|How Green Is
green, if you happen to live in the Vale of
Conwy. It's a verdant swathe of farmland and
forest stretching from the coast of the foothills
of Snowdonia. Not only that, but along the way
there's Bondant, one of Britain's finest gardens.
Toyah Willcox, an enthusiast of all things green,
takes a look:
Katharine Hepburn once
said to me that Wales was the most beautiful
place on Earth. She was referring to North Wales
- Snowdonia to be precise. According to the
brochures, it's a 'land carved by glaciers and
bathed in mystery, so much so it will draw you
back time and time again'. Well it has only taken
me 26 years to return, but I have been somewhat
busy. If I'm not on stage, on the TV or writing a
book I'm probably starving in the depths of the
Australian jungle or trying to get the tea stains
off my best porcelain mugs. I don't know how I do
it but I always manage to forget to have
Now I am winding down the
A470 from the coast towards Betws-y-Coed. It may
sound romantic and believe me, it is! I am on my
way through the Vale of Conwy and thinking I
should have come back sooner.
I have the grand boast of
being able to say I spent two months in
Betws-y-Coed in 1978 making a film with the late,
legendary Katharine Hepburn and director George
Cukor. We were filming a remake of Emlyn
William's The Corn Is Green, a Welsh classic.
Most of our time was spent waiting for the rain
to thin and the fighter jets from some nearby air
base to stop 'buzzing' us. but that said, the
warmth of the people and the magnitude of the
natural beauty left an indelible and delectable
mark on my memory.
Now I'm pulling
into the drive of Tan-y-Foel Country House (the
English pronounce it 'ton of oil') after a
pleasant and not too long journey from
On first appearances it
looks like a small, well-maintained guest house,
albeit one with magnificent views over Snowdonia.
Then I step through the front door and am blown
away. Tan-y-Foel is a little gem.
Take the snappy modernism
of London's Soho House and the grandeur of Bath's
Ston Easton Park, remove the stuffiness and pomp
of both and condense them into a six-bedroom
private country house and you have Tan-y-Foel.
The locals call it the 'posh Japanes place on the
hill'. I call it 'yummy'. It's clean, crisp,
friendly, incredibly relaxing and plainly adored
by the Pitman family 'mother', father and
daughter' who created it and run it
I arrived with the world
on my shoulders, worrying about misplaced
e-mails, VAT accounts and a leaking immersion
tank. Within five minutes the lot was forgotten.
My only criticism was that my room was so
comfortable (four-poster bed, large batheroom,
etc, etc) that I could easily have stayed put and
not walked a single hill.
Next morning I was greeted
by the view over the rocky peaks of Snowdonia
that gives Scotland, Switzerland or France a run
for their money. But I wasn't here to climb
mountains but to look at something a little less
wild. Beneath me lay a beautiful, broad vale
carved by the River Conwy. It was a garden in
itself, with neat fields and rivermeadows flanked
by hills and forests. My destination, however,
was the genuine article.
from the soul, they are the last true freedom of
expression we have in this day and age. Within
six miles of the hotel is one the National
Trust's showpiece properties - Bodnant gardens,
32 hectares of sumptuous colour laid out in a
stunning way and filled with rhododendrons,
azaleas, camelias, magnolia, hydrangeas, clematis
So much pleases the eye
here - almost too much if such a thing were
possible. Don't even try to spend a few hours at
Bodnant. Think about most of the day, because
this is an experience you really shouldn't hurry
as hectare upon brilliantly conceived hectare
unfolds before you.
I almost started off on
the wrong foot, if you are not careful or
vigilant you, like many, could miss Bodnant's
most famous feature, the Laburnum Arch, which is
immediately on your left as you enter. Originally
planted in the 1880's in the form of a curved
tunnel, it is an overwhelming mass of yellow
blooms from mid-May to mid-June.
Strolling through the
arch, surrounded by reflective golden light
thrown from a galaxy of grape-like flowers I
bumped into a superstar among gardeners, Martin
Puddle, Bodnant's third-generation Head Gardener.
He wasn't hard to find. He was the one everyone
was stopping to congratulate on keeping a garden
of such enormity so pristine.
Martin walked with me to
the five grand terraces. I stopped in awe.
Bodnant's unique character comes from the way in
which it has used the fall of the land to such
striking effect, stepping down the hillside in a
sequence of huge Italianate terraces into the
wooded Dell at the front of everything.
Ahead of me was a lily
pond the size of a small football pitch and
tumbling below that was the Rose Terrace,
followed by the Canal Terrace. And it didn't stop
there! The formality of these terraces has a
counterpint in the Winter Dell, a delicious mix
of tangled woodland, shrubs and water features
leading to an old mill.
We stood in
admiration for the great mind (and income) that
created this homage to Gardener's World. Bodnant
is one of those fingerprints that the can-do
industrialists of old left on the land along with
satanic mills and titanic bridges. First on the
scene was Henry Davis Pochin, a successful
chemist (he invented, of all things, white
soap!). But it was his grandson, the second Lord
Aberconway, who really left his mark, creating
Bodnant's glorious terraces.
Martin explained that at
one end of the Canal Terrace was a stage for
outdoor performances and at the other was the Pin
Mill. It didn't look anything like a mill to me,
even though I am reliably informed that it once
served as a pin factory. It seemed more like the
'great big Greek thingy' you see on the hill as
soon as you enter Athens.
What I love about this
garden is that surprises like that keep on
coming. Bodnant has so many levels, literally and
metaphorically. Once you have explored the
Laburnum Arch, navigated the terraces and admired
the perfectly framed views across to Snowdonia,
you still have The Dell in which to delve.
On the descent I
discovered a magnolia (Magnolia Wilsoni) growing
low enough to the ground for my short little legs
to reach a bloom and sniff. It has the most
extraordinary fragrance of passion fruit and
vanilla. And, providing yet another contrast, in
The Dell I had to peer skywards to see the top of
the largest giant redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)
in Britain, one of the many magnificent specimens
of 200-year-old native and introduced
After the splendour and
the crowds - for Bodnant is incredibly popular -
I headed back into the Vale of Conwy. gardens and
gardening are a passion in these parts. I'd been
told about the small, neat village of Rowen, just
across the valley. Every two years, the villagers
open up their gardens to visitors and hill
walkers. Although this won't be happening again
until 2006, it's worth a visit at any time.
Rowen, the complete opposite to the lavish wealth
of Bodnant, is brimming with affordable
inspiration and ideas. It's a rare sight in
modern Britain to see such an unspoilt, timeless
village. there's even a fabulously, uncrowded tea
room - a huge welcome after the queues st Bodnant
- called Pen-y-Bont where you can nourish
yourself with everything from chicken breast in
wine to home-made lemon sponge. And it's cheap
Even though I had by now
been thoroughly spoilt by the vale I always like
to save the best till last. I have such vivid
memories of filming in Betws-y-Coed I couldn't
wait to return to see if it had changed in the 26
years since I was last there.
In many ways it hadn't.
The hotel I had stayed at looked exactly the
same. But further up into the town, I couldn't
believe the number of shops - many, many of them,
selling outdoor gear to crafts. I suppose this is
no bad thing since when I was last here it was
nearly impossible to feed yourself past sunset.
But, one thing, I'm pleased to report, hasn't
changed - those magical walks.
Good walking routes sprout
in every direction from the centre of town. I
chose the Swallow Falls Walk. I was on my own but
still felt very safe. In this area there's a huge
love of the outdoors, so wherever you venture you
bump into like-minded people.
The Swallow Falls Walk
takes you through shaded pine trees where the
heady scent reminded me of a hot Mediterranean
evening. I was there in the height of summer and
the famous falls were what I would call friendly,
trickling and welcoming, but I'm sure that after
a serious rainfall the whole experience would
change dramatically. As the sun started to fade
this was a moment of bliss. It allowed me to
visit old territory in my memories; of Katharine
Hepburn chatting with the locals, completely
under their spell; of the film crew lugging huge
lights up the hillsides to shoot the night shots;
of the phone calls to the Ministry of Defence
asking them to re-route the fighter jets.
But my most enduring
memory was of sitting in a field with Miss
Hepburn talking about glamorous Hollywood and at
the sam time thinking to myself, 'nothing
compares with this'.
The article also includes
a substantial 'travelfile', with details on how
visitors can experience everything Toyah
A View of Wales