The Bishop’s Park

Evidence for the gardens and parkland at Abergwili comes late in the sites history. Indeed, a list of the property owned by the Bishop’s of St David’s written in 1326 doesn’t even mention whether a garden or park existed at Abergwili. Even though it notes that five of the bishop’s other properties had gardens.  It is not until 1713 and records compiled under Bishop Ottley that the gardens at Abergwili are first mentioned.

Two anonymous artworks of the palace from the middle of the eighteenth century show both formal gardens and landscaped grounds. At this time the pleasure grounds appear to be just simple lawns and paths with just a few trees and shrubs.

By 1784 a sketch shows the previously open lawns of the Pleasure Grounds now planted with mature trees and shrubs.  Further descriptions from Mary Morgan in 1791 talk of the simplicity, yet beauty of the layout of the grounds.  A map of the site from 1796 shows a now lost garden to the north of the palace; the Kitchen Garden to the west and the pleasure grounds to the east. In the same year, Iolo Morganwg, the welsh poet and antiquarian described the palace as being ‘in a most beautiful spot in the luxuriant Vale of Towy’

Under Bishop Lord George Murray the palace and grounds changed a lot between 1801 and 1803. It was said that ‘under his management the grounds were brought into a state of high cultivation and beauty, though in the simplest taste…’

Murray

A plan of the site at this time shows a lawn to the east of the palace with a single path snaking eastwards through densely planted trees. It was at this time that as a result of a severe flood in 1802, the River Tywi changed its course away from the Bishop’s Park. The river moved further across the valley floor, leaving only an ox-bow lake to show its original course.  This became known as the Bishop’s Pond and remains today at the eastern end of the grounds.

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The Bishop’s Pond photographed in the 1980s – in the spring it is covered with yellow water lilies making a spectacular show for visitors to the park

When Bishop John Jenkinson rebuilt the palace in the early middle nineteenth century he also had the grounds remodelled in a picturesque fashion with viewpoints through the trees across and up the valley. In the 1840s it was said that he had ‘added much to the beauty of the pleasure grounds by judicious improvements’.

Jenkinson

An estate map of 1843 shows just how extensive these changes had been. Buildings around the walled kitchen garden had been demolished to extend the gardens, whilst new garden buildings had been developed – including an orangery. A formal circular flower garden had been established to the north of the palace and the grounds are now well planted with trees and shrubs with a simple path going around the edge. A private walkway ran across the Great Meadow and along the banks of the Bishop’s Pond.

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Skating on The Great Meadow in the early years of the twentieth century
Courtesy of Carmarthenshire Museums

Some minor changes to the grounds in the later half of the nineteenth century are recorded on the 1889 Ordnance Survey map. The formal circular garden had gone, replaced with lawn whilst three new glasshouses had been built in the walled kitchen garden.

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The Park Lodge around 1890
Courtesy of Carmarthenshire Museums

During the 1890s the gardens were the venue for annual horticultural shows.  In 1894 the palace’s Head Gardener; Mr Keightly acted as one of the judges. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Gwenonwy Owen, daughter of Bishop Owen described the grounds as including ‘flowering bushes, a huge wonderful chestnut tree…in the centre of the lawn, the enormous cedar tree, two or three trees very close together in the lawn, three trees that the children enjoyed climbing…a very nice arbour covered with honeysuckle’.

In 1902, just prior to the palace fire, the Head Gardener was a Mr Tuberville, who grew prize winning pears, desert fruit and vegetables.

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The restored palace after the fire of 1903
Courtesy of Carmarthenshire Museums

The 1906 Ordnance Survey map shows that conifers had been planted in and around the palace together with an orchard. Whilst around the time of the First World War, George Eyre Evans, the noted antiquarian,  wrote that ‘the glory of Abergwili however was the Palace, not perhaps the present house so much as the glorious historical grounds in which it was situated’.  

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The Bishops Place and Walled Garden in the 1950s

The 1970 Ordnance Survey shows the grounds in their final days as a private residence with two of the walled garden glasshouses having been demolished and the third left unglazed.  In 1972 land to the west of the palace was used as the site of the new bishop’s residence and in 1974 the site was split when Carmarthenshire County Council acquired the old Bishop’s Palace and Park, whilst the walled kitchen garden remained with the Representative Body of the Church in Wales.

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The grounds in the autumn of 1987 showing the site of the Met Office Weather Station

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