The National Botanic Garden of Wales (NBGW) has a rich cultural heritage. Its near six hundred acres encompass and comprise the site of the historically significant country estate of William Paxton, the leading 18th century landowner, businessman, politician and nabob of the empire. The regency mansion, landscaped gardens and park are well known and already form part of the historical narrative of the Garden. What is less well known is that these were pre-dated by the plas, gardens and park of the equally significant, Middleton family whose roots lay in the Powys gentry and medieval Prince lines. After one branch of the family moved in the 16th century to Carmarthenshire it rose to prominence, gaining regional eminence and, indeed, national importance, becoming variously Lord Mayor of London, a sea captain crucial to defeating the designs of Phillip of Spain and a key provider of improvements to the utilities of the nation’s capital city.
Preliminary archaeological and historical investigation has identified the potential site of the original Middleton house and its formal gardens. The house, sited on a large platform, is believed to have been a major Jacobean or early neo-classical structure incorporating an earlier mediaeval hall, while the extensive formal gardens seem to have consisted of terraces, ponds and a complex water garden, befitting the man who created the New River in London to solve that city’s water supply problems.
The themes of this project are:
- extending the time depth of the Garden’s historical narrative;
- confirming the identification of the site and the quality of its archaeological survival;
- evaluating its potential for the revelation and presentation of this site within the Garden’s overall strategy which is in the process of regeneration;
- linking the modern Garden with its wider cultural landscape (both the Paxton Picturesque features and the ancient parkland of the designated National Nature Reserve);
- raising the capacity of the Garden’s volunteer force to engage with the historic landscapes.
There is also an important synergy within the region with other major designed landscapes with related histories which are part of the attraction for the cultural tourist, notably Dinefwr and Aberglasney, neither of which have garden remains of this period surviving in such quality as they appear to have in the NBGW. These gardens would complete the regional story. The NBGW is an iconic institution that comprises a unique blend in Wales of the ancient and the modern and this element of its history represents a previously undiscovered jewel of great potential worth.
Additionally, the discovery of a formal Renaissance and perhaps medieval garden and ponds is significant and relevant from a botanical perspective, especially as it is enclosed within an existing and iconic formal garden. NBGW has consolidated its reputation for conservation, education and inspiration during the course of its first ten years and this project will allow it to contextualise its work from an archaeo-botanic perspective.
Here’s an illustration of Dinefwr House circa 1650 – Dinefwr is just 7 miles away, on the outskirts of Llandeilo. Might we be looking for a site that looked like this?
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Who’s in Charge?
Support is being provided by the University of Trinity St Davids (School of Archaeology, History and Anthropology), Swansea University, and the RCAHMW under the academic leadership of Professor David Austin, Professor Tavi Murray and Dr Rosie Plummer Director of the NBGW.