One of the things that interests me most about gardening is why people do it. It is now an undisputed fact that gardening is good for you, but the reasons it is good for you vary and there are many weird and wonderful reasons so many people are happy to spend their spare time getting dirty and exhausted. For some people it is simply the exercise and being out in the fresh air. For others it is a retreat, an absorbing pastime that takes them to a place of peace. It can be a means of artistic expression, nurturing, learning, solace and so much more. Sometimes it is a matter of honouring the heritage of the family home and the ancestors who designed and planted the garden and such gardens are not always those owned by the landed gentry.
Stephen and Jane Fletcher rescued The Old Rectory in Lampeter Velfrey, near Narberth, from dilapidation nearly ten years ago and are now making a new garden around the bones of the original Victorian one. In a similar story to that of the lost (and refound) gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, when they arrived the whole 2 acre garden was covered in trees so that you could not see the house from the road and barely move around in the garden. As an architect Stephen was sure that there would originally have been a circular drive around a lawn to the front of the house, designed for horse drawn carriages to easily come and go. Despite not actually owning a horse and carriage, he proceeded to reinstate the driveway and his thinking was proved right when they later saw an old photograph of the house showing exactly that.
Many fine and unusual trees had been planted by Geoffrey Morris, the last Rector living at the house. Mr Morris planted, among others, the ChineseTulip Tree (Liriodendron chinense), an Indian Bean Tree (catalpa bignonioides) and a Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrate), now all fine specimens. Mr Morris still lives in the village and has written a nice little book about the history of Lampeter Velfrey. No doubt he will be pleased to see that his trees are now being given space to breath.
The removal of numerous trees, many of them self-seeded, was necessary, not only to enable the old garden to be discovered, but also for the benefit of the remaining trees. Still now you can see how some of the remaining trees are one-sided because they were growing so close to others. However, the felling was done with thought and care and this is still a garden with many trees –some very interesting and uncommon . An enormous 300 year old beech tree was retained until it finally became dangerous last year. Nevertheless the couple have left a lot of the main trunk which now stands as a memorial to the life of a fabulous old tree and will be decorated with climbing plants. I love this kind of respect for nature.
Edging the old Victorian paths are ancient specimens of Box (Buxus). Presumably clipped by Victorian gardeners these have been left to their own devices in the intervening years and now grow as sprawling shrubs with streamers of lichen hanging from the branches, looking like ghosts from the garden’s heyday. Such is the sense of history in this garden that I can imagine the Cottingley Fairies running ahead of me on the paths. The house sits at the top of a huge hole in the ground creating an amphitheatre feel to the garden. It was created by an old quarry believed to be the source of stone for the house – history is quite literally written on the land here and with the old church next door there is a real sense of place and a feeling of the past being very much present.
However, not everything here is old and the couple do not slavishly follow a Victorian garden style – a lot of the design comes from the ease with which the lawnmower can pass through any gaps! A new vegetable garden has a pleasing design by Stephen to Jane’s ‘No Rows’ brief and there are some beautiful and substantial garden buildings designed and built by Stephen himself. Jane, who runs a busy B&B in The Old Rectory, enjoys the peace and satisfaction she gets from working in the garden and the weeding is generally down to her – however, I like their motto: ‘A weed in the front is a flower in the back’ proving again that there are no strict Victorian rules here and wild flowers are allowed to show their faces and add to the charm.
This garden is open to raise money for the National Garden Scheme on Monday 27th May from 1pm to 5pm when there will be teas, but is also open by arrangement from May to August – just give them a call on 01834 831444.
On the same sunny day in March we visited Llwyngarreg Garden at Llanfallteg near Whitland. This was a totally different trug of cuttings (the gardener’s alternative to a kettle of fish). Here the history is not so lengthy and the sense of place comes soley from the present owners – this place is pure O’Neill. Previously used for grazing their cattle, this is now a horticultural gem of a garden. We found Liz and Paul O’Neill outside, which is where they spend most of their time, each wearing headphones and listening to Radio 4 while they work in different parts of the garden. Not minding the interruption in the slightest they welcome us and show us around with the enthusiasm of obsessive plantspeople.
Liz tells me they basically made the garden because Paul can’t sit still and has to be outside creating something at all times! I am not convinced she is any more sedentary as her passion is palpable too. She reminds me so very much of Carol Klein (Gardeners World etc) who also veritably bursts with zeal for plants of any sort. The knowledge of these two is impressive – they know their plants intimately and if you want to learn even just a little about gardening this summer, I can recommend no better people to visit.
Given a wide open space to start with, Liz and Paul have not divided the garden up in a formal way but the planting flows from one place to another with partial screening between the different areas so that you catch glimpses of another scene as you walk. The entrance to the garden is a lovely surprise and made in part from the stems of several varieties of bamboo and willow that grow amongst the trees and around the wider garden. The trees planted for shelter (which we all need in Pembrokeshire!) were not planted in a row as many people do but are staggered and are made up of different species so that it does not feel like a shelter belt but very much part of the garden. Beautiful conifers, pines and box trees form the back drop to stunning magnolias.
The Corylopses were flowering when we were there, and the azaleas were just starting to show colour in their buds. There are many more beauties to follow, not least a huge collection of rhododendrons, about which Paul is encyclopaedic. Now numbering around 300, this passion was ignited by his first plant which was a leaving present from his 6th year students when he was teaching. He rather modestly insists he defers to other specialists for confirmation of identification as so often the shrubs are misnamed. And identification is a theme for the whole garden – there are many, many unusual plants, big and small, and Paul and Liz are both in favour of labelling but they do admit when visitors ‘borrow’ the labels, rather than use their phones to record the requisite information, they’re sorry to lose the aide memoire for themselves – We all agreed that however well you know your plants there are some days when the name just won’t come…!
The couple have cleverly made the garden flow from one space to another whilst introducing a different feel in each area so that one comes around a corner to see something not incongruous yet new enough to elicit a n involuntary “Wow!” Even on an early spring day exciting buds and early flowers were starting to show – the fritillaries were looking lovely – and I know this garden is just going to get better and better as the season progresses. A Mediterranean Garden is a new addition and the dry gravel garden has been extended. Willow seats and unexpected structures are especially enjoyed by the grandchildren and I can see the garden as a whole would be a fantastic place for children to run around and hide from the grown-ups.
The garden is just as much a haven for birds (and I suspect butterflies and other wildlife) as it is for plants. Whilst we were being treated to a welcome cup of tea in the kitchen, we saw woodpeckers, goldfinches, a plethora of tits, as well as siskins and nuthatches at the bird feeders. All add to the feeling of a happy living garden.
Llwyngarreg Garden is open for the National Garden Scheme charity on Sunday 21st April, Sunday 19th May, Sunday 7th July and Sunday 1st September. However, Paul and Liz welcome visits most days so if you can’t make their charity days, do go some time this year and you will not be disappointed. Give them a call on 01944 240717 to arrange a visit. You just might have to shout on arrival so they can hear you over the Archers!
Other gardens open in May for the National Gardens Scheme are the wonderful Dyffryn Fernant near Fishguard and the mysterious Treffgarne Hall near Haverfordwest, (mysterious only because I have yet to see it!) (both open on 5th); magical Colby Woodland Garden near Tenby(11th &12th); and Picton Castle near Haverfordwest (19th), whose walled garden is one of my favourite places in the county.