Here at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, we care for a landscape that has witnessed thousands of years of human activity.
The site for Wales’s new National Botanic Garden to welcome in the new millennium was chosen, in part, because of the surviving remains of a rare example of ‘garden design’ on a grand scale. The ‘designed landscape’ that inspired this choice is the most recognisable period of history represented at the Garden. It was commissioned and created in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a period of cultural upheaval and rapid change in Wales and in the wider world, with major population growth, the industrial revolution in full swing, significant political changes and the continued growth of the British Empire.
The remnants of this relatively short-lived, but very visible period of history once surrounded William Paxton’s newly built grand mansion, which was destroyed by fire in the 1930s. What survives includes the former servants’ quarters (now ‘Tŷ Melyn’), the stable buildings (now a café, gallery and offices), an ice-house and the double-walled garden with the remains of its Peach-house. Further out, the stone boundary walls delineate the edge of the parkland, with Paxton’s Tower in the distance on a hill to the North, and of course, the string of artificially contained lakes, which were the centrepiece of Paxton’s fashionable Regency water park. With the restoration of the water park now complete, this part of the Garden’s history takes centre stage.
However, during the restoration, research revealed extensive links between the wealth that created, sustained and developed the historic Middleton Estate and the East India Company. It became increasingly clear that a significant part of the history of the site of Wales’s new National Botanic Garden is bound up with a chapter in British and European history that is now widely recognised as unjust and cruel. This means looking with fresh eyes at a deceptively peaceful landscape legacy, as we all take on board the harm done by the actions of those involved in historic colonialism and slavery. As a Garden, we hope to learn from the past to support a better future, both for people and for the planet.
Often history is based around the well-documented lives of wealthy, influential individuals, but we want to celebrate everyone’s heritage, and there are so many hidden stories in this landscape. Alongside the estate landscape history, is a much longer cultural history which is deeply rooted in the past. This history isn’t about one particular period or person or a particular place. It is about Wales’s long-standing connection with the land and a rich cultural heritage based on a close and successful relationship with plants and the natural world.
The stories of the people who didn’t even make the shortlist for the history books are more difficult to find. Without the means to undertake major building programmes or sweeping re-organisations of landscape, they left fewer traces. Often, they made their mark in subtler ways and it is the landscape itself that holds the key to discovering their history. Evidence for traditional hedge-laying, stock-management, meadow management and orcharding all survive in the local landscape, on historic maps, in local place names, and in the recollections of the community.
Understanding how we managed the land in the past can support a more environmentally sustainable future. From the historic use of plants for medicine, old varieties of apple (some of which are very local) in our developing orchard, beekeeping and managing our meadows in traditional ways for grazing and for wildflowers, to looking after hedgerows using traditional, local styles of hedge-laying.
All of this heritage is the cultural backstory woven through the work we do here – growing the connections between people, plants and the environment for the future.