Anglesey Abbey: kingdom of stems and scents

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The main path, lined with Cornus, grasses, Prunus serrula, Sarcococca and Rubus

February 2019 — Search for ‘Betula jacquemontii’ on the internet and the chances are the first page of results will include several pictures of the white birch grove at Anglesey Abbey. It’s a testament to the garden design team that, despite the internet’s ability to warp our perception and unrealistically heighten our expectations, this should still be a striking sight when you eventually see it in real life.

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Even more so on a wet early February afternoon, when the light if fading fast and the rain a persistent occurence. It’s too warm for the magic frost effect and there is not the thinnest ray of sunshine artistically reflecting on water droplets. But even in these conditions, the winter trail is an inspiring experience.

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The Himalayan birch grove, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii

The idea for the trail came in 1996, as a way of marking the centenary of the birth of Lord Fairhaven, who owned the estate until his death in 1966 and bequeathed Anglesey Abbey to the National Trust. Work was completed in 1998 and the winter trail opened the following year.

The new garden occupies a comparatively narrow strip on the northeast side of the estate. The main path initially winds through dogwoods (Cornus sanguinea) with bright orange stems and Tibetan cherry trees (Prunus serrula) with their shiny rich-ebony bark.

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Prunus serrula and Cornus Midwinter Fire underplanted with snowdrops

As the path curves through the garden, it reveals new planting combinations. Further on, clusters of yellow hamamelis flash their bright spidery flowers against the deep green silhouette of arbutus while the long white arching stems of Rubus cockburnianus are attempting a land grab on the nearby Viburnum. And here and there, your nose is hit by the intense, occasionally cloying, scent of sarcococca, arranged in rows along the path.

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Hamamelis, Sarcococca and Rubus cockburnianus along the path

There are also viburnum — both evergreen and the pink winter-flowering bodnantense ‘Dawn’ — and a particularly sweet-smelling daphne specimen (bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’) that urges us along.

Until finally, around the corner, the white birch grove emerges. On the day we visit, the ground is bare in the central section but on the left, the marbled leaves of cyclamens provide a neat foil for the white bark. The contrast is even more striking on the right, where the birches are underplanted with Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’, whose generous glossy deep-maroon leaves manage to shine even in the grey light.

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The Himalayan birch grove, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii

The white Himalyan birch is often described as ‘ghostly’, especially when planted en masse in a grove such as this one. It’s easy to see why, but the term has ominous connotations that just don’t reflect how it feels to be among these slender trees. The effect, I find, is more one of friendly reassurance, as if the trees offered shelter and protection; they’re living, and bringing light in darker corners.

If only the sun could have come out today. We’ll just have to come back next winter.

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Iris unguicularis

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