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Woodland Walks

Gerddi image 1Several paths radiate from close to the Triumphal Arch into Salutation Wood where Sir Clough's garden design comes to the fore: narrow vistas rise to a number of eye catchers such as 'Plenty',a sheet metal cut-out by Hans Feibusch and a corrugated iron shelter. Clough would often hold court on the seat here with anyone passing by. This whole area is known for the rich diversity of its rare and unusual plants.

The Gwyllt wild gardens were largely developed by Caton Haig, one of the highest authorities on Himalayan flowering trees. On his death in 1941 Clough acquired the Gwyllt gardens which he added to his existing holdings at Portmeirion. From 1953 onwards his daughter Susan Williams-Ellis worked with Clough on the general development of the Gwyllt gardens and assumed responsibility for their continued development after his death in 1978. Tall Conifers and Maidenhair trees, Gingko biloba and large Rhododendrons, notably Rh. falconeri with its fine brown-backed foliage, dominate the Wood. In early spring Rh. macabeanum with its deep yellow flowers lights up the scene and often coincides with the magnificent Magnolia campbellii with its huge light pink flowers on a leafless tree. In early April these two plants are startling as you walk down the back drive to the village. Behind the cut-out of 'Plenty' is the willow-like Chilean Maytenus boaria , reputedly the largest in this country. Close to it is the unique hybrid Rhododendron bred in Portmeirion - Rh. "Gwyllt King" with its characteristic intense red flowers in June.

The climate of the peninsula is very mild due to its low lying sheltered position between the estuaries of the rivers Glaslyn and Dwyryd and the warming influence of the Gulf Stream. Frosts are rare allowing luxuriant growth of many plant species such as the huge leaves of the Gunnera manicata from the Brazilian rainforests. This species is to be seen in several damp areas and alongside the Lake and Temple ponds. Many of the large leafed Rhododendrons are now self-sown, freely hybridise and grow like mustard and cress on the mossy boulders. In the damp mild climate ferns and mosses abound, festooning branches of trees and boulders everywhere. Tree ferns such as Dicksonia and Cyatheas can survive without any winter protection.

Tender scented Rhododendrons thrive in the open here. These would normally be grown in a conservatory.

Before the 1800's the vegetation of the peninsula would have consisted mainly of windswept sessile oak woodland on the tops of the rock outcrops, similar in fact to the many semi-natural oak woodlands in the surrounding area today. Agricultural practises would have centred on sheep grazing and the use of pigs to forage the woodlands during the summer months, much as wild boar had done in the past.

It is likely that the majority of the oaks we see there today would have been planted or regenerated as self-sown seedlings since the planting of exotics around the1840's. Most of the natural habitats along the beaches, cliffs and salt marshes have been little changed by the planting of exotics in the Gwyllt.

P9210012The Dogs' Cemetery was established by one of Portmeirion's eccentric tenants, Mrs Adelaide Haig, who lived in the mansion from 1870 until her death in 1917. She preferred the company of dogs to human beings and kept her mongrel pack in the elegant Mirror Room where she would read sermons to them from behind a screen. The whole place became a wilderness, as she would not allow the destruction of any growing thing. When she died the hearse that came for her could not reach the house until woodsmen had hacked a way along the jungle-choked drive. Following her death a stag mysteriously appeared on the peninsula and in threading its way hither and thither through the undergrowth it rediscovered and trod out the long-lost system of paths that had once been so generously contrived. It is said that the extent of the zigzagging paths laid end to end is over twenty miles.

In the 1960s Clough marked out areas in the Gwyllt which he would like made into ponds or lakes. His daughter Susan supervised the landscaping of these lakes and designed and sited a Chinese bridge and pagoda for the largest lake and sited a Classical temple on a precipice above Temple Pond. This area is at its best in Spring and Autumn. In Spring there are three outstanding large leafed Rhododendrons - Rh. protistum and two sinograndes. The first seldom flowers but makes up for this in its attractive young growth, the other two flower regularly with their large, creamy yellow flowers. At the end of the flowering season, as the light descends on a clear Autumn evening, the view of the Chinese Pavilion and bridge reflected in the Lake is unforgettable. Japanese Acers together with Beech trees add autumnal tints.

From the 1850's onwards H.S. Westmacott and then Sir William Fothergill Cooke planted evergreen exotics such as Monkey Puzzles, Pines, Hollies, Cherry Laurels, Ponticum Rhododendrons and Rhododendron arboreum hybrids (Cornish Reds). These were planted mainly along an intricate meshwork of paths leading to Trwyn y Penrhyn on the end of the peninsula. Many survive to this day.

WHITE SANDS BAYTo walk across the sands at Whitesands Bay towards the Trwyn when the tide is low gives scale to the Gwyllt. Explore below the cliffs to find hidden caves and gullies. Where wind blown sand forms pockets of more alkaline soil, there is an interesting assemblage of native plant species; the spindle tree Euonymus europaeus forms a thicket in one place, pink gentians flower in another.

Whitened by the wind and sea, trunks of long dead Pines lie on the shoreline and give the feel of a far away exotic island. The criss-cross network of paths naturally delineates the peninsula into distinct areas. The names, coined by Sir Clough if not traditional, refer either to the plants growing in that section, its position or name of the area before it became an estate in the 1840's. "Y Gwyllt" itself literally means "the wild place" and it was known as such as far back as the 1740's and probably much earlier. Originally it referred to an area north of Trwyn y Penrhyn but since the plantings of exotics from the 1850's onwards it has come to encompass the whole estate from behind the Hotel to the far boundary wall up to and including Salutation Wood.

Wander up through one of the wider gullies from Whitesands bay or follow the woodland path marked with red stakes and you should find yourself in the Ghost Garden so named by Clough to commemorate the lost garden of an old ferry cottage that had been established there. This somewhat disappointing explanation for such an evocative name has been somewhat rectified by the plantings of the 1980's which have given the area a rather "ghostly" feel. Australasian plants feature strongly as the climate is so mild - Eucalyptus species, Cortaderias and Phormiums abound.

Further on towards the end of the peninsula the flora changes dramatically. Here patches of heathland with a mixture of native heathers on the rock outcrops remain almost untouched by the plantings of exotics. Ulex gallii, the true native gorse features here; it is quite different in stature and flowering times from the introduced common gorse Ulex europaeus. U. gallii flowers in the Autumn and forms a dense small mound whilst U. europaeus grows large and flowers mainly in the early Spring. The double flowered form is conspicuous by the Chinese Bridge and smells sweetly of coconut. The South American introduction Berberis darwinii behaves almost like a native species. Normally a hedging plant in gardens its striking orange flowers are most noticeable in spring and summer. It takes its place with the common gorse and white blackthorn, covering large areas of the headland. Its abundant purple fruits are eaten with great delight by the local bird population.

On the highest point there was once a lookout point of which only the stone pillars survive. Several drystone sheepfolds have been rebuilt as grass roofed shelters

This short account has only touched on the rich diversity of plants growing in the Gwyllt. While it is best known for its collection or rare and unusual Rhododendrons and Camellias these form only a part of the rich diversity of exotic plants which the Gwyllt has to offer the visitor throughout the seasons.