A medieval castle, perched high on a rock looking across to the Severn Valley and Breiddon Hills, Powis Castle (Castell Powys) should be high on the list for Slow Travellers. With stunning gardens and beautiful views across the valley, as well as a museum filled with ill-gotten gains, this National Trust owned property is open to the public all year round and is well worth a visit.
The screech of peacocks greets the visitor walking up from the carpark to the castle, and immediately noticeable as you arrive is the dusky red stone and prominent red mortar that make this building so attractive and inviting, especially when it is outlined dramatically against an uninterrupted blue sky. Once inside the courtyard the peacocks may treat you to a display of tail, or will simply wander, unperturbed by humans, among the garden tables and benches.
The first castle had its origins in the twelfth century, as a result of the conflict between several Welsh principalities, but inevitably played its part in the struggle between Welsh princes and English Kings for dominance over Wales.
The castle has been built and rebuilt several times and underwent intensive renovation by Sir Edward Herbert who acquired the Powis estate in 1587. The castle was loyal to the King in the Civil War, besieged and seized by the Parliamentarians in 1644, but returned to the Herbert family following the restoration of Charles II in 1660.
In the 18th century the title passed to the Clive family, although part of the inheritance was the stipulation that they should change their name to Herbert. There was a thorough refurbishment of the castle in the early 19th century and again in the early 19th century by George and Violet Herbert. Sadly, they lost two sons, one in WWI and another in WWII, so there was no immediate heir to inherit the estate. In 1952, George Herbert left the castle, gardens and part of the deer park to the National Trust.
The interior of the castle illustrates the changes of ownership and style. The heavy Jacobean panelling in many rooms, and the need to prevent the damage caused by ultraviolent light on the precious furnishings, make the whole experience darker and gloomier than is ideal, but nevertheless the rooms and treasures can be enjoyed.
The Long Gallery retains its Elizabethan shape and decoration including the trompe l’oeuil panelling and plasterwork and wonderfully wonky floorboards. The Blue Drawing Room has changed very little since 1705. It has blue-green panelling picked out in gold and most of the furniture once belonged to the Clive family. The State Bedroom is in the baroque style with a bed alcove set behind a railing. Also to be admired is the Great Staircase and the many treasures of gilded furniture, tapestries, paintings, fine upholstery, silver, china and precious objects that characterise all stately homes.
My eye was caught by the 450 year old sword of state carried before Arthur, Prince of Wales, at Ludlow and the medicine chest that went to the Crimea in 1854 with William Henry Herbert, fresh from Eton in 1854. However, the firescreen with stuffed birds looks distinctly unattractive to modern visitors.
The National Trust at Powis is facing much the same dilemmas as other properties across the country as they struggle with how to present and interpret many of the objects acquired, and deeds performed, in the age of imperialism. Here, it is specifically the Clive Museum which has over 1000 objects “acquired” by Robert, Edward and Henrietta Clive from 1744 – 1803.
Powis has responded to the emotions and uncomfortable facts raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of the objects were legitimately bought or gifted, but the unpalatable truth is that many were seized, looted and plundered. Prime examples include the palanquin (travelling coach) that belonged to Siraj ud-Daulah of Bengal, seized along with huge quantities of treasure after the battle of Plassey in 1757.
The museum also has the tiger’s head finial from the throne of Tipu Sultan, along with his magnificent state tent, made of painted chintz, later appropriated by the Clive family during widespread looting and pillage of his palace after his death during the siege of Srirangatpatam in 1799. Powis has a delicate and painful path to tread as it re-examines these acquisitions of British colonial role.
The main attraction of a visit to Powis is undoubtedly the gardens which are truly magnificent and listed in the top twenty of the Great British Gardens guide. It’s not just the unique historical setting, it’s the skill and delicacy of the planting. A team of six full time gardeners and several volunteers keep the estate in impeccable order, ensuring that there is something to delight in every season.
The grand Italianate terraces are formed from the solid rock and are part of the baroque gardens which survive almost intact since the 17th and 18th centuries.
There is a 30ft high yew hedge and also yew “tumps” dating from the 17th century which have been clipped and shaped and appear as organic sculptures with fascinating architectural interiors.
The borders are planted with all manner of unusual herbaceous flowers and the walls of the south-facing Aviary and Orangery have a sub-tropical microclimate for rarer species.
More formal gardens lie below the terraces and include pyramid apple trees and a vine archway as well as more traditional cottage garden plants and roses. Set among these gardens is The Bothy – a 3 bedroom holiday home which can be rented throughout the season. The fountain glitters in the sunshine and there are benches to rest and enjoy the tranquility and peace.
There is also a gentle and shady Woodland Walk with a mixture of old oaks, horse chestnuts and maples and a gorgeous display of rhododendrons in the Spring. Here there is a lake with irises and areas left for wild flowers to encourage biodiversity.
You could happily spend several hours here, drinking in the beauty of the gardens and absorbing many aspects of Britain’s past. A very worthwhile visit.
VISITING POWIS CASTLE AND GARDENS
How to get to Powis Castle
Postcode: SY21 8RF
Public Transport: By train to Welshpool then a 30 minute walk or 5 minute taxi ride from the station.
By bus to Welshpool from Shrewsbury or Oswestry, then a 30 minute walk or 5 minute taxi ride from the High Street.
Parking: There is plenty of free parking on site
When is Castle Powis and Gardens open?
Castle and Clive Museum: 12 - 4pm daily
Gardens 10am - 5pm daily
How much does it cost to visit Powis Castle?
Free with NT membership
Family Tickets available
Are there any facilities at Powis Castle?
Cafes, loos, shop and a second hand bookshop