At last, after a decade of work, we’ve taken down the ropes to reveal a restored jewel in the crown of Bodnant Garden – Furnace Wood and Meadow, a 20 acre woodland of native and exotic trees and a wildflower-rich meadow.
We celebrated our big opening day with the help of special guests – Dame Helen Ghosh (Director General of the National Trust), Justin Albert (Director for National Trust in Wales), Michael McLaren (Bodnant Garden Director and member of the garden’s donor family) and the naturalist and broadcaster Iolo Williams…and most importantly with our visitors, who we welcomed to Furnace for the first time in the garden’s history.
After speeches from our guests, arborist Richard performed the ‘ribbon-cutting’ (cutting a log with a chainsaw) to open the garden for a sunny afternoon of celebrations – guided walks by gardeners, woodcraft demonstrations, plant hunter activities for children in the wood and daffodil planting in the meadow. Iolo rounded off the day for us by sharing out the 1m square cake to visitors – a baking triumph by our catering team for which we almost needed the chainsaw again (because of its size, not texture!)
This beautiful and historic area has been at the heart of a 21st century battle against plant disease and decay. Its rescue is the biggest conservation effort in Bodnant’s history and brings us closer to our ambition of opening the entire garden to the public.
Head gardener John Rippin says: “The opening is a high point in the garden’s 140-year history. This segment of the garden is the last significant piece of the Bodnant jigsaw to be fitted into place – with 75 of the 80 acres now open, we are now tantalisingly close to the day when visitors can enjoy all of this gardening masterpiece.
Furnace Hill lies alongside the west bank of the River Hiraethlyn in the valley garden. It is named after a blast furnace known to have operated in the area in the 1700s. Originally a hillside dotted with native trees, it was transformed from the 1870s under Bodnant Garden’s owner Henry Pochin and his daughter Laura McLaren, who planted North American conifers. Laura’s son Henry added many Asian rhododendrons and magnolias from the early 1900s.
Lying on the fringes of the estate, Furnace remained a private area for many decades, beloved by the McLaren donor family who cherished its tranquillity and its panoramic views, and filled it with exotic trees and shrubs from foreign lands.
As recently as February 2017 gardeners faced another struggle, when Storm Doris brought down several trees in the renovated area
In around 2007 the killer plant disease Phytophthora ramorum (Sudden Oak death) was spotted in the garden where it began attacking ornamental plants, particularly in Furnace Wood. Gardeners acted quickly; there followed a campaign of action supervised by DEFRA, to mass clear the area of purple woodland Rhododendron ponticum and other species such as larch trees which carried the disease. While some plants were lost, the spaces left behind gave gardeners an opportunity to plant anew and kick-started a major renovation.
This has included the restoration of the Penjerrick Walk, an avenue of rare rhododendrons originally planted by Henry McLaren, 2nd Lord Aberconway, from the 1920s. The feature had died out but Bodnant Garden has been able to clone surviving plant material and replant the 100 metre-long walkway, which it is hoped will rival the famous Laburnum Arch in future.
As well as containing a historic collection of magnolias, rhododendrons and other Asian plants, Furnace Wood offers visitors panoramic views over the rest of the garden, including a bird’s-eye vista of the Italianate terraces on the other side of the river.
While the plants, views and seclusion of Furnace Wood will delight lovers of horticulture, nearby Furnace Meadow is rich in wildlife. The garden team are managing this grassland in a traditional way to promote the rich diversity of species there.
John Rippin adds: “Furnace Wood and Meadow offer extraordinary glimpses across the surrounding Welsh countryside but the biggest surprise for visitors will be breath-taking views of the Terraces and Bodnant Hall and out across the Vale of Conwy where the estuary meanders close by against the stunning backdrop of the Carneddau mountain range. Add to that the abundance of rare or beautiful trees, shrubs and wild flowers along with a sense of tranquility and peace and you have something truly spectacular.”