Dyffryn Fernant - the essence of sense of place

Plant and garden expert Noël Kingsbury visits Dyffryn Fernant, a garden set on the edge of Pembrokeshire's Preseli Hills, and considers the essence of creating a true sense of place

c. Claire Takacs

Dyffryn Fernant

'Sense of place' is one of those often used but rather abused terms, often bandied around but rarely defined. For the garden at Dyffryn Fernant it is, however, central. Christina Shand, the garden's creator talks about it as a central concept, and it is, for a change, very clear what she means. Stand on the mount in what she calls the Magic Garden and you get a view over the whole and on over the surrounding landscape to the rocky hillock of Garn Fawr.

This provides an axis for the garden' not for its physical or legal limits but its occupation of visual space. Garn Fawr is not 'borrowed landscape' in the classical Japanese sense - it is not framed tightly enough for that, instead it is very strongly just there, its just-about-visible rockiness and bracken-covered slopes a reminder of where we are – west Wales.

The other way in which the elusive sense of placeness is manifested is the way the garden is tied into the landscape through the presence of local wild flora, seeping, creeping, seeding and rhizoming its way in, especially in the Bog Garden, and those areas such as the meadow, which are basically wild nature anyway, just defined as 'garden' by legal writ, and whose sense of gardenness is affirmed only by the presence of certain plants that manifestly are not part of the native flora: Gunnera manicata, and some tree ferns planted in a grove.

Some purists might find these Southern Hemispshere exotics an affront, but to me they are about expressing the fluidity of the garden's boundaries and the fluidity of our notions of gardeness and wildness.

How does a garden express a 'sense of place'? First we need to be sure of what the 'place' is. For me, Dyffryn Fernant encapsulates what I would call West Coast, or perhaps since that expression will probably make most of think first of The Beach Boys and California surf, maybe Atlantic Coast would be better. Here, ever the wind. The mild, but often gusty, and frequently stormy and rain-laden, ever-present wind. Trees bear the obvious imprint - often sculpted into shapes which indicate exactly where the prevailing reading of the Beaufort Scale comes from.

Dyffryn Fernant is by no means coastal but it still has that characteristic slightly blown-about air. The surrounding landscape has some woods, but it is the bare hillsides which makes the biggest impression, and the landscape one has come through to get here.

There is a gaunt but homely similarity to all these Atlantic regions, a hilly treelessness but with an intimacy of slope and valley that is always well short of grandeur, let alone intimidation. The hedge-packaged fields are mostly small; many will be extremely ancient, for it must often have been the pre-Celtic people who made the divisions. It is a landscape which has more obviously been lived in for longer than others, the frequent ancient monuments: standing stones, tumuli, and occasional holy wells assure us of that. Hedges are important and imposing, and their bases characteristically full of wild flowers in spring, sprouting bracken and willow herb later. This hilly sea-facing land is very similar in west Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Ireland, parts of Scotland, and I am told, Galicia.

The winds off the Atlantic may be almost constant but they are not cold. The prevailing westerlies are warmed by it, and so raise the temperature in winter (and often cool it in summer). So there is the paradox of the physical battering by the wind but also the way that autumns just go on and on, and so do springs. Sometimes they meet, and there are years when it seems as if there is no summer and no winter.









This is a great growing climate for a lot of plants - indeed climates with almost no winter and no summer must be a kind of plant heaven for many species. Dyffryn Fernant is one of those gardens which seems to make the most of this, with dahlias and pelargoniums flowering until November, when they are hoiked out simply to make way for tulip bulbs.

The area around the cottage, the absolutely typical-of-the-locale kind of small windowed stone cottage, is full of the brightly coloured and rather tender things such as dahlias and pelargoniums and salvias and agapanthus that perhaps we think at first might not belong here as they seem too bright for the muted tones of this relatively subtle landscape.

Increasingly though these are becoming the plants of the Atlantic garden, as despite the cool summers they flourish; late-flowering species can carry on flowering for months, sometime almost to Christmas, this in fact being one of the great charms of gardening in this part of the world – what is lacking in heat is made up for in length of time there is a gentle warmth.

Exuberant late perennials are the modern and democratic face of the Atlantic Garden. For the last hundred years or so, this climatic regions was more famous for another kind of garden, which as time goes on comes to seem rather anachronistic. I am thinking of the valley or woodland garden, which we mostly associate with Cornwall but which sprouts its expansive foliage at a number of locations up the Welsh coast and whose last example before the seas stretch to Iceland flourishes famously at Inverewe in Scotland.

The towering rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias of this garden genre are so not of the place, so alien to the landscape that at one level they come across as a kind of absurdity, and indeed have to their absurdity sheltered from it behind great shelter belts of oak, sycamore and pine. The great thing about Dyffryn's summer planting is that its scale means that it only needs the shelter of the old stone walls around the house, or can be cut back and protected under cover in a modest polytunnel over the winter.








The stone around the cottage is a potent reminder of the underlying geology of the landscape (and indeed isn't all landscape just a thin skin over geology) and of the agricultural past of the property (and isn't gardening making just a thin shallow layer atop centuries of farming). These waist-high walls and crudely concreted yards once held sheep, the building that now houses the library, potatoes. All this is now planted. There is a great gift here for finding places for plants, colonising odd nooks and crannies amongst the ancient stones with growth.

Colourful planting around the house and the expansive perennial planting of the Orchard Garden, accompanied by an assortment of clipped shrubbery makes up the core of the garden. Naturalistic enough to not feel out of place but to very definitely be read as 'garden', there is more ambiguity in the Bog Garden, where the naturalising exuberance of the kind of things that grow in bog gardens make it feel wilder, like various Himalayan primulas and purple loosestrife, along with the horsetail, that most unbeatable of weeds, which Christina admits she has given up trying to control, “I have a relationship with it” she says. This area feels liminal, on the edge. Christina does talk about having to rationalise the garden at some point; this may be one of the first areas to be 'let go'.

It is always interesting and fun to speculate on what might happen to a particular garden if it were to be abandoned. Here, there is the Waun Fach to provide an instructive example of such speculation, an area of rough grass which is never cut or maintained, edged by the low scrubby willow so common along streamlines or damp ground all along the Atlantic fringe. Despite its rough texture there are plenty of wildflowers, the off-white umbels of Angelica sylvestris being particularly prominent. This and other species every now and again infiltrate the garden, which they are allowed to within limits. Every now and again there is a small glimpse of a view of Waun Fach, as if it lurks there as a reminder of what is to come if nature were to regain control.

There is in fact, at Dyffryn a very definite sense of Christina being in control, and perhaps it's the creative tension between letting go and control which, as in so many gardens, is actually a big part of the secret of its success.

One element of control here which I actually find quite hard to understand however is the grass garden in Nicky's Field. The field is actually named for the sessile oak which Christina planted as a memorial for her brother Nicky, “my younger brother, killed in an accident in Australia in October 1996, famous over there for his newspaper writing and radical politics!”. There are big blocks of ornamental grasses. It is like a test plot, its blockiness and the biggness of its blockiness somehow seems out of scale with the subtlety of the rest.

Maybe that is the point. One way to think about it is as if it were some sort of abstract artwork. Christina describes the grass blocks as “a place to lie flat on your back and look up at the different species, to hear the different sounds they make and see the different light effects during the day and through the seasons”.

Most of all here I love the freewheeling to-ing and fro-ing between very good and very imaginative plant-focused  gardening and the welcoming in of the wild. The blending and mingling and co-existing. This is the very best of Atlantic coast garden making.


Dyffryn Fernant Garden
Pembrokeshire SA65 9SP

Tel 01348 811282
Open every day, April to October, 12-6pm.




• Photography by Claire Takacs

• Noel Kingsbury has written a further feautre on the garden at Dyffryn Fernant for the September issue 238. Read more from Noel on gardens he's visited on his blog at noels-garden.blogspot.co.uk/

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