Lettuce from Wales

Almost more than anywhere else garden makers choose to settle in Wales. One such horticultural incomer explains the enduring appeal of the green valleys

Words: Camilla Swift

Pictures: Lucy Cavender

“It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…But for Wales?” observed Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons.

We have gladly given our souls to Wales, because here is a whole world of space, water, wonderful light, and talented local craftsmen willing to turn conceits into reality. My husband Jeremy spotted the potential of the small barn surrounded by thistle-ridden, steeply sloping fields, and dense neglected woodland. After a life spent travelling through deserts with nomads he longed for an oasis. He found it in this secluded valley, with breath taking views, high up in the Black Mountains. It’s called the Pant which could be a dodgy location for a faintly pornographic movie but actually means Valley in Welsh.

We are neither trained or experienced gardeners but here we had found a horticultural adventure playground, with room to learn, to indulge our fantasies and make mistakes (plenty).

Having turned a small barn into a small house, we first decided to hack into the hillside to level out a lawn. A doughty motorway contractor accompanied by a small spaniel and a vast digger obliged. We used the spoil to create another terrace and on the principle of two for one suddenly we had four.

Jeremy, trawling through his scrapbook memory of Italian gardens, then developed the idea for an enclosed garden: logic, straight lines and order contained by a stone wall with the wilderness beyond. One kilometre of dry stone wall later (courtesy of a strong, silent SAS soldier re-routed from the nearby National Parks), and the formal garden, so-called, began to take shape. Not for us the English tradition of landscape and garden blending seamlessly into one, the sort that in Capability Brown’s day caused ladies to complain the cows could watch them dressing for dinner. It wasn’t just cows but the wild woods that were threatening to leap over our walls.

Once again Mr Motorway made the earth move for us, literally, carving a track up the hill and through into the wood. It took him a day. As he reached a natural clearing Jeremy said, “I think I’d like a green theatre.” The following day he had the bones of one. Further slashing revealed the remains of an ancient village, hidden for over a century. Naturally we had to uncover it, and using surplus fallen stone constructed a giant turtle. “Completely logical” said Jeremy. And so it continued. Bomarzo had come to Ninfa, welsh style.

We’re a good gardening team. Jeremy belongs to the waving your arms about and clutching a clipboard school of gardening. He is in charge of Grand Designs, the visionary, drawing allusions from gardens we have visited the world over. I’m the Practical One, in charge of flowers. I follow three paces behind with kneepads, compost and a trowel. It works.

The weather here can be challenging. Plants grow almost too fast, thanks to the excess of rain for which Wales is rightly renowned but when it rains so hard we can’t go out, or winter snows maroon us on our mountain top we simply retire to the kitchen table with sheaves of graph paper and plan the next mad enterprise.

20 years on our walled terraces enclose an orchard, borders, an Islamic watercourse, (irreverently dubbed the Osama bin Garden), a double box-lined herb garden, and wild flower meadows beyond. Paths and streams ribboning through the woods lead you on fantastical journeys past eccentric statuary (scavenged over the years from architectural salvage dump bins –the broken bits no one else wanted) to the village, the green theatre and the turtle. It remains wild, woolly, and faintly bonkers, but we’ve had fun and we love it. I can’t imagine where else we’d get away with such a garden, but in Wales, somehow, we have.