If the gardens at Powis Castle seem a delightful surprise today in deepest Wales, imagine how much more shocking they would have seemed 300 years ago.
In its early days the castle was approached from the east, not the west as it is today. The garden would have remained hidden until you arrived at the castle’s entrance up on the highest terrace. Suddenly you would look down and see the whole of the terraced garden laid out before you.
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.
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 who was 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 and must have been a spectacular sight.
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 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) who was employed by Henry Arthur Herbert, 1st Earl of Powis (2nd creation), to make improvements to the estate.
He 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.