A legacy of roses at Bodnant Garden

Black and white photograph of woman sitting in rose garden circa 1920

Bodnant Garden is famous for its five Italianate terraces, built between 1904 and 1914. They are a testament to the vision of the garden’s founder family and to the men who built them, some of whom went away to fight in World War One and did not return.

The terraces were designed by Henry Duncan McLaren and his mother Laura, Lady Aberconway. Laura was a gifted horticulturalist; she was also an active campaigner for women’s suffrage and she handed the management of the garden to her son Henry on his coming of age, to focus on her political life in London. It was in his words ‘a great gift’.

The design of the terraces was Henry’s but he and Laura developed it together, she bringing her love of roses and herbaceous plants to the ambitious project. They were influenced by the Arts and Crafts design ideals of the period. Using local materials and traditional craftsmanship they created garden rooms with wide flower-filled borders linked by stone terraces, paths and steps and wooden arbours; with classical statues and furniture for an Italian flourish.   

Massive project

The mammoth task of carving five levels out of the hillside began in 1904. It was a massive earth moving project done by men with wheelbarrows and carts. Granite was quarried from the estate to build great buttressed walls which provided shelter for exotic new plants such as Chinese magnolias.

The work employed scores of estate groundsmen, gardeners and general labourers, as well as ‘journeymen’ - travelling carpenters, builders and stonemasons who lodged with local families in the village of Eglwysbach. Building was almost complete when the outbreak of war halted work in 1914; many men from the village went off to fight, and 22 did not return.

1918 brought peace, and the suffrage victory for which Laura and her family had struggled for decades with the passing of the Representation of the People Act. However it was a bitter-sweet victory for many including Laura, mourning the loss of her youngest son Francis, a pilot, just months before.

Finishing touches

Over the years that followed Henry added many adornments, such as classical staues, to the terraces. In 1938 he added the finishing touch; the Pin Mill, a crumbling Georgian building in Gloucestershire which he saved from dereliction and moved to Bodnant Garden. The design of the Canal Terrace where it now rests reflects the Lutyens-designed war memorial in Spalding, the town where his brother Francis had been an MP, and is commemorated.

On her death in 1933 the Times newspaper commented: “To watch Lady Aberconway walking round the gardens with her son was to see two beings as near to complete happiness as is given in the world, and to be able to create and leave behind such a heritage of beauty is a rare and precious legacy.”

In the century that has passed Bodnant Garden’s terraces have been cared for by generations of gardeners, and delighted visitors from around the world; a lasting legacy to those who created them.

Tree planting on the terraces 1905: Laura and Henry McLaren (seen far right), Laura's children Faye and Francis McLaren, her mother-in-law Priscilla Bright-McLaren and head gardener Joseph Saunderson (his son Eric among those killed in the war)
McLaren family of Bodnant Garden planting a tree on the terraces 1905
Tree planting on the terraces 1905: Laura and Henry McLaren (seen far right), Laura's children Faye and Francis McLaren, her mother-in-law Priscilla Bright-McLaren and head gardener Joseph Saunderson (his son Eric among those killed in the war)