How Green Is My Valley? 

Very 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 holidays. 

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 London. 

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 personally. 

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. 

Gardens spring 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 and freesias. 

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 trees. 

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 but delicious! 

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 did. 

A View of Wales
Spring/Summer 2005