After a bit of a detour to get out of Conwy due to major roadworks at a crucial junction a short drive along the A55 got me to the A470 which took me to Bodnant Gardens. My last visit there was seven years ago and back then I’d had to leave my dogs Sophie and Sugar in the van but this time my visit was on one of the ‘dogs allowed’ days, although I still found a parking space in the shade of some trees.
The Bodnant estate was first established in 1792 when a Colonel Forbes built Bodnant Hall, a large mansion house which replaced an earlier house on the same land. Early records show that Bodnant, which in Welsh means ‘dwelling by a stream’, had been home to the Lloyd family from the reign of James I, passing by marriage to the Forbes family in the mid 1700s. With the building of the mansion Colonel Forbes then went on to develop the parkland around it in the English Landscape style.
On Colonel Forbes’ death in 1820 the estate passed by marriage to William Hanmer of Bettisfield Park in Flintshire and over the following years he made his own improvements, including building the present Old Mill between 1828 and 1837 and extending the garden around the mansion house. When Victorian industrialist Henry Davis Pochin bought Bodnant for £62,500 at auction in 1874 it was an estate with several farms, a walled garden, woods and plantations though it was his grand vision to turn it into something much greater.
Henry Pochin was born in Leicestershire in 1824 into a 200-year-old family firm. He trained as an industrial chemist and made his fortune from two big ideas, one of which was inventing a process which turned soap from the traditional brown into white. Living and working in Manchester he became an MP, Mayor of Salford, and the director of 22 companies, and also owned Haulfre Gardens in Llandudno between 1871 and 1876. After purchasing Bodnant Hall in 1874 he set about remodelling the house and enlisted the skills of well known landscape designer Edward Milner to redesign the land and the gardens around it.
Together they relandscaped the hillside and valley, planting American and Asian conifers on the banks of the river running through the land to create a woodland and water garden. Apple trees were taken from Haulfre Gardens and replanted at Bodnant, glasshouses were built in the upper garden to house exotic plants and 48 laburnums were planted to create the 180ft long Laburnum Arch, now believed to be the longest and oldest in the UK although today’s laburnums are from different stock. In 1883 the POEM (Place Of Eternal Memory) mausoleum was built in The Dell in memory of four of Henry’s children who had died in infancy, later becoming the resting place of Henry himself and other family members.
As a local landowner Henry Pochin was no less active, building cottages on the Bodnant estate and improving farming practices on the land. He also bought land at Prestatyn on the coast, where he supplied the seaside town with clean water and gas, built flood defences and developed a foreshore and promenade. He remained active in business throughout the 1880s but was overcome by ill health and died aged 71 in 1895, passing on the Bodnant estate and garden to his daughter Laura McLaren, married to Charles McLaren, 1st Baron Aberconway. A keen horticulturalist, she had already designed many gardens by the time her father died.
At the turn of the century Laura developed the wild garden at the ‘Far End’ and as a lover of herbaceous plants she also developed the upper formal gardens in the newly emerging Edwardian style with billowing flower borders. In 1901 she entrusted the care of the garden to her son Henry McLaren on his coming of age but maintained a keen interest and together they created the Skating Pond at the Far End and the stunning Italianate Terraces, built by hand using local labour in two phases, 1905-06 and 1912-14.
Using as a guide the highly popular book ‘The Art and Craft of Garden Making’ by Thomas Mawson other major developments continued, including the Lower Rose Terrace and the Lily Pool Terrace which was influenced by the Earl of Crawford from Fife, with Henry McLaren later adding several classical statues including the stone sphinxes on the Lower Rose Terrace.
As well as overseeing the major developments of the gardens Henry, who had become an industrialist and a barrister and later 2nd Baron Aberconway, also sponsored the expeditions of plant hunters such as Ernest Wilson and George Forrest who brought back to Bodnant ‘exotic’ new Asian plants, notably magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons, and with his head gardener Frederick Puddle Henry himself bred many unique Bodnant hybrid rhododendrons.
In 1939 the Pin Mill, which dates from 1730, was rescued from decay by Henry who bought it for an undisclosed sum, had it dismantled and brought from Woodchester in Gloucestershire to Bodnant, and as a grand finishing touch to the terraces it was rebuilt brick by brick at the end of the Canal Terrace, where it remains the most recognised and photographed feature of the gardens.
In 1949 Henry, who had been president of the Royal Horticultural Society since 1931, handed over care of the gardens, but not the house, to the National Trust. It was the second estate to be acquired by the NT (the first being Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire) as Henry hadn’t wanted to be accused of using his position to have Bodnant become the first. After his death in 1953 his son Charles McLaren (3rd Baron Aberconway) continued to develop Bodnant Gardens with the NT by making further improvements, opening new vistas and adding new plants, and in 1961 he became president of the RHS.
After Charles’ death in 2003 his younger son Michael McLaren, a practising London barrister, inherited the Bodnant estate. He still remains keenly involved and as garden manager and director he maintains the family’s historic and creative links to Bodnant with new developments which, since 2012, have brought about the opening of previously private areas.
After my long morning walk to Conwy marina and back, a couple of hours looking round the castle and climbing four towers, plus almost the same length of time wandering round the main parts of the gardens I didn’t really feel like climbing down the steep paths and steps to the bottom of the valley and walking all the way up to the Skating Pond. It was inevitable that if I climbed down I would have to climb back up so I decided to give any features in that area a miss, get a coffee from the Pavilion tea room then head back to the camp site, though as I drove along the A55 I had no idea what awaited me when I got there.
What had originally started out as a pleasant breeze that morning had gained in strength during the course of the day until it was blowing an absolute hooley – something akin to Gale Force 109 if there is such a thing – and I arrived back at the site to find that one side of the tent had blown inwards and everything inside was upside down on the floor. Fortunately the tent itself was securely anchored so it couldn’t actually blow down but the central pole had bent out of shape a bit – thank goodness for carbon fibre flexibility, at least it hadn’t snapped. Luckily nothing inside the tent was broken and it was all easily picked up and put back in place, then after I’d checked all the guy lines and pegging points I was free to relax for the rest of the day.
**From October 1st to the end of March dogs (on leads) are welcome in the gardens every day, then from April 1st to September 30th on special ‘dog days’ – all day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and between 5pm and 8pm on Wednesdays.