Slices of history at Powis Castle and Garden

Slices of history: A living entity © Colin Rogers

Slices of history: A living entity

If the gardens at Powis Castle seem a delightful surprise today in deepest Wales, how much more shocking must it have seemed in the past.

Formal beginnings

The garden you see today has its origins in the 1680s, when William Herbert, 1st Marquess of Powis (c.1626–96) employed architect William Winde to develop a series of terraces and formal grass slopes against the south-facing ridge below the Castle.

Winde had made a similar garden at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, in the 1660s and was at this time working on Powis’ interiors.

Dutch influence

In 1688 the 1st Marquess, a Catholic, fled to France with the exiled King James II and died there. His new garden in Wales lay unfinished until his son the 2nd Marquess (c.1665–1745), also named William Herbert, returned to Britain in 1703. William began to work on the garden once more, this time with the help of Adrian Duval, a French gardener then working in Holland.

On the flat land at the foot of the terraces a water garden or Pleasure Ground in the Dutch style was created. The water garden covered as much land as the castle and terraces combined.

At this time, you could have gazed across a Dutch water garden, up the Italian Renaissance-style terraces and above that to the ancient Castle backed by its medieval deer park. Ancient stood above modern in spectacular formal progression.

Lure of the landscape

In 1771 the garden made a new leap into contemporary fashion. This was a time when formal gardens throughout Britain were being dug up in favour of more naturalistic landscape parks, of water, trees and green spaces that came right to the door of the mansion.

The great proponent of the landscape movement was Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–83), his work principally confined to England.

In Wales, his place was partly filled by William Emes (1730–1803) and, as part of improvements to the estate, Henry Arthur Herbert the 1st Earl of Powis (2nd creation) employed Emes to divert the public road where it passed close under the north side of the Castle.

Emes planted a ridge – the Wilderness – to the south of the Castle, which enclosed the terraces and the Dutch water garden, planting many of the fine oaks that survive to this day.

A multi-layered garden

Yet another layer of contemporary fashion now lay before the Castle. But whether gardens thrive or not depends on the interest of their owners at any particular moment, and by 1784 the 2nd Earl had let the terraces go to rack and ruin, in favour of life in London.