Only last week I was bemoaning the lack of a Tardis to transport me to a snow-covered Bodnant Garden, near Tal-y-Cafn, Conwy, Wales. The universe did not send me a Tardis, but it did the next best thing. A friend asked us to check out the place his family came from – Dolgellau – and Bodnant just happened to be on our way home.
While the snow in the garden had long gone, heavy white shawls on the Snowdonia mountain range opposite gave Bodnant a wintry feeling. The 130 acres of garden give plenty of scope for walking: you really need some form of season ticket* to make the most of it all.
We headed for the winter garden, one of several favourite places at Bodnant, created by clearing azaleas from a neglected hillside rockery. The stems of rubus, cornus, Betula utlis and Prunus serrula provide architecture while witch hazel’s spidery yellow flowers hang eerily in the air. Tall grasses make the most of the light, with spreading plants such as heather, cyclamen, hellebores and irises scattered below.
Though I’m claiming this as a walk, it was more of a wander, with ample time to stoop to admire diminutive beauties along the way. Lovers of toe-high winter irises – well, two toes high, if you must – will find plenty of opportunities at Bodnant to challenge their knees.
The earliest daffodils were out – this one is Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ – a mere hint of the displays you’ll see if you visit Bodnant in the spring.
I love the way the constituent parts of any large, historic garden have acquired simple but evocative reference names down the years. This is one way we can be inspired by public gardens: I’d contend that almost every domestic garden gains from having named areas. Bodnant has The Dell, The Glades, The Far End, Furnace Wood, The Lily Terrace, The Pin Mill, and the Poem, a last resting place for family members, perched at the top of a rock face overlooking the waterfall.
From the winter garden, we took a narwhal shaped route opposite the Ha-Ha, through the glades, past Poem to the waterfall, along the stream to Old Mill, up the five terraces back to the winter garden.
Winter is a great time to see the structure of a garden, such as the arbours, trellises and obelisks on the lower rose terrace.
One of my favourite winter plants is on the lower rose terrace too, providing a leafy wallpaper behind a bench: this Trachelospermum jasminoides. The roses had been pruned back, so we only saw one straggly looking yellow one. (Click here for a peek at Bodnant’s roses in flower).
If you think that rhodos are dull in winter, Bodnant may make you change your mind. The garden holds the National Collection of Rhododendron forrestii and has hundreds of hybrids. I’m not sure how they came to be so architectural as the one above on the left, but I suspect deft, artistic pruning. The building on the right is the Old Mill – a source of coffee and cake on busier days, but closed during our visit. We did not go cakeless, picking up a massive slice of spiced apple cake from the cafe by the entrance for £3.25.
Bodnant has an interesting collection of hellebores, both species and hybrids, mainly sourced from Ashwood Nurseries. You’ll find named and unnamed hybrids along the paths connecting the winter garden to the lower terraces, the Dell and the river walk. A smaller but choice collection of species hellebores and other interesting plants is in the terrace borders leading to the Lily Terrace from the house (walk almost all the way through the top rose terrace, keeping the mountains on your left, then take the path down).
An 18ft willow sculpture of a suffragette releasing three doves called Unbind The Wing has been created by Trevor Leat on the Lily Terrace. It celebrates the long campaign of Bodnant’s Laura McLauren to help win the vote for women. I wasn’t able to find the source of the quotation that inspired the sculpture:
“A nation rules by men alone is like a bird that tries to fly with one wing bound – it rises, fluttering, and falls again to earth. Unbind the wing and together men and women will lift humanity to heights before unknown.”
The winter garden can have fragrance: Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is as scented as any rose, with power to pull people down the path, noses in the air, seeking out the source.
Ready for home, (the air was crisp rather than bone-shivering, but my sweetheart and I were both trying to walk off colds) we peeked down the sleeping laburnum arch which was being tidied up by gardeners and headed off past a Ribes laurifolium, covered in tiny racemes of creamy-green flowers.
I had read that this plant should never be pruned, but it didn’t seem to have taken any offence to being trained against a wall.
In the plant centre we found this pink wheelbarrow, used as a planter. (I really need everyone to sign an indemnity at this point, promising not to hold me accountable for any pink wheelbarrow cravings they may develop.)
Heading off back under the tunnel to the car park, we passed cherry trees, dogwoods and snowdrops that together lit up their little patch of land before lighting up our tastebuds with that gingery spiced apple cake I mentioned.
Address: Bodnant Garden, Tal-y-Cafn, near Colwyn Bay, Conwy, LL28 5RE
*Bodnant is an National Trust property and a Royal Horticultural Society partner garden so NT and RHS members have free entry.
Shared as part of Jo’s Monday walk.