Conserving Castle Landscapes

Castell Powys, or Powis Castle as the English know it, is a wonderful, striking medieval fortress and country mansion, sitting high on a hill overlooking the River Severn.  Once know as the ‘Red Castle’, it is internationally recognised for its high red terraces and battlements, which are clothed in enormous and ancient clipped yew topiary. 

The castle is unusual in that it was constructed in the 13th century by Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn at the end of the Welsh Wars (1282), when Edward I rewarded his loyalty. Four years later he renounced his title as the last hereditary Welsh prince, and was bestowed the title ‘Baron de la Pole’, after the nearby Pool which later became ‘Welshpool’.

Unlike many Welsh castles Powis did not fall to ruin but continued as an important noble seat until the 20th century, and it tells a fascinating story of fashionable developments influenced by worldwide travelling and discovery.  Leaping forward to the 17th century, we see the architect William Winde creating a formal garden in the Dutch Style during the 1680s, with great terraces and water features that could rival any.  It was created for the 1st Marquess of Powis, and completed by his son from 1703, and surprisingly it’s that bold era of landscaping that still shapes the garden today.

. Powes Castle in 1742 (Nathaniel Buck)

During the 18th century English gardens were going through major change, with many formal layouts being swept away in favour of the ‘English Landscape’.  An element of this was undertaken at Powis by William Emes for the 1st Earl of Powis, and we can see the influences today, however the great formal garden survived.  In the early 19th century Powis passed to the Clive family, who famously exposed India to the world.  By this stage the formal water gardens had disappeared, and the planting became informal, but the main footprint of the garden endured.

. Aerial View (©-Crown-copyright-2013-Visit-Wales)

The next great leap came when Lady Violet, wife to the 4th Earl of Powis took a significant interest in the garden, developing it to the style that we know today.  She came from a renowned gardening family, and moved in high horticultural circles, which lead to the creation of herbaceous borders on the terraces, and the lower formal gardens.  In 1952 the Castle and gardens were bequeathed to the National Trust, who in turn have made their own mark on the garden.  Head Gardeners Jimmy Hancock, Peter Hall and the current David Swanton add their own identity to this ever developing landscape.

Keeping such a fine landscape on course and focussed is a difficult task, which is why Land and Heritage are delighted to be undertaking a Conservation Management Plan for the National Trust.  Such a plan researches and identifies the development stages of the landscape and is critical of the condition of the garden and the features, before making suggestions and proposing options for the future.  Our team includes specialists from ACTA, Donald Insall Associates, Mitchell Heritage and Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust who will work with the National Trust to deliver this plan.  The team feel privileged to be working on Castell Powys, which is a fine partner to our other castle project, the 900 year old Leeds Castle in Kent, also part of the Land and Heritage portfolio.  Landscape Architect Amanda Urmson says “This is a fantastic project opportunity for Land and Heritage, and we are all really looking forward to working with our wider team of heritage specialists and the National Trust Team at Powis over the coming months.

Matt Jackson