One of my greatest pleasures in life is visiting gardens.
I suppose it’s something to do with that deeply satisfying combination of craft, art and nature. Or perhaps it’s that basic human need to find meaning and order in a chaotic world. Whatever the reason, we can count ourselves lucky that we have in Wales some of the world’s finest gardens. And to my mind, gardens by the sea have that something extra special that is absent from their inland counterparts.
So imagine my pleasure when I was able to visit a charming garden the other day which displayed all those often conflicting qualities that make seaside gardens so special: shelter and exposure; hardiness and tenderness; rock and water.
You’re probably thinking that since I work for a charity that’s famous for its gardens, it must be one of our own; Plas yn Rhiw, Plas Newydd, Colby Woodland Garden perhaps? Well, this particular garden was in fact private, sitting adjacent but inextricably linked to the National Trust countryside property of Cemlyn, on the rugged and exposed north Anglesey coast.
Cestyll Garden was created in the early 1920s by Violet Vivian, daughter of Lord Vivian of Bodmin. She had been gifted Cestyll , a solidly-built house standing proud on this windswept coastline, by her uncle. First she used it as a holiday cottage, but soon fell under the spell of the area’s wild beauty and moved here to live permanently.
The Hon. Violet Vivian, in the garden she created in the 1920s
She quickly realised that a sheltered rocky ravine, through which cascaded the little Afon Gafnan on its final dash past a romantic disused mill to the sea, would make a wonderful garden. Aided by her friend Princess Victoria, daughter of Edward VII, and contacts at Kew, she worked with the site’s unique topography and microclimate to create a hidden sanctuary planted with flowering shrubs, ornamental trees and streamside flowers. She had bridges built over the tumbling stream and wove a circular path to reveal a series of intimate views of miniature cliffs and waterfalls ornamented with beautiful plants and all set against a backdrop of the ivy-covered mill, by now owned by the National Trust, and an astonishing framed view of the wild Irish Sea beyond.
She tended her garden until her death in 1962, and her ashes lie there, still nourishing the beauty that she created.
Glimpses of the wild Irish Sea from Cestyll Garden (aglesey-today.com)
But before long, momentous changes engulfed Violet Vivian’s legacy, leading me to ponder on how fortunate it was that she never lived to see what happened next. The neighbouring land was chosen for the Wylfa nuclear power station, which ran from 1971 to 2015, and there are plans for its successor, the much bigger Wylfa Newydd, which will occupy the land right up to the garden boundary. Soon after her death, the garden was purchased by the Central Electricity Generating Board with a condition that they and their successors maintain it as a memorial.
As I explored the garden, which is normally opened for 3 days a year in May, I confess that the thought occurred to me whether there was any point in maintaining it, so close to what for the next decade will be one of the largest construction sites in Europe.
But then the realisation dawned, perhaps prompted by the spirit of Violet Vivian, that the reason why gardens like these are so special is that they provide an escape from the world and its tempests. The proximity to such heavy industry make it all the more important that this hidden gem survives, if only as an opportunity for future generations to find beauty where you least expect it.