The steep sided valley of the Afon Llan provided the inspiration for what became one of the most romantic landscapes in Wales.
It was created by John Dillwyn Llewelyn and consolidated by his son John Talbot Dillwyn Llewelyn. Like many gentry families of the period the Dillwyn Llewelyns had a lively interest in natural history and the emerging sciences.
Their vision of design and planting has become known as ‘the picturesque’ style and was much favoured by landowners in early Victorian Britain.
Gone were the days of the rural idyll as exemplified by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and his followers; now nature was seen (and more importantly ‘experienced’) as something wilder, informal, less predictable and more gothic.
Nature was viewed as a succession of vistas, like ‘pictures’, (emulating those of the painters, Poussin and Claude) and designed to stimulate both the senses and the emotions.
At Penllergare, John Dillwyn Llewelyn exploited the natural beauty of the site and created an ornamental park of great variation and mood that he stocked with a rich assortment of trees and shrubs, native and exotic plants. During the 19th century the plant collectors were bringing back rare species from all over the world and Penllergare was a happy beneficiary.
The valley sides were planted principally with oaks but also included carefully positioned hemlocks, swamp cypresses, wellingtonias and cryptomerias with an under storey of selected species and varieties of rhododendrons and hardy azaleas some of which were bred at Penllergare.
The new drive from the south, with its three lodges, was one of John’s first major projects and remains largely intact to this day.
Surrounding the house were more formal gardens, a tennis court, summerhouse and walkways, with many paths leading down into the valley, along natural terraces and down flights of steps.
It had three islands, a decorative rose-covered shanty used as a boathouse and a variety of water lilies planted along the margins.
At one end, damming the river, John designed a waterfall of rough quarried stone that, today, has become the focal point of Penllergare.
The Lower Lake was altogether larger and the preferred site for sporting activities.
It had a large boathouse at the north end with steeply pitched roof and upper room, where the family had picnics, and a small boat jetty on the eastern side.
The lower dam was constructed of dressed stone, with sluice gates and tunnels to control the flow of water, and an impressive cascade.
The Kitchen and Walled Garden
Most substantial estates had walled gardens to provide the house with fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the year.At Penllergare the kitchen and walled gardens covered five acres and contained the outer (hedge surrounded) forcing and plant houses, frame-yard, melon ground, gardener’s house and bothy; while the inner garden, protected by high stone walls, was laid out in quarter beds divided by gravel walks.
Espalier and pyramid shaped fruit trees grew alongside the paths while against the walls peach trees were trained. With the help of many glasshouses the season for all fruit was prolonged.
Vegetables and soft fruit were grown in the quarter beds with another area devoted to growing flowers for the house. Set into the walls were potting and storerooms and the stoves that controlled the elaborate heating system.
In the middle of the walled gardens John Dillwyn Llewelyn created his unique orchideous house. Since 1835 he was developing a great interest in the cultivation and display of orchids and in 1836 he wrote to his father:“The Stove (heated greenhouse) has a great promise all know that. The back of the stove which I had left unfinished I have now determined on glazing – It will be only small and entirely given up to Orchis – 100 degrees of heat and an atmosphere saturated with water, is the enjoyment I promise myself and my pets – I intend them to flower there and to rest after the exertion in a dryer and cooler place”.
An article he wrote for the first edition of the Journal of the Horticultural Society (1846) survives as evidence of the design, together with a ground and elevation plan and a drawing of the rockwork cascade.