I’m always a bit suspicious when people use superlatives to describe something. It’s never usually quite as good as they make out. So initially that was my reaction when I started to hear/read about Dyffryn Gardens, near Cardiff. Just shows how wrong one can be… because Dyffryn isn’t just “one of the grandest and most important Edwardian gardens in Wales” and Grade 1 listed, it’s also one of the most surprising and enjoyable gardens I’ve visited in a very long time. After a massive restoration project largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund it’s now also the centre of a National Trust restoration project unlike most they have undertaken.
I visited with Liz Whittle, former inspector of Historic Parks and Gardens for CADW and I am very grateful to her for allowing me to use her notes as the basis for this blog.
The garden is the result of a remarkable partnership between two outstanding men of their generation, the owner and horticulturalist Reginald Cory and the landscape architect Thomas Mawson.The structure of the gardens, combining the expansively formal and the intricately intimate, survives almost in its entirety, with some later modifications.
Dyffryn was bought by John (later Sir John) Cory, a wealthy philanthropist, ship and coal owner, in 1891, and the present house was built for him in 1893–94.
A garden had existed before Cory’s day but it was much smaller, consisting only of the walled garden to the west of the house and an informally planted narrow area taking in the house, the walled garden and the raised area to the east of the house. Cory’s first garden was modest, but clearly he had great ambitions and in 1903/4 he commissioned Thomas Mawson to create a new garden, whilst retaining the earlier elements. Work began in 1905, but Sir John died in 1906 and the property was inherited by two of his children, Reginald and Florence. It was during Reginald’s occupancy that the great gardens that we see today were developed.
The collaboration on the gardens between Reginald and Mawson was a close one, and they discussed every aspect of the design together. Mawson wrote” Mr Reginald Cory is a typical example of the English enthusiasm for horticulture and arboriculture at its best…and an experimenter whose researches have greatly enriched our store of knowledge.” Mawson’s layout of the gardens is shown in a plan in his Art and Craft of Garden Making (1927).
This shows that the principle areas remain broadly as Mawson designed them, with the exception of the north side of the house, where his plan shows an informally planted park-like area, with an axial double avenue aligned on the forecourt and main entrance to the house. This area is now much more open.
Reginald Cory was not only interested in garden design but was an exceptionally talented horticulturist and plantsman. He had a profound knowledge of plants, collected rare horticultural books, corresponded with all the leading horticulturists and plant collectors, contributed to and went on plant hunting expeditions, and was a great benefactor of the Royal Horticultural Society and the Cambridge Botanic Garden. He himself had collected plants in South Africa in 1927, in the West Indies in 1931 and the Atlas Mountains in 1932. He also sponsored expeditions by collectors including George Forrest and H.F.Coomber, and bought more plants from nurseries like Veitch’s of Exeter who organized their own plant collecting expeditions. As a result many newly arrived plants from countries such as China were grown at Dyffryn, and there were special collections not only of trees and shrubs but of dahlias, water lilies and bonsai.
Cory was a great dahlia enthusiast, and with the help of Mr Cobb his gardener, he created a large trial ground for them, trying out 1,000 cultivars in 1913 and 1914. He became President of the Dahlia Society, and later established the Cory Cup for the production of new hardy varieties, which is still awarded by the RHS. The garden team at Dyffryn are hoping to to grow dahlias on the same scale, but in the meantime the house hosted a paper dahlia room and the cafe an unusual addition to the cake stand.
The gardens continued to evolve within Reginald Cory’s lifetime but he left Dyffryn in 1931 and died in 1934. The property was sold in 1937 to Sir Cennydd Traherne who leased it to Glamorgan County Council, who now,in turn, lease it to the National Trust. Cory left his library to the RHS and a large legacy [around half a million pounds] to Cambridge Botanic Gardens. For more information about his legacy and its effects see: http://agardenthroughtime.com/themes/reginald-cory/
As usual, this post is not intended as a detailed history of Dyffryn, but a walkabout designed to encourage you to visit or find out more.
The house itself is an extraordinary confection, and one of the last great country houses built in Wales. It combines French Renaissance style with English Baroque, while the interior is opulent late Victorian, although now virtually empty. Mawson described it as “a picturesque and even stately pile.”
In 2007 Vale of Glamorgan Council carried out structural and roof repairs, and National Trust is now working on restoring the interiors, but with considerable community involvement. For more information see:
Immediately outside the south front of the house is a stone flagged terrace, overlooking formal Victorian flower beds, and then the Great Lawn and Canal. Mawson decided “to plan a great lawn extending from the old part of the garden on the south front, the object being to gain a sense of scale, a restful base to the house and a compensating expense of view from the principal rooms to make up for the lack of more distant landscape views.”
The long central canal and the pond which held Cory’s collection of waterlilies were important Mawson said to “secure variety” while the long colourfully planted terrace beds on the south front and fastigiate yews ,which still survive, emphasise the formality of these Edwardian gardens
To the west of the house lie the main planted areas of the gardens. There is a large walled garden which pre-dates the Mawson landscaping and may well date back to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, contemporary with the earlier house on the site. Its stone walls show signs of having frequently been repaired, rebuilt and heightened.
The garden is divided into two sections, with gardener’s bothies on the eastern wall. By the end of the nineteenth century a huge glasshouse had been built on the north side.
Until the 1930s it housed Reginald Cory’s collection of tender plants, including vines, orchids, ferns and palms.The original glasshouse was replaced in the 1960s by one from Richardson of Darlington.This fell into disrepair and was replaced by the present one (similar in design and scale) as part of the HLF restoration scheme. The present building houses cacti and orchids. Reginald Cory collected cacti and succulents on trips to both South Africa and America. The orchids are displayed as they would have been in his day, and include examples of plants he was known to have had including hybrids from Veitch’s nurseries.
To the south of the walled garden is an impressive double herbaceous border with concrete pier arcading and a pavilion at the west end.
Paths from here lead into a whole series of smaller gardens sometimes called ‘the compartments’.
Each has its own character of design and planting, and each is separated from its neighbours by arches, walls or hedges of clipped yew. Not only are they on a larger scale but also they predate the better-known examples at Sissinghurst and Hidcote.
Thomas Mawson commented: “we felt at liberty to indulge in every phase of garden design which the site and my client’s Catholic views suggested… As each garden is enclosed in its own screen of architecture or foliage, it seldom clashed with its neighbour.”
The first is a Mediterranean Garden which is largely paved, and has surrounding raised beds, and large pots.
There is a newly created meadow garden before arriving at The Cloisters which is a quiet interlude with high yew hedging around a long gravelled space with benches and large pots. There are ‘windows’ cut into the yew to see through into neighbouring spaces. It lies to the east of the theatre garden.
The Theatre Garden has a stone flagged area at one end with raised steps, in front of a large open lawn surrounded again by yew hedging with niches for statues. It is sometimes known as the Japanese Garden because the steps were intended for the display of Reginald Cory’s collection of bonsai and Japanese ornaments.
The Physic Garden is a traditional herb garden with medicinal plants.
The nearby reflecting pool was captured in its heyday by Edith Adie. Her luxuriant paintings provide a good record of what the gardens were like in Cory’s day, and I used several of them in an earlier post about wisteria. First impressions of the reflecting pool today are not so glamorous. It certainly doesn’t do much reflecting – but that’s because the pool has been colonised by great crested newts, a protected species, so the garden staff are unable to control the algae and pond weeds since they would damage the newts’ habitat.
The Paved Court is a formal stone flagged area with a pattern of geometric flowerbeds planted mainly with annuals and bulbs. It also featured in one of Edith Adie’s paintings and looked far more opulent and lush than today.
Perhaps the grandest of all these small gardens is the Pompeian Garden built in 1909. Based on gardens discovered during the excavations of the destroyed city, it has a surrounding stone colonnade covered in wisteria, and backed by more yew hedging, a terminal pavilion and a central bird bath fountain. We are lucky enough to have not only another painting by Edith Adie but also a photo from 1915, only six years after it was completed.
Next comes a Rose Garden, sometimes known as the Round or Topiary Garden. It was originally planted with bush roses and the original box hedging was larger and clipped into shapes.
Beyond this lies a woodland walk which leads to the garden spaces at the southern end of the Great Lawn. The largest of these is the Lavender Court .
This has a very formal layout, with beds planted with lavender and small polyantha roses.The curving lily pools originally held some of Cory’s collection of Nymphaea. It is surrounded by elaborate arcading, some in trelliswork and other sections of concrete or brick.
The brick tower, built in 1914, was originally an observation tower.A chamber beneath it was intended for watching fish in the lake that was to have been made to the south, but this came to nothing as the lake project was abandoned.
This leads into a long vine walk that runs parallel to, and terminates the view from, the house terrace. There are good views back to the mansion across the Great Lawn.
The whole of the south-eastern and most of the eastern part of the garden is made up of an arboretum with both formal and winding paths through it. The arboretum is a testament to the ambitions and vision of Reginald Cory. It originally contained native woodland with open field sections which he used as a nursery area, planting out many of the trees and shrubs he had bought back from expeditions. When Mawson began working in 1906 there was already an impressive display of mature trees, and several of them date back to the old pleasure grounds from the 18th-century. It has been added to by successive head gardeners ever since.
It now boasts no fewer than 17 champion trees as well as many Welsh and county status champions. These include fastigiate hornbeam(Carpinus betulus ‘fastigiata’) with its pole like branches spreading over an entire woodland glade, and the 12 m high paper bark Maple (Acer griseum) grown from seed collected by the great plant hunter Ernest”Chinese” Wilson in the early 1900s.
At the end of the arboretum nearest the house there is a recently replanted fernery and a rockery.
As the guidebook says “looking at the gardens today it is difficult to realise the state of disrepair some parts had reached. But after substantial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and is considerable efforts of staff and volunteers, the place again shows the splendour that Mawson and Cory had intended.” There is still a long way to go but progress has been more than impressive so far. I am looking forward to my return visit.