Above image credit: image_less_ordinary via Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Welsh Marches – the counties on the border between England and Wales – are often overlooked by visitors to Britain. This is a pity, because the area can boast beautiful, unspoilt scenery and a wealth of fascinating museums and historic houses. Powis Castle and Garden, situated in the Welsh county of Powys near the market town of Welshpool, is perhaps the most impressive of them all.
As well as its historic interiors and beautiful gardens, Powis Castle retains its impressive collection of artworks and furniture, assembled by successive generations of the Herbert family who owned the castle until 1952. I realise that it may be stretching a little to call the castle a ‘museum’; the building is still displayed as a family home, and most of the collections can be seen in their original settings. However, the variety and quality of the items on display would, I think, make many museums envious!
The rooms of the castle present a fascinating variety of historical eras and styles, reflecting different phases of the castle’s long history. The items on display are equally varied. Many were collected by the Herberts during visits to Europe, including a remarkable series of giant marble busts of the Roman Caesars, eight of which are arranged in chronological order along the Elizabethan Long Gallery. However, there are also many fine examples of British craftsmanship, including a pair of clocks by Thomas Tompion - renowned as the ‘father of English clock-making’. As you might expect, the castle contains many fine paintings, including a stunning view of Verona by Bernardo Bellotto (nephew of the more famous Canaletto). However, my personal favourite is the portrait of Lady Henrietta Herbert by Sir Joshua Reynolds – you will find it in the Dining Room. If you look carefully, you can see where her original tall hairstyle was repainted as a blue hat, in order to keep up with changing fashions!
There is also a small museum room which houses the Clive Collection of Indian artefacts. These were collected in the late 18th century by Robert Clive (the famous ‘Clive of India’) and his son Edward, who had married Lady Henrietta in 1784. Many of these items were captured from the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, after he was deposed in 1799. Highlights include an exquisite gold tiger head that once adorned Tipu’s throne, and a section of the enormous chintz tent which he used as his campaign headquarters. It must be acknowledged that these objects embody the problematic legacy of Britain’s colonial past. However, the National Trust, the castle’s current custodians, are very aware of such concerns. I understand that a research project is currently underway which will provide a better understanding of the collection’s history, and inform discussions about its future display and interpretation.
There is lots to see inside the castle, but do allow time to see the gardens as well, for they are of great historic interest in themselves. The terraces, laid out down the steep hillside below the castle, are one of the few examples of Baroque formal garden design to survive in Britain. Their upper levels offer a stunning view towards the Breidden Hills, which mark the border between England and Wales. By contrast, at the bottom of the hill you will find a wooded ridge and a wild meadow. These contrasting environments add greatly to the interest of the gardens - you can sit with a book among the bright flowerbeds or wander in the shade of the trees, according to your mood.
Whether you are a country house connoisseur or simply a casual visitor, Powis Castle cannot fail to impress. Its collections are so varied that almost everybody will find something of interest. I’ve sometimes heard the house criticised for being ‘too dark’, but the low light levels are necessary in order to conserve the castle’s delicate textiles and lacquered furniture. Visitors should not allow this to deter them from venturing inside, for they would miss seeing one of the most interesting and authentic stately homes in Britain.
I must confess that my view may be slightly biased; I began my museum career as a volunteer at Powis, so I naturally hold the place in great affection. Nevertheless, I’m confident that very few stately homes in Britain can match the quality of the castle’s collections, or the beauty of its gardens.
Location: Powis Castle, Welshpool, Powys, SY21 8RF
If driving, the castle is signposted from the A483 and on-site parking is free. By public transport, the town of Welshpool is accessible via bus and train, with the castle around a 1-mile uphill walk, or 8 min taxi ride away.
Admission: free for National Trust members. For non-members, £14.20 (adult) and £7.10 (child), with family, group and off-peak ticket discounts available.
Opening Hours: times vary through the year, typically 11am – 4pm. Please note, the property is temporarily closed at time of writing (June 2020), so check the castle’s website or social media feeds before setting out.
Accessibility: The castle’s hilltop setting may pose a challenge for visitors with limited mobility, and wheelchair access to the castle itself is extremely limited. Visitors can find more information on the facilities and an access statement on the castle’s website.
* * *
Murray Tremellen is an architectural historian whose interests span the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. He is currently a PhD candidate with the University of York; his research aims to provide the first detailed study of the original Speaker’s House within the Palace of Westminster, 1794-1834.
Before returning to full time study, Murray worked for the National Trust from 2013-19, latterly as Assistant House Steward at Uppark House & Garden. As a member of house staff, Murray took on a diverse range of responsibilities including preventive conservation and volunteer management. His ultimate aspiration is to be become a curator.