TAMING THE DELL

PART 1: BODNANT, NORTH WALES

How far should a garden be part of nature, how much a triumph over it? Beginning

a five-part series on gardening in different terrains and climates around Britain,

Michael Leapman visits Bodnant in Wales and talks to the professionals. Overleaf,

what to grow in similar conditions. On page 71, tips from a small-scale garden

Carving and coaxing a garden from a landscape is like taming a wild animal - impressive and clever but essentially a freak show, a pastiche of the genuine article. A garden, after all, is an unnatural phenomenon - a fanciful arrangement of plants and trees bred for human pleasure, grouped to present a stylised and manicured version of nature.

Yet it does not exist in a vacuum, and the first critical question a gardener or garden designer faces is how it should relate to the landscape of which it is part. Should it look outwards, blending with its environment, or can it turn in on itself and ignore its surroundings? Should it feature native trees and plants, or those introduced from elsewhere? Should it appear to have sprung from the fields or hillside rather than being grafted on to them?

In some situations there is no choice. The majestic and ravishing garden at Bodnant, north Wales, is stunning because the landscape from which it has been created is stunning. Though artificial, its flight of broad, tumbling terraces - each with its distinctive and complementary character and carefully contrived views over the Cambrian mountains - could exist nowhere but here, on the steep west-facing slope of the valley of the River Hiraethlyn and the broader Conwy. Close to the Irish Sea and sheltered from the worst of the wind, it enjoys winters mild enough to support a stupendous range of tender plants, trees and shrubs. Such a setting and climate would be impossible for any garden designer to ignore.

When the first house was built near the top of Bodnant's slope in 1792, the garden did not stretch far down the hill. In 1874 the property was bought by Henry Pochin, great-grandfather of the present owner, Lord Aberconway. Seeking to extend the garden's scope and interest, Pochin planted conifers at the foot of the valley, on both sides of the River Hiraethlyn, a tributary of the Conwy which for much of the year is little more than a stream. This established the framework for the area which is now known as the Dell.

The crowning glory was achieved between 1904 and 1914, when the second Lord Aberconway took away the lawn sloping down from the house to the Dell and replaced it with a series of dramatic terraces that are the focus of the 80 acres of garden open to the public today. The unique terrain has been exploited as a framework for one of Britain's finest horticultural extravaganzas.

Martin Puddle is the third generation of Puddles to be head gardener at Bodnant: his grandfather Frederick was appointed in 1920, to be followed in 1947 by his father Charles, with Martin taking over in 1982. He has a staff of 18 to keep the garden immaculate. A walk with him from the top to the bottom, passing along all the terraces, reveals how the designers made use of the spectacular setting.

From some points, the terracing itself blocks the broad view into and across the valley. Instead, the eye is drawn to details of the planting and man-made landscaping. It is all artful and deliberate. When the "natural" view does present itself, it is that much more surprising.

The conditions that produce the distinctive landscape have been factors in determining the kind of garden Bodnant has become. Though affected by the Gulf Stream and only six miles from the sea, the weather is less reliably mild than in, say, Cornwall. Severe winters, such as we have just endured, can mean the loss of a number of half-hardy plants.

"It's a mysterious climate," Martin asserts. "I mostly grow tender subjects in micro-climates against walls, but I lost some this year. It went down to ten degrees Fahrenheit [minus 11 Centigrade]." In mid-April, there was still snow on the peaks across the valley.

Weather conditions and even rainfall can vary within the garden itself. The Dell, being at sea level, is warmer than the top lawn, although it is a frost pocket so the cold, when it does arrive, lingers longer. The wettest parts of the garden have up to 40 inches of rain a year but in the lower areas it can be less. Freak conditions occur from time to time. In June 1994 a cloudburst that caused devastating floods in Llandudno sent a cascade of water down the slope adjoining the terraces at Bodnant, dislodging bridges over the stream and ripping up scores of shrubs in its path.

The acid soil and normally mild climate are ideal for rhododendrons, magnolias and eucryphia, which reach a height and bulk seldom attained in other parts of the country and make a dazzling spectacle in early summer. Because their roots do not run especially deep, these shrubs do not mind the comparatively shallow soil - in places less than three feet of it, before you reach impenetrable clay or rock. Part of the national collections of all three species are held here, and there are also masses of camellias and embothriums (Chilean fire bush).

"Lord Aberconway takes pride in the fact that there is a rhododendron in flower every day of the year," Martin says. The Aberconways still live in the house at Bodnant but the garden was ceded to the National Trust in 1949.

Masses of rhododendrons are not universally popular among today's horticultural style-setters, who find them garish and unsubtle. But this is an unashamedly showy garden, reflecting the tastes of Edwardian plant-hunters who roamed distant lands searching for exotic new varieties of rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs to present to their sensation-seeking patrons. Working from these imports, the Aberconways and their gardeners developed techniques of hybridisation to produce still more splendid variations.

In the design of the garden they have gone for obvious but powerful effects, such as a deliberate gap in the conifers to free up the distant view, and the placement of lilies in the big pond in a pattern that leaves space for the reflection of the house to be seen. One level below, on the Canal Terrace, there is likewise a carefully composed reflection in the water of the pin mill, a curious 18th-century building imported from Gloucestershire and used as an unconventional summer house.

There are large herbaceous borders and a bed of gentians at the top level, as well as the laburnum arch, a stunning vision in early summer. The lower terraces contain formal rose beds, along with displays of lilies, yuccas, hellebores and much else.

Those who prefer less artifice have to proceed further downhill, through the magnolia borders and rock garden, to the Dell. This was once the coppiced wood by the stream, whose banks were strengthened when the conifers were planted. The stream itself was landscaped to create miniature waterfalls and footbridges. The trees include magnificent giant redwoods, brought from California in the late 19th century when the garden was being established. There are rhododendrons here, too - especially those that appreciate semi- shade - but no formal beds.

"We try to keep a natural environment here," Martin explains. "We work on the border of nature, wild but presentable. We try to keep that fine balance of staying in control and keeping it natural at the same time." His success can be measured by the fact that some mallards have arrived uninvited on the mill pond, at the southern end of the Dell, and made their home there.

About 180,000 visitors go to Bodnant in the six months it is open - around 1,000 a day. Martin has observed that their average age is getting younger and that they are coming from further and further away. One of Britain's most famous gardens, it attracts people who otherwise might never be drawn to north Wales and thus would never set eyes on the alluring landscape from which Bodnant has been carved.

! Bodnant Garden, Tay-y-Cafn, Colwyn Bay, is open daily 10-5 until 31 October. Admission pounds 4.20, children pounds 2.10, National Trust members free. Phone 01492 650460.

PLANTS THAT GROW WELL IN MILD, DAMP CONDITIONS

EUCRYPHIA

This is a white-flowered shrub that does well in the warm, moist climate of the west and south. Eucryphia nymansensis (named after Nymans garden in Sussex) is a prolific-flowering evergreen that can be seen at Bodnant, while Eucryphia glutinosa is deciduous, with fine autumn leaf colouring.

FREMONTODENDRON

This Californian shrub is not widely grown but provides excellent value and, as the Levers at Bryn Meifod found, it is able to survive a severe winter with the protection of a south-facing wall. It reaches a height of 12ft and more, and the large yellow flowers will last for most of the summer.

CYTISUS (BROOM)

Brooms are usually yellow but there are white and reddish varieties. Generally hardy, they flower best in a sunny position. The compact Warminster broom (Cytisus praecox) is popular in small gardens. Bodnant has space for the tall Cytisus battandieri, which can get out of hand unless it is pruned.

MAGNOLIA

The showiest of spring-flowering trees, the magnolia does not like prolonged frost or cold easterly winds. Magnolia grandiflora, from the southern United States, is the most popular. The Magnolia denudata, or Chinese lily tree, was the first grown in Britain and there are some at Bodnant. Magnolia stellata is ideal for small gardens.

HEBE

These popular shrubs come from New Zealand but low-growing varieties such as Hebe rakaiensis, often used for ground cover, are hardy in most parts of Britain. Taller ones are more vulnerable to frost, though sometimes if the tops are frosted they will shoot again from the base. The tall Hebe salicifolia is occasionally used for hedging.

HELLEBORE

Known as Christmas or Lenten roses, these hardy perennials are becoming increasingly popular because of their delicately-coloured flowers in winter and early spring, when there is little colour in most gardens. The early-flowering Helleborus niger may need protection from frost. They resent disturbance but self-seed freely.

A PROFILE OF BODNANT

LOCATION: Six miles inland from Colwyn Bay, on the north coast of Wales. Mostly terraced hillside overlooking the rivers Hiraethlyn and Conwy. Height above sea level: 0-170ft.

CLIMATE: Usually mild, but unreliable. Despite the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, winters are sometimes severe (with temperatures as low as -11C). Bodnant's west-facing slopes are sheltered from the wind gusting in from the Irish Sea, allowing tender plants to thrive there. Rainfall: slightly above average at 40 inches per year.

SOIL: Shallow, partly clay, tending to acid.

IDEAL FOR: Shrubs such as rhododendrons, magnolias and eucryphia which don't mind shallow soil. Camellias and embothriums also thrive.

ANNUAL VISITORS: 180,000 per year.

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