Exploring Spring Gardens & Stately Old Mansions

John Laudando
The soaring majesty of Tintern Abbey.

After a happy day in Cardiff, we told our GPS to take us to Fox and Hounds, a small country inn in Wales where we had booked a room for two nights. Spoiler alert — places named Fox and Hounds are everywherein Wales and England. After wending our way through small villages and narrow roads lined on both side with towering hedges, we found we had arrived at a Fox and Hounds that didn’t rent rooms.

But our Fox and Hounds was only a short, scenic drive away from the first, and it was certainly worth finding. The staff gave us a warm welcome and immediately ensconced us in our cozy room. Then we went back down to the even cozier pub and visited some with the young barman. Taking his recommendations for continuing our new habit of great beer and cider, we tucked ourselves into a small banquette next to the wood-burning stove in a small room filled with locals and visitors.

Since we’d traveled enough for the day, we made a reservation to stay for dinner. Smart decision. The lamb dinner (we were in Wales, after all) was everything you could ask lamb to be. I started to ask for a steak knife before I realized the lamb, cooked to pink perfection, was tender enough to cut with a fork.

The next morning, after a splendid breakfast, we set off for two grand mansions that boasted extensive gardens. We’d planned the trip to coincide with the full blush of spring, and we timed it perfectly. Our first stop was Tredegar House, which was occupied for 500 years by the Morgans, whose social, economic, and political influence was instrumental in developing South East Wales. The family’s original stone house was replaced in the 1660s by the present-day mansion in red brick. In 1859, after playing a key role in local development and garnering over 40,000 acres, the Morgans were elevated to the peerage as the Lords of Tredegar.

Tredegar is now owned by the National Trust. (We’d planned well in advance, and, before leaving the U.S., we joined the Royal Oak Foundation, a membership that gave us unlimited entrance to any National Trust holdings in England and Wales. And since we intended to see a lot of great houses and gardens, it was a good decision. We may only have broken even, but we really enjoyed the convenience of the passes and the parking sticker that came with them.) The handsome house and its furnishings were the main attraction at Tredegar, for the gardens were primarily formal and not a lot was in bloom.

Not so with our next stop — Dyffryn Gardens, where the house is lovely, but the gardens are mind-bending. Flowers everywhere, which was a real joy — and frustration — to us. We’re avid gardeners, but we do it all ourselves. Not so easy or successful at times. Plus, we realized the Northeast has a much harsher climate than Great Britain. All this combined to make us extremely envious of all the bloom-filled beds that surround Dyffryn House and many of the other estates we visited.

The house itself is not as steeped in history as other sites, but it has a special twist. Built in 1892-3, it came to the Trust unfurnished but boasting many spectacular architectural features. The Trust took the opportunity to furnish it so that visitors can actually touch what they see, instead of the “hands-off” policy that exists in most historic homes.

But the real attraction of Dyffryn is its gardens. All 55 acres of them. We started with the vegetable gardens and found a lot more happening there than in our gardens back home. But the vegetables were nothing compared to the flowers. Formal beds, outdoor rooms, a huge greenhouse full of exotics, wisteria for miles, and we didn’t even have time to explore the woodland gardens. Flowers were high on our list of things to see in Great Britain, and we certainly were not disappointed.

As the gates of Dyffryn closed, we headed back to Fox and Hounds on the unbelievably narrow roads of rural Wales. Narrow enough that, when you meet another car on the road, one car must usually back up to a wide spot in the road so both of you can pass. The most unbelievable thing about these roads is the posted speed limit of 60 miles an hour. Not in this lifetime! Luckily, we weren’t the only drivers who felt that way, so we are here to tell the tale.

Arriving back at the inn, we were glad we had reserved for dinner because the place was packed — with good reason. We relished another amazing meal — including a fresh pea and sherry soup that is a contender for the best soup ever. After a few ciders and ales, our second lovely night in Wales had come to an end.

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