New gardens on the Rheidol Railway

by The Curious Scribbler

For the first time in 28 years, I travelled with members of my family on the Vale of Rheidol Railway, which puffs its way sedately from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge, laden with tourists. My previous journey was described in this blog on February 10 2014.  It had been abruptly curtailed on the return journey by its derailment near Nantyronen.

On this year’s journey ours was a special, stopping train, which halted at every station along the route. The passengers, members of the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society and the Ceredigion Welsh Historic Gardens Trust were bent on visiting the latest developments, – newly planted railway gardens at each of the stations and halts along the line.

Inspecting the trough at Capel Bangor station

The whole operation has prospered under the charitable trust which bought the railway from British Rail twenty five years ago. There is a substantial new engine shed with brick built gable ends near the station at Aberystwyth, and an attractive private car park dedicated only to Rheidol Railway travellers. At every halt the station buildings have been smartly restored and painted in the railway livery of cream and brown. At Aberffrwd one can play at stationmaster with the old telephone and ticket shelves in the corrugated iron and pitch pine building. At other halts a newly installed but tastefully gothic corrugated iron shelter protects waiting passengers from the elements. The latest initiative has been to create gardens such as might have been tended by proud stationmasters along the route. These have been planted and tended by local volunteers.

At Capel Bangor we alighted near a raised bed margined by railway sleepers planted with Victorian formality. French marigolds in yellow and orange framed taller plantings of pink cistus and the statuesque Bishop of Llandaff dahlia. The line divides to serve both platforms here, and they are adorned with stout barrels. I particularly liked the one containing a standard bay tree underplanted with brilliant red geraniums which echoed the signage on the picket fence beyond.

Capel Bangor Station

Tub on Capel Bangor Station

At Nantyronen the French marigolds were to be found again, but this time in long raised troughs along the platform and interplanted with verbenas and other bedding plants.

Nantyronen Station


Troughs at Nantryonen

At Aberffrwd a more ambitious border between the platform and the fence was planted with perennials, Canterbury bells, peonies, astrantia, Erisymum ‘Bowles Mauve’ and Japanese Anemones.

Here the volunteers were distraught, on the eve of the station’s official re-opening by Tourism and Transport Minister Edwina Hart, to find that many of the flowering stems had been snipped off some 10inches above the ground. Close inspection revealed rabbits to be the culprits, apparently reaching up to nibble off the flower stems and eat the flowers.   Hasty replanting with colourful osteospermums filled in for some of the losses. Rabbit repulsion in a rural area remains a challenging goal.

Inspecting the border at Aberffrwd

Rabbit damage

Less toothsome to rabbits and very much in keeping with the landscape is the slope on the side facing the platform, which has been planted as a sedum bed, in which the name of the station is spelt out in white painted river stones.

Sedum border at Aberffrwd

The line divides again here, and it was nice to watch the downward train exchange batons with our driver and continue on its way.

Trains pass the baton at Aberffrwd

We paused at The Rheidol Falls stop, to see the azalea planting and a clematis montana which will soon gallop exuberantly along the fence.

Fire buckets at Devil’s Bridge

We dismounted at Devil’s Bridge to find four red fire buckets planted with gaudy gazanias. After a lavish lunch at the Two Hoots Cafe we rattled back down to Aberystwyth with just a pause at Rhiwfron, the other high altitude stop. Here the visitor looks out northward across the valley to the cream and gold spoil tips of mining on the other side. A hundred years has not diminished its mineral toxicity, and only a few trees have gained foothold on these slopes.

Spoil tips viewed from Rhiwfron Halt

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Allt-y-bela: An old house with a new garden

I ventured south to Monmouthshire recently to visit a garden near Usk, in the tiny rural hamlet of Llangwm Uchaf.  Reaching, in anticipation, for my Pevsner guide to Monmouthshire (published 2000) I was not encouraged.  The old medieval farmhouse is described as ” now miserably derelict” its “towering three storey parlour block of 1599 and its crown of lozenge shaped stacks in the last last stages of collapse”.  But for a line drawing detail of a medieval door head, there were, understandably, no pictures.

So there was little to prepare one for the scene which suddenly unfolds at the end of a narrow and diminishing country lane.  The first clue came when the hedgerow gave way to a geometric, three tiered  topiary beech and beyond it a topiary dome of hawthorn.   The sight line along the curving road led the eye to some further pathside trimming, small domes of copper beech and green on the left.  Then Allt-y-bela was  revealed.

Allt-y-bela, Monmouthshire

Allt-y-bela, Monmouthshire

The owner explained the amazing change of fortune for the house since the millennium.  Terribly derelict, its principal rooms serving as a shelter for cattle, this amazing house had been brought low by the provision of its 16th century owner and  builder, Roger Edwards, landowner and founder of the Usk Grammar School.  In his will he left his house and land as an endowment for the school, and over the centuries the huge building became less and less useful to the tenant farmers, while the land remained a source of income for the school for around 400 years.  Originally close to the road from Usk to Chepstow, Allt-y-bela had once been something of a hub.  Now the route bypassed this tranquil spot, and but for the intervention of the Spitalfields Trust it would have completed its collapse.  They bought the house and a little land around it, and  for seven years conservation experts and SPAB scholars painstakingly restored it to its historical best, a II* listed building.  At least there were few layers of alteration and improvement to be stripped away.  It was then for sale, a pristine restoration standing on an apron of builder’s gravel and surrounded by grass. What better purchaser could there be than a renowned garden designer?

Arn Maynard is remembered for his RHS Gold for the Laurent Perrier Bicentenary Garden in 2012 and has an extensive garden design practice.  Here he had a blank palette and has created a modern garden which in part evokes the styles of the house’s history.

Bringing in large ready trimmed topiary trees from Holland, and sculpting the land with diggers and drystone wallers has enabled him to present his vision of Allt-y-bela, as a pearl set upon a cushion of green.  As so often in rural settings, one of the challenges is to integrate a garden into the wider setting, and this is achieved by allowing the mown and lawned garden to expand into wildflower meadows, rich in ox eye daisies, orchids, ragged robin, campion and yellow rattle. It is difficult to believe that such a sense of permanence has been achieved in just seven years, but then his Laurent Perrier show garden featuring a huge pear tree and pleached fences was created (with a lot of pre-planning) in just 17 days.

An assortment of geometrically layered and domed trees frame the approach to the house, and a simple concentric labyrinth of copper beach leads one to an urn, and out again.  There are also choice trees like Magnolia and the service tree which are spared the shears.

Arn Maynard expounds his vision for the copper beech labyrinth

Arn Maynard expounds his vision for the copper beech labyrinth


The spiral of copper beech leads to a central urn, and then out again along a parallel arc.

The spiral of copper beech leads to a central urn, and then out again along a parallel arc.


At the back of the house, the land has been gently shaped into a terraced lawn, while close to the house a criss-cross stitching of clipped box creates intimate compartments for old fashioned flowers, and a lattice of hedgerow poles creates a trellis up the walls.

The rear of Alt-y-bela

The rear of Alt-y-bela

Further beyond the lawn is an exquisite vegetable garden, with pear arches overhead, and stepover cordoned apples such as were not dreamt of in the 16th century.  There are fruitful gooseberries, currants and raspberries, alpine strawberries, broad beans and peas.

Arn Maynard's exquisite vegetable garden

Arn Maynard’s exquisite vegetable garden


The house had a separate stone built kitchen and granary facing the front facade, and these and all other outbuildings have also been carefully restored.  It is on this side that the land art is particularly striking: the trickling natural stream has been canalised between immaculate dry stone walls to curve around behind the granary.  Further low drystone walls contour the slope above to create an outdoor auditorium, looking down to a small stage of lawn trapped between the stream and the building.  The first performance held here was The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The canalised stream and amphitheatre were built last year

The canalised stream and amphitheatre were built last year


P1070121smThere is more to describe:-  the tall screen of pleached crab apples in front of the house, the wandering bantams in their timber house, the auricula theatre and the stately Bengal tomcat.  No medieval home was as exquisitely elegant as this, but if it had been, Roger Edwards would have been proud.




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