JARS v58n4 - Bodnant - Garden of the Aberconways

Bodnant - Garden of the Aberconways
Peter Kendall
Portland, Oregon

The name Bodnant, like the names Exbury and Leonardslee, was thrust into eminence in the world of horticulture just after the turn of the 20th century. While the latter two were on English soil and not a very great distance from one another, Bodnant arose in the very north of Wales, in a situation as equable horticulturally as the other two. Each was the product of an individual to whom the universe of plants was all consuming.
In the case of Bodnant, the stage was set when Henry Davis Pochin, great grandfather of the current owner, bought twenty-five farms in 1874. The land was above and to the east of the river Conway and fell away dramatically toward the west to reveal in the distance the grandeur of the Snowdon Mountain Range. The place had running water in the form of a number of streams that fed the River Hiraethlyn, a tributary of the Conway. The Hiraethlyn bore more or less straight through the lower reaches of the property from south to north on its way to meet the Conway. While Pochin, a chemist by profession, was not fired by horticultural impulses in the same way as those of his family to follow, he was, nonetheless, foresighted enough to plant a number of strategically situated and noteworthy conifers (soon to become giants) along the flanks of the Hiraethlyn. These joined native trees that had been growing since 1792 and constituted a framework for the garden to come.

General scene in the Dell
General scene in the Dell.
Photo by Peter Kendall

It was Pochin's daughter Laura who developed an intense interest in gardening and laid the foundation for what was to ensue. She had inherited the property in 1895 upon the death of her father; she married Charles McLaren, who subsequently became the first Lord Aberconway when he became a peer in 1911. The title Aberconway, which means the "mouth of the Conway," was henceforth passed on to future generations. As Charles McLaren had no interest whatsoever in the world of gardens, it fell upon his wife to pique and foster the interest of their son Henry in such pursuits, so that when he, in due course, became the second Lord Aberconway he was a plantsman, gardener and designer of the first water. From just after the turn of the century until his passing in 1953, Henry became the driving force that brought Bodnant to the pinnacle of horticultural excellence. His crowning accomplishment was the design and implementation of the terraces to the west of the house. This took place from 1904 to 1914. These were to become the formal garden area and provide a handsome foreground for the prospect of the Snowdons to the west. In no less a fashion, he expanded the garden along the River Hiraethlyn that was to become the area known as the Dell. He also set about moving up the hillside above the Dell to make room for the countless number of plants he was propelled to collect. Through exchanges with his many gardening friends and subscriptions to the plant hunting expeditions of Forrest, Kingdon Ward, Rock, Comber and Ludlow and Sherriff, he was able to enlarge the premises with the best in the plant world. A good many of Ernest Wilson's introductions were purchased between 1909 and 1912 from James Veitch of Chelsea, who was Wilson's chief sponsor. Later Wilson material came from the Arnold Arboretum in the United States.

R. aberconwayi R. 'Charmaine'
R. aberconwayi
Photo by Peter Kendall
R. 'Charmaine', a cross by Lord Aberconway.
Photo by Peter Kendall

Henry's knowledge of all plants was pervasive, but his fondness for rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias knew no bounds. He became a great hybridizer of rhododendrons with a keen eye in his selections. Rhododendron griersonianum (for its free flowering) and R. forrestii Repens Group (for its dwarf habit) were employed extensively as parents.
The 80 acres of stiff boulder clay, overlying a friable, shale rock became a superbly designed garden. Henry's fine sense of plantsmanship and gardening along with his artistic bent served him well in weaving a magnificent tapestry of garden. From 1920 to 1947, he was most fortunate to retain the services of Frederick Puddle as Head Gardener. His knowledge, inventiveness and ability to work hand in glove with Henry brought forth the best in both men.

Manor House at Bodnant
Manor House at Bodnant.
Photo by Peter Kendall

Looming above the garden is a house of Georgian design which, built in 1792, was transformed by Pochin in 1875 to become an ideal accompaniment for what was to follow.
As the second Lord Aberconway, Henry was elected to the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1923 and eventually became its president from 1931 until his death in 1953. His was a hands-on tenure that wrought excellence in horticultural circles as well as the financial underpinnings of the society.
After Henry's death in 1953, his eldest son, Charles McLaren, the third Lord Aberconway, took over the house and garden. The garden, which became the second administered under the auspices of the National Trust, continues its excellence with the third generation of Puddles directing the operation of the garden. Charles, himself, served as president of the RHS from 1961 until 1984 and became the first president to step down before his death.

Peter Kendall is a member of the Portland Chapter.