As I wound along the icy roads, I was expecting to see the castle pop up at any minute, but it was only when I wandered into the formal garden with David Swanton, the castle's Garden Operations Manager, that I got my first spectacular view of the castle rising dramatically above the terraced gardens.
Powis Castle is home to one of the most beautiful gardens in the British Isles, with its fantastic planted terraces, sculptures and the yew trees for which it is renowned. David Swanton started here fifteen years ago as Assistant Head Gardener, and has been in his current role as Garden Operations Manager for six years. "Truth be told, I have been doing it for a lot longer," he tells me. "I've been working for the National Trust since 1988. I started at Dunham Massey near Altrincham and then at Rufford Old Hall in Lancashire, then came here."
Originally from Warrington, David knew he wanted to work outside and enjoyed helping out with the gardening at home. When he left school, he did an apprenticeship with Warrington Borough Council and then worked for the Home Office for a few years at the police training centre, doing the grounds and garden, before joining the National Trust.
So, what are the benefits of working for the National Trust? "We get to do things the right way, so it's proper horticulture out there. Not doing things when you've only got two hours and have to move onto another job. The Trust are very good because it's all about conservation. So we tend to do things the right way." Not only this but, as you can imagine, with 155,000 visitors through last year, the praise that the gardeners receive makes the job really worthwhile. "If you are working out in the garden all day long, you've got the visitors telling you how beautiful it is, how lucky you are to work here. You get a lot of pats on the back from visitors. It is really rewarding, especially with all those people seeing it."
With so many visitors a year, I ask David how they deal with the footfall on the lawns and gardens. "We are quite lucky, in some respects, because we have a lot of gravel paths. And, where there wasn't a path, we would put one in because there was previous evidence of one."
This sort of adaptation for increased accessibility is obviously something that David and the team are very good at. "I think we manage access really well. Nobody is really excluded from anywhere." This is largely as a result of the pathways and work on the woodland that they have undertaken. "The lower terrace, probably eight years back or more, was grass, and the borders there were spring and autumn themed. In spring and autumn, the grass tends to get wetter and more vulnerable, and it's sloping, so we'd have to exclude people. So we adapted. We broke through the hedge and put in a gravel path, so we now have no wear and tear there." They have also added pathways around the pond near the woodland, as well as making changes so that visitors can get to the formal garden on a step-free route.
The team's work on the woodland is something that David is most proud of. The woodland was very vulnerable and could not be walked in, often even in Rhododendron flowering time, as the clay based soil was too wet and, with the slope, visitors were likely to slip. David and the team removed of a lot of the Rhododenron ponticum and opened up the space.
"Rhododendron ponticum takes over and can be a host plant for Sudden Oak Death (phytophthora ramorum) - a disease which causes extensive damage and mortality to a wide range of trees and other plants - so it is good policy to get rid of it," he tells me. "The hybrid Rododendrons had layered themselves, so we cut them back and moved them around, and that's let the light in. By opening it up and adding a bit of gravel to spike it, it's not been closed for about three years."
Creating better access has meant that there is more for the visitors to see and, therefore, the castle can happily open seven days a week without fear that the visitors won't have enough to look at. "It's better for membership value," David says. "It was crazy shutting for five months. We want people in appreciating the place. Instead of replanting the gaps made removing ponticum, we put down grass seed and got it down to wildflowers in places, and then we added more early flowering bulbs, like daffodils, so there is more interest for visitors. I tell the team, we should be proud of the woodland."
Another improvement that David has initiated brings us to the famous yew trees that form such phenomenal shapes around the castle.
Everybody asks about the yew trees. Matt Baker, from BBC Countryfile, even went in the cherry picker to have a go at cutting the hedges, a day of filming that David said "went really well", but for "a long day's work, it only lasted two minutes on the TV!"
Traditionally, long ladders were used to cut the trees, and David shows me an old photograph of a man on a plank at the top of the tree using a sickle. "Obviously, health and safety stops all that now." The trees started as topiary, or "small lollipops", but have grown to create an effect like nothing I have ever seen before. "You get the lovely shapes in the hedges. Big cloud hedges aren't they? People see faces and all sorts in them" David says.
Now, the team use cherry pickers to cut the hedges, and they have developed a more efficient way to get the machine, which goes 14m high and is less than a metre wide when folded, behind the hedge. Gabion baskets were installed on the Aviary Terrace, which they lift the cherry picker onto using a crane. "The main yew hedge cutting usually starts around August, and work through to October time."
There are several different views of the yew hedges, depending on where you are in the grounds, but I was lucky enough to overlook them from the top of the East side of the castle, which is currently inaccessible to visitors. Last year, the castle had an appeal to raise funds to open up that side to the public. At the moment, there are 40ft drops off the hedge without balustrading, and the steps are subsiding due to the water. "It's never been open to the public," says David. "So we had an appeal and raised the funding to go ahead with the work. We will be re-doing all the steps, the planting is going to change a bit and we will put a new path along the top. So that will become another publicly accessible area. You will be able to see across the woodland, above the oak trees and into the distance. That will be a massive project, and it is big money; it's about a half a million-pound project."
Higher up in the National Trust, there is a group of highly experienced volunteers called The Gardens Panel, who have now amalgamated with the Architectural Panel. "As with the changes at the east front, the Panel come and have a look at it and give advice, to make sure it's in keeping with the spirit of the place."
So, what happens when David wants to make a change to the garden? It has always intrigued me how much leeway the gardeners have at historical properties such as this. "We've got advisors so, if there's a major change, they will advise. There are conservation advisors to make sure it is 'of the period', e.g. rather than just me going out and picking a pot off the shelf!"
David tells me that the garden at Powis Castle has evolved and has 'different layers of history next to each other'. "We have a 17th century Baroque garden, then we've got the landscape movement. So, if you stand on the terraces and look out at the park, William Winde came in and designed that. The water garden used to be on the big lawn, but was taken away. Then Lady Violet - wife of George Charles Herbert, 4th Earl of Powis (1862-1952) - took a big interest and created a formal garden, and moved the glass houses, which are now in the nursery."
This means that David and the team are not stuck on a period for the plants. "Lady Violet wanted to make it one of the best gardens in Britain so, if we are using Violet as our vision, we would still develop the garden, so we can add new plants. We are not stuck to a plan of that time, but it's that feel."
"The Trust have conservation plans, so we are required to garden in these fashions. If a head gardener comes in and says; 'I don't like roses, let's get rid of the roses', that's not a decision they can make. You work with the roses and, for example, we had some roses that were susceptible to mildew, so we replaced them. So yes, we get a reasonably free hand, but obviously we know the place. You don't want to crush enthusiasm; people need to have pride in their work."
The team review the borders every year, have a look around and come up with suggestions of what can be moved and what changes can be made. "They are changing all the time, but not ripped out; not the bedding schemes, they are permanent."
David tells me that they are also "greener gardeners", in that they try not to use chemicals, unless absolutely necessary. "We've reduced chemical use considerably. It's better for the environment, and it's better for us."
For the roses, the team use Garshield, a mixture of garlic and seaweed, which encourages growth and keeps the pests at bay. "It works really well. If you look at our roses, they are full of leaf and hardly have any disease. Anyone who thinks environmentally friendly products are not a good way forward should just look at the roses, and they'll be proved wrong." In the nursery too, the team use Integrated Pest Management to minimise the effects on human health and the environment.
We take a walk over to the nursery, where I could spend all day wandering aimlessly around the beautiful glasshouses, moved from where the Formal Garden is now by Lady Violet in the early 1900s. As we reach this area, David shows me the huge compost heaps that supply the herbaceous borders. "Any organic matter that comes off the borders, we rot down and that goes back on the borders as a mulch. It's very good soil because it's been worked and organic matter added to it. Along the borders, it's probably on the alkaline side."
The team used to have issues with the nursery because the water used came from a pond in the parkland. However, improvements were made as part of a £175,000 investment in environmental projects. "We had a 75m bore hole put in for natural water supply; having it from a pond means you get bio security issues, so watered seedlings were damping off straight away." As well as this, water is captured from the roofs and, for conservation reasons, the team never water the grass. "I suppose, if the Earl had liked to play bowls, then we'd keep it green but, for conservation reasons, we never water the grass because it will always come back."
Down at the nursery, a ground source heat pump means that air continually blows around the glasshouses, decreasing the chances of pests and disease. As well as these projects, there is a 10 kilowatt-hour set of PV panels for the nursery's needs, so it is carbon neutral, and in the field nearby is a set of 30kWh panels that offset the castle's usage. "The Trust heavily invests in environmental schemes," David explains.
It seems funny to ask about how the warm weather at the end of last year has affected the garden, as I try and make my freezing fingers work enough to operate my camera whilst walking through the woodland but, as we walk onto the terraces, the warmth from the sun is incredible.
The garden is South East facing and, because of the shelter of the buildings and the structure from one side, and the woodland on the other, David tells me that they get "real micro climates, so it's not unusual that it gets hot in here." Hence why they can grow the range of plants seen at Powis Castle.
"We've got a lot of plants that other people couldn't leave outside, especially in Wales. The planting has been adapted, so we have things like the tropical and the tender perennials. The salvias are Mexican and, on the aviary, the cistus, Australasian plantings, have been chosen for the conditions: hot, dry and narrow borders. So, we don't do too bad, touch wood. We also seem to have the rain when we need it."
As we walk around the garden and woodland, I meet various gardeners, both full-time and volunteer. It doesn't surprise me that the garden has no shortage of loyal volunteers and, when I meet one such Friday helper, the lovely Angelica, David makes me laugh in recounting how upset she and another volunteer were when he first told them that they are not usually required to work through winter, on account of the miserable conditions. Suffice to say, they decided to work through it anyway!
"When we started opening in winter, people were worried that there wouldn't be as many visitors. However, there aren't many quiet times at Powis Castle; in fact, I think I could say there aren't any."
I can understand what he means. Although the flowering plants are few and far between, the structure of the garden, with the yew trees, its statues and my favourites, the twisted apple trees, is different, but just as impressive as the flowering borders. Snowdrops were starting to come through, as well as winter aconites and, in March, the wildflowers will begin to show, followed by the borders, which will take them right the way through to October. "The roses were like summer in October. Then we get good autumn colour from the acers, which roughly takes us up to December."
It is honestly quite sad when I have to leave, but I am thoroughly looking forward to visiting during every season this year, along with my friends and family, I imagine. What a fantastic place to spend the day. As David says, "the whole garden for the whole experience, isn't it? We're not short of anything here."
The gardening year at Powis Castle ... "roughly speaking"
After Christmas: "We usually get on to more project work. So, into the woodland, the banks around the garden, brambles, pruning, regenerating overgrown shrubs. Any tree work because, if we're cutting, we want to do it when the visitors are not around."
"All the plants in the garden are in the nursery so, at this time of year, the team will start sowing the seeds. The annuals we will add to the border; we probably have 2,500-3,000 annuals."
February: "The lads go and collect pea sticks. Powis Estates own some parkland, so they go and cut hazel trees. We use hazel in the borders to support plants. It doesn't show up like bamboo canes."
March: "Mulching, feeding, fertilising and forking through. Mulching the borders is done on a cycle, so not every border every year. "
"There might be some splitting and dividing to regenerate the plants. Any leftovers will go down to the nursery and be potted up. All the plant sales come directly through the garden. So, if you buy a plant, it's grown from a plant on site, by the staff on site - a living souvenir."
"About six weeks of pea sticking for supporting the plants. The thing with staking, it doesn't sound much, but the reason we spend six weeks is because it's a terraced garden, you can look down over the top of the borders, and then drop down and you can walk alongside. You've got different views. A lot of the plants are really tall in the borders and, if you get heavy rain, it flattens them. So, if we support them well, we don't tend to get the damage."
"Weeding, because, when our borders come up, there's hardly any room to get in there because it's so full of plants."
"Then the mowing starts and is carried out every week."
April: "Sowing and potting up. We probably put about thirty containers out on the balustrading and the steps. They're tender perennials again; things like fuschias and salvias."
May: "All the tropical effects are planted out when the frost has gone. Because we grow things like Abutilons big in the nursery, they go out big, so you could come in on a Saturday and the border is empty and, by the following Friday people would think it has been there forever. It just gets fuller and fuller and flowers away. The containers get put out, and everything is planted up after the frost has gone. Then onto the nursery, where there is always propagation, dividing, potting up, plants for sale, plants for the garden, and looking after the stock that's there."
June: "Two people cut the box hedges for about a month. We've got some low ones, we've got some high."
Mid July: "We start cutting the wildflower banks in the garden from here onwards.
August: "The main yew hedge cutting begins. There's two staff assigned to the formal hedgecutting, where they put lines out to get it lovely and crisp. Then one person in the cherry picker basket cutting the big hedges."
"Formative pruning of the apple trees."
November: Rescuing tender perennials: "When the cold weather comes, they're going to die, aren't they? So, if we've got back-ups in the nursery and the plant is sacrificial, then we let them out. But some we've got to rescue because we need them the following year."
"The archway in the formal garden has a grapevine, which is pruned before Christmas, so it doesn't bleed so much. Then a couple of prunes throughout the year just to keep the shape."