Grey steel evening skies, the unique shades of green and the vivid sunset colours. Tea rooms and castles. Layered gardens and packed gardening centres. Terry Pratchett, Dr. Who and… National Trust. Have you guessed what this is all about?
National Trust: the first bite of the best of the UK
Whether this best of the UK basic list can be agreed upon or not matters less at this point. What matters is that National Trust exists. If you have ever crossed the gates of those gardens and castles, you might agree with it.
How the formal gardens and the castle at Powis survive
If you take the volunteer guided tour of the castle, you will probably learn how luck played a part in the gardens still being available today. And not only the flower beds, the terraces, the violet laburnum and the wild rhododendrons paths. The whole edifice might have been lost for a number at times.
You might say this is true for most castles in a time where no National Trust would keep them safe. But the exciting stories at Powis do not feature fierce battles and wall destroying explosions, such as the ones which left Corfe in ruins in the South. They tell of how the gardens survived a time when the formal styles were not in fashion any longer. Lucky for visitors today, the owners sometimes in the 18th century ran out of money. They were thus forced to stop at reshaping the front gardens only, which transformed into a forest-with-a-lawn type of thing.
The grand staircase, another lucky piece of history
There is a little sad part to this too, as the pavilion which once stood at the end of the promenade got razed at the time. Stories of how ladies in beautiful gowns took their daily exercise (a 2 minutes-walk) to sit there, delight with refreshments while watching the men play bowling on the raised terrace opposite still tickle my memory of the guided tour.
As to the lucky stories, the building escaped possible destruction by fire when the impressive 1685 grand staircase was recently studied in detail. Slabs around the foundation lifted, the owners discovered an unpleasant surprise: there was no actual foundation to support such a massive structure. What was more, hot pipes ran right by the foot of the staircase, which turned out charred and thinned by the whole experience. One can easily imagine how a grand staircase on fire would destroy about 900 years of history, art and lavishly adorned rooms.
Note: Photography by visitors is not allowed inside the castle, as most objects here are in private property.
Half a million raised for the restoration of the Eastern Gate
The Eastern Gate, where the promenade still stands today, less the ladies pavilion, recently benefited of half a million pounds for restoration work. Water damage made the whole area insecure and at risk of collapsing. Now differently coloured new slabs stand proof of how much damage nature and time do together. Again, lucky for the castle and its visitors, the National Trust campaign started in 2015 brought in the funds needed. More than half of the total came from public donations.
The next big scale restoration project targets the grand staircase, which seems to be in need of consolidation. Not an easy task, as anything touching the walls around it risks damage to the remarkable painting depicting The Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite by Italian painters in 1670s. National Trust initiated a new fundraising campaign to preserve it. The grand staircase is currently closed for public use, but it can still be admired from the landing.
Advice: keep enough time to explore the gardens
The castle itself, with the 1660s State Bedroom, the only one in the UK with railing still separating the bed alcove from the rest, offers much to see and study in detail. This makes it a good place to visit even on cold, damp days. But on a sunny weekend, like the one we just had, if you let yourself be too charmed by the interiors you might find yourself racing through the gardens, regretful the day was not longer to explore them at leisure.
A personal tale: how I discovered my first proper UK castle
It did happen to us. Being the first such castle I visited in the UK, I could not stop from gazing fascinated at the paintings and furnishings inside. Then we missed lunch, but that did not matter so much, as salads available were tasty and enough to keep us going. I had my first bites of Welsh cake, Bara brith, and loved it. Might not have been quite the feast the lords of the house would once have in their dining room, but surely hit the spot.
The Italian style terraced gardens trapped us in for quite a while. Every turn we would take, another angle for good photography, either of the landscape or of ourselves (mainly me, guilty as charged) with such great backdrops, kept us in one spot until we would realise it was getting late.
The formal low garden, luckily, did not present such a spectacular view at this time of the year. You might have got tired of so much luck already, but let me tell you this: to take the paths around the rhododendrons area after 16:00, when you think the whole place closes at 17:00, will shortly prove not the best idea. If you love the wild fineness of these brightly coloured flowers, you think you found your favourite corner under the trees when another view catches your eyes.
Right before we arrived at the pond by the entrance, the scent of this path drew us in to find what seemed to be an endless wall of shape and colour, the price at the end of the race through the castle grounds.
We raced through the last part of the gardens with a good reason. Less afraid we would be trapped there, I worried for our four pots of plants we bought for back home. If the shop shut, we would have lost them forever. Again, luckily, we made it back in time and now they are patiently waiting to be re-homed properly, when the rain stops.