Update from the director

Published on 19 Jun 2018
Map of woodlands at St Beuno's

by Fr Roger Dawson SJ

One of the great joys for me at St Beuno’s are the gardens and grounds.  We have a beautiful location with peerless views across the Vale of Clwyd and out to the Great Orme and, on a clear day, even to Snowdonia.  Over the last four years since I have been Director we have spent over £100,000 on the gardens.  Many retreatants have commented on how much they have improved and the contribution that the beauty and variety of the gardens make to their retreat.  Thanks are due to Steve our gardener, Jim and Lee (grounds maintenance) and Rob and Bernard who do the lawns and the hedges, all ably overseen by Sister Anne Morris, Deputy Director. 

No planned care of the woodlands has been undertaken in living memory (Jesuits who have known the house for over 50 years confirm this).  This means that over the years many trees have self-seeded, become overcrowded and grown up higher as they reach for light, obscuring the views and crowding out other trees.    Several years ago I asked our Land Agent to undertake a woodland survey so that we could get the woods and trees into ‘managed woodland’ with three objectives: 1. to improve the wildlife habitat; 2. to improve the trees as part of the gardens; and 3. to ensure that the trees are sustainable and safe.  As a result of this survey we have commissioned Tilhill Forestry to embark on a five year ‘woodland management plan’ to start to enhance the beautiful grounds and location that is so much a part of St Beuno’s.  To ensure that these works proceed in a way that fully respects both the setting and building, we have engaged the services of a landscape architect, Andrew Sumner of Richards, Moorehead & Laing, to advise us.  Andrew is very experienced in 19th -century gardens and grounds and has worked on numerous National Trust properties and gardens, including Bodnant Gardens in the Conwy Valley. 

The first part of this five year plan will start in late June/early July 2018 and will involve a considerable amount of felling as well as raising the canopy in the woods by removing lower branches in order to get more light into the woods and open up the views.  This in turn will allow the growth of more varied flora, which will attract more wildlife.  There is no ideal time of the year to do this (we had to delay doing the work in March/April, as the ground was too wet), and it will be noisy, disruptive and there will be some mess due to branches and tracks needed for vehicles to access the woods.  We will take great care not to disturb wildlife unduly – and indeed there are strict legal constraints on us. 

I hope you will understand that this is part of a major plan to improve and restore the woodlands and gardens for the benefit of many for years to come.  Without this work the woodland would deteriorate.  After we commence this we can embark on a programme of planting new trees to assure the beauty of the grounds for future generations.  I have asked Andrew to explain the works to you in his own words below.

Fr Roger Dawson SJ

Director of St Beuno's 

Andrew Sumner, Landscape Architect, explains the project:

You are probably aware that over the last few years a programme of repairs and conservation work on the historic building has commenced at St Beuno’s.  When the building was first built, between 1846 and 1849, it stood in a landscape of pastures and field hedges.  The site of the former Jesuit College was chosen for the fabulous views west across the Vale of Clwyd. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins attended St. Beuno’s College in the 1870s and he wrote about the gardens to his father.  He wrote ‘all heights, terraces, Excelsiors, misty mountain tops, seats called Crows Nests, flights of steps seemingly up to heaven lined with burning aspiration upon aspiration of scarlet geraniums: it is very pretty and airy but it gives you the impression that if you took a step farther you would find yourself on Penlimmon, Conway Castle, or Salisbury Craig’. 

By the time the college buildings were extended, between 1873 and 1877, formal gardens had been laid out on the hillside above and below the building.  Walks, orchards and ornamental gardens were also laid out to the south of the building and woodland planted to provide a setting and a backdrop to the gardens.  The formal terraces remain, and the woodland has matured, although much of the original planting and path surfacing has been lost.  In the last 60 years or so the resources available have not been sufficient to maintain the gardens to the original demanding Victorian standards.  Self-sown ash and sycamore trees have spread in many areas and many planted trees and shrubs have outgrown their setting.  An example of this growth can be seen to the west of the Retreat Centre.  Here the once wide and impressive vista westwards across the Vale of Clwyd is now screened by trees (see arrows on the map).  Even in winter, when the trees are leafless, the view is obscured.  Until a few years ago tall evergreen laurels added to the screen and the western terraces had no view at all. 

The gardens are Grade II Listed on the Cadw/International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.  Recognising the historic and cultural importance of the gardens the St Beuno’s Retreat Centre have decided that now is the best time to commence with a programme of woodland management and selective tree felling.  Without this work the condition of the woodland and the gardens would deteriorate.  The woodland management and tree felling will be carried out carefully to avoid harm to birds, mammals and other native species, such as bluebells, that inhabit the area.  The following notes explain what is happening and the reference number with the bold headings refer to the map above. 

Woodland above the upper garden terraces

This woodland consists of beech, oak, larch and other species. A virulent tree disease called Phytophthera ramorum is spreading through north Wales and larch trees are very susceptible to this disease. Once infected they become a vector in passing it on to other species in the woodland. To avoid this catastrophe the larch in (1A) will be clear felled and replaced by young deciduous native trees.  The remaining areas will be carefully thinned. The work will be carried out by forestry contractors in such a way as to minimise damage to the fine display of bluebells and other native species of woodland plants.

Trees below the western garden terraces

Many of the trees in this area are self-sown and the intention here is to remove all of these, as well as the laurels, and leave only a few specimens such as the horse chestnut, so that the wide views west are opened up once more and the area is managed as part of the gardens. 

Woodland to the north of the lower terraces

This area was originally open ground, but during the 1870s trees were planted to form a large grassy glade with specimen trees around the edge.  A fine copper beech and two wellingtonia trees are still present.  Here the tree felling will remove the larches and other trees to open up the glade (3A) and thin the surrounding woodland.

Spruce plantation south of the lower terraces

Once an area of orchards, this area was planted with spruce trees as a short-term crop of Christmas trees.  Thirty years later the crop has not been removed and now forms a dense evergreen plantation. The Retreat Centre intend to gradually clear the spruce trees and to develop an arboretum of ornamental trees.  The work will be implemented in phases. In the first year, the spruce trees on the land furthest from the retreat centre (4A) will be clear felled, leaving a scattering of ash trees.  The area closest to the centre (4B) would be carefully thinned to allow more light to reach the ground.  In later years the remaining spruce trees will be thinned further and eventually removed.  Planting the arboretum would occur gradually with using a carefully selected list of suitable tree species that would be in keeping with the Grade II Listed gardens. 

Lime Avenue and beech plantation

This popular part of the grounds provides an attractive circular walk with westerly views through the trees.  Very little needs to be done here, but in the interests of safety and longevity of the best mature trees, some thinning will be required.  The numbers of trees to be removed will be quite small, but the amount of light to reach the woodland floor and the remaining trees will increase. 

Rock Chapel Wood (not shown on the map)

This dramatic feature of the former college estate is a limestone promontory that rises above the surrounding landscape.  It is topped by the Rock Chapel, Our Lady of Sorrows, which was built in 1866 to a design prepared by a student of St Beuno’s, Ignatius Scoles.  The chapel is surrounded by woodland which forms a beautiful backdrop, but over the years the important view to the chapel has been obscured by growth.  Here, the plan is to fell some of the trees that obscure the view from the grounds.  The management of the area thus cleared would include regular coppicing of younger trees to keep the view open while retaining the woodland character.  Coppicing, which encourages the regrowth of numerous small stems from the felled stool, will allow more light to reach the ground and encourage a greater diversity of wildlife and woodland flora.