planted a commemorative tree, which we plan to visit every year.’
But Walter won’t only be remembered for his horticultural skills. Diane reveals that there was much more to her great-great-grandad:
‘I’ve been given a diary that another gardener kept and Walter’s obituary. I also spoke to people who knew people who had worked with him. Through these second hand accounts I discovered that Walter was great with people. He was a fair man, who treated his staff very well. This is pretty essential when you have over 30 people working for you. I learnt that he employed no less than 5 boys just to clean the glasshouses.
‘Walter was serious about his work, but he also prioritised looking after people. He inspired future generations of gardeners. To me, this is even more important than his horticultural achievements.’
Diane laughed when we asked if she had inherited Walter’s green fingers. ‘I really appreciate nice gardens but the gardening talent doesn’t seem to be genetic. You never know, maybe I just haven’t discovered it yet.’
* Many thanks to Diane Goodwin for sharing her family’s story
* Visit Penrhyn Castle to see Walter’s gardens for yourself
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