Fonmon Castle was originally built around 1180, We presume that some form of garden was started from that time to help supplement the diet of the owners, their families and staff. Unfortunately however, no early records remain of anything close in to the main building.
Further out from the Castle, it is clear that the orchard was more extensive than it is today and beyond the paddocks for the domestic animals was an area for ‘harvesting’ rabbits, then a popular food stuff. Earlier called the Coneygrye, this area now survives, as do the rabbits, as a field named the Cernacre.
The castle itself had a wall curtilage extending to some acres which is supposed to have been for the protecting of the animals and possessions of the local villagers during times of what was politely called ‘unrest’ – this normally meant the local Welsh rebelling against their Norman French rulers. Today this forms the primary boundary of the gardens although it is not always obvious where the original edges ran, owing to 17th, 18th and 19th century alterations.
The prime changes came in the 18th century when the castle itself was remodelled by Robert Jones III. Robert III’s changes between 1760 – 1790 left the gardens much as they are today, with the one major exception being that the approach drive was moved around 1870 from the south to the west.
Today a visitor comes over the bridge crossing the modern Cardiff airport bypass to find firstly an area of large trees acting as a protective screen from the prevailing westerly winds. The trees are interspersed with shrubs to provide tempting glimpses of the castle, stables and gardens to the east.
After parking, the route to the Castle passes by the old well head and through the 1870 gap in the walls. The driveway to the front door bisects the gardens into North and South. On the South side, three herbaceous borders run around the stable block, itself an 18th c conversion from of the old tithe barn. Various large shrubs are interspaced with roses and climbers running up the walls. Beyond is a lightly planted area mostly of specimen trees, which used to be the old grass tennis court.
Then to the South East lies the Watch Tower with the remains of the old walls flanking it and a small grass border to the north. Further north lies the Dell garden which holds typical shade and damp loving plants such as gunnera, a collection of ferns, bamboo and bulbs. A pale Metasequoia glyptostroides contrasts with the enormous copper beech overhanging from the upper terrace.
The top of the dell is planted with small borders backed with climbing roses and leads round to the copper beech tree. This exceptional specimen is thought to have been planted in about 1815 and effectively sits in a giant “pot” comprising of walls on three sides and the edge of the limestone underlying the lawns on the fourth. From the copper beech, a border leads back to the south front of the castle, again planted with herbaceous and shrub planting.
The castle itself is partially covered by Virginia Creeper planted before 1900 and making a spectacular crimson sheet in autumn. Just to the west of the south wing is a century-old Garrya elliptica, which offers fine catkins up to 30cms long in early spring.
The north lawn is flanked by further borders and a small shrubbery. Through a gate in the wall backing a magnificent fuchsia border is an intimate small walled garden with a wide variety of shrubs and an old sundial. From the NW corner of this garden a door leads through to the Scented Garden with its small summerhouse and another sundial of a different style.
From the scented garden, another door leads into the larger Walled Garden with a Herb Garden on the right behind a fine beech hedge. This garden is mostly given over to fruit and vegetable production and was once believed to be the largest fully functioning kitchen garden in Glamorgan.
A small iron gate in the north wall leads out to the orchard area beyond and a level track can be followed past the bees, through the beech grove and back across the Cernacre and the Forty Acre fields (the latter once know as the ‘Lord’s Demesne’).
There is something to enjoy at almost all times of the year with the best periods being from April to September when the gardens are open to the public every Tuesday and Wednesday from 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm and castle tours are available at 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00 pm.
Almost all the areas described are accessible by wheelchair with the Dell garden requiring some skilled ‘driving’ (although it can be seen more safely from above). Other parts require crossing grass which may be a problem in wet weather.
PLEASE NOTE: Assistance Dogs only allowed in the gardens