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History of the garden at Powis Castle

View from the garden in July over the surrounding countryside at Powis Castle, Powys, Wales
Looking from the garden at Powis Castle to the surrounding countryside | © National Trust Images/Mark Bolton

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. Discover the history of the garden, from its formal beginnings to its care and preservation during recent years.

Discover a once hidden garden

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 view was unbroken across fields and led to the hill ridges beyond.

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 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.

Facade of Powis Castle showing the sequence of garden terraces below featuring massive clipped yews at Powis Castle and Garden, Wales
Powis Castle and the garden terraces below with massive clipped yews | © National Trust Images/Carole Drake

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.

Williams Emes at Powis Castle

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, called the Wilderness, to the south of the Castle, which enclosed the terraces and the Dutch water garden, planting many of the fine oaks that still survive to this day.

A more natural approach

Garden styles changed and by the 1800’s required a softer, more natural style. By 1809, the Dutch water garden had been removed in favour of a simple lawn where deer grazed to the bottom of the terraces.

On the lower grassy terraces, small trees and shrubs flourished. On the upper more formal terraces, the once intricately clipped yews were allowed to become informal small trees. The wall-trained fruit trees were removed and replaced with creepers which grew up the walls of the Castle.

The geometry of the Italianate design was replaced by naturalistic shapes.

Powis Castle’s Yew ‘tumps’

The unusual shape of Powis Castle’s famous yew ‘tumps’ and hedges tells the story of changing fashions in the horticultural world.

Early designs

When originally planted in the 18th century, the yews were clipped into small, formal cones or pyramids. However, by the end of the century English landscape gardening, had made an impact. At this time, Powis Castle’s yew hedges were allowed to grow naturally and become more ‘tree-like’.

A Victorian landscape

The natural landscaping at Powis Castle lasted until formal gardening made a resurgence in the Victorian era. At this time the yews were clipped back into shape again, giving them the unusual structure that’s still so striking today.

Lady Violet’s creation

The garden passed through the rest of the 19th century with no major changes, until it found a new enthusiast in Lady Violet (1865–1929), wife of the 4th Earl of Powis.

'[I intend to make the garden at Powis] one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful in England and Wales’

- Lady Violet, Countess of Powis

Violet worked on the garden for 18 years, enriching the planting on the terraces and adding new varieties of shrubs and perennials.

Relocation and creation

Her biggest contribution was to relocate the Kitchen Garden, glasshouses and all, to a new position out of site of the castle and on its footprint she created the picturesque formal garden. With a croquet lawn, country-cottage style flower borders and meticulously trimmed fruit trees it is still one of the garden’s highlights.

A birthday gift

In pride of place in its Fountain Garden sit a pair of elaborate wrought iron gates which Lady Violet commissioned as a birthday gift for her husband, George, 4th Earl of Powis.

The Bodley gates, with stone dragons on each pillar, at Powis Castle, Wales
The Bodley gates at Powis Castle | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Preservation and beyond

The garden remained unchanged after Lady Violet’s death in 1929, until 1952, when Powis Castle passed into the care of the National Trust.

Since then, we've continued to pursue her ambitions for the garden whilst preserving its many-layered historic structure.

Facade of Powis Castle showing the sequence of garden terraces below featuring massive clipped yews at Powis Castle and Garden, Wales

Discover more at Powis Castle and Garden

Find out when Powis Castle and Garden is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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