On a bright, sunny day that turned out to be seriously hot, we decided to go to Cholmondeley Castle Gardens. It’s a great place to go on a hot day because there are lots of open areas if you like the sun, but a lot of leafy shade beneath the trees to keep you cool. I had no idea that it was so near to the Chester-Wrexham area, just to the east of Bickerton. I had never been there before, although it was a favourite of my parents. The castle is not open to the public, but the gardens are, albeit only a few days a week (so do check before you go), and are very impressive.
We parked at the far left of the car park field (see map at end) and entered through the gate at the corner of the field and the drive, which allows you to enter on the flat. Along the front of the field there are other points of access too, one of which leads straight up a long slope towards the castle and offers a great view.
Cholmondeley Castle itself is the brainchild of a vivid imagination, a hotchpotch of ideas assembled in 1801-02 and added to later in the 19th century. The castle is not open to the public, but the gardens, which are open several days a week, reach right up to the edge of the castle’s own private garden area, giving a great view of the exterior. According to the website, the Cholmondeley family have occupied the site since the Norman period, but the current castle replaces an earlier hall, a decision by George James, 4th Earl of Cholmondeley. It was designed by local architect William Turner of Whitchurch, and was extended in 1817–1819. In 1828 turrets designed by Sir Robert Smirke were added, and the castle has not been much changed since. It was occupied by the current earl’s mother Lavinia until her death in 2015, and is not now permanently inhabited.
The garden consists of naturalistic water features, formal gardens, a 19th century celebration of classical ruins, all set within an arboretum. It has an awful lot going for it.
The large ponds are not neat and formal rectangles, but look natural, whether or not they are, with large colonies of water lilies on the water, and water-loving plants along their edges. They feature small mock-temples, some of them on artificial islands, which are clearly not authentic but are a lot of fun, typical of a lot of 19th century and earlier celebrations of classical architecture. The first of these that you reach from the car park is the Temple Garden Pond.
The formal border, called the Lavinia Walk, leading from the Temple Pond via a rose garden to a small circular domed pavilion, is sensational, with a glorious mix of penstemon, alstromeria, roses, phlox, eremerus, rudbeckia, crocosmia, salvia, delphiniums, dahlias and lots of other brightly coloured species, some of them climbing parallel rows of round-topped obelisks that flank the path.
The second pond, the Folly Garden Pond and surrounding garden, is another aquatic treat, connected to the Temple Pond. As well as some magnificent hostas, apparently untroubled by slugs, and a lovely cornus kousa in a shade of deep rose pink, is a walnut grove and some wonderfully scented, heady meadowsweet. Slender, brilliant electric blue damsel flies were a wonderful, shimmering, endlessly shifting light show.
As well as these main areas of focus, there are some fun architectural and structural features between the main run of gardens, some excellent walks in the wooded and grass areas that sit between the main footpaths, and some superb flowering shrubs dotted everywhere. This is the sort of garden that has a central focus in the form of a formal garden, but also provides considerable rewards in return for wandering around to get a full sense of the place.
The trees, which in a traditional estate garden would be a narrow range of species dotted around parkland, such as at Chirk Castle, are far more closely spaced and include many varieties, and are an essential part of the garden landscape at Cholmondeley, a proper arboretum. Dotted around are some enormous and gorgeous hydrangeas, and in one meadow, tellingly named Orchid Meadow, we spotted beautiful wild orchids (shown left). In spring, the Tower Hill Woodlands contain a bluebell walk and plentiful rhododendrons, there’s a laburnum grove to the east of the Lavinia Walk and running along the line of the Ha Ha is a daffodil walk.
One visitor that we met said that he was disappointed that the once manicured grass on slopes and borders surrounding the main area was no longer being cut, and was being allowed to run wild. He speculated that this was due to the rise fuel costs. At the same time, it looked as though some areas were being redeveloped. Like all managed gardens, whether big or small, they all undergo change as new ideas are incorporated or new needs have to be accommodated.
There are details of some of the species to see on the Cholmondeley Castle Gardens website on The Gardens page. Something that looked like giant rhubarb (and I do mean giant, shown on one of the above photos around the lake) with thorny stems turns out to be Brazilian giant-rhubarb or, more formally, Gunnera manicata. I was particularly pleased to find that the row of trees that flanked the drive just as we approached the car park were identified on the website: Tibetan Whitebeam, or more formally Sorbus thibetica ‘John Mitchell’ (which has an RHS Award of Garden Merit). It is quite sensational with large oval leaves, light green on one side and almost white and slightly furry on the other. We missed both its flower (spring) and fruit (autumn) but even without either they were still very eye-catching.
As you drive in to park up, you pass a sizeable lake, and there are additionally lakeside walks, as well as a picnic are and children’s play area, all accessible from the main car parking area. From the tearoom, the drive continues behind the castle, and a 20 minute walk away is the St Nicholas Chapel.
The opening times and ticket prices are updated on the Cholmondeley Castle Gardens on the Your visit page. It is not particularly well sign-posted so I would suggest that you either prepare in advance or use GPS.
We were handed a very useful map on arrival, shown left, which ensured that we did not miss anything of the gardens, and which also shows potential disabled access. My creased copy is shown left, but you can download a pristine copy from the Cholmondeley Castle Gardens website here.
Parking is at a field on the approach to the castle. Disabled parking is at the tea room, which can be reached by continuing past the main parking zone, along the lane and through the stunning white gates to the tea room and the disabled parking is behind the tea room.
The tea room itself was overwhelmed with visitors when we were there, and was unimpressive. It was a hot day and as well as being airless and steaming inside the tea room, the girl on the ice cream counter could not take payment, so customers had to take their rapidly melting ice creams and stand at the end of the queue for drinks and meals to pay for them, which took some time. It was all a bit of a sticky, disorganized mess. On the other hand, the outside seating, on the usual wooden tables with attached benches, located in both sun and shade, with views over the garden and towards the ornate gate, was very pleasant.
If the weather is nice, I’d opt for a picnic on a groundsheet under the garden’s trees, which several people were doing, overlooking the water. It all looked like a very mellow option.
I am not sure how friendly the gardens are to wheelchair users and those who have any difficulty walking. The map shows metalled lanes and gravel parks that are in theory friendly to both, but if you want to see the main attractions of the gardens there are some gradients and stairs that might pose problems or, should you be looking for ways round, may be difficult to circumnavigate.