Chirk Castle

This rugged border fortress stands impressively at the top of a hill with commanding views over the Ceiriog Valley and surrounding countryside, near Wrexham in North Wales. Chirk Castle was built over seven hundred years ago and its external appearance has changed little since then, apart from replacement of the medieval arrow slits in the walls with mullioned windows. Held by a series of prominent noblemen for over three hundred years, including the Earls of Arundel and Queen Elizabeth's favourite the Earl of Leicester, Chirk has been owned by the same family, the Myddeltons, since it was bought for £5,000 in 1595.The massive stone walls provide a backdrop to the magnificent gardens which are laid out on the gentle slopes below the castle.

 

Built between 1295 and 1310 by one of Edward I's warlords, Roger Mortimer, the castle was originally designed to subdue the Welsh. The West range includes the largely unaltered Adam's Tower dating from this period. The castle had a series of owners in the Middle Ages, at least five of whom were executed for treason, but after the Wars of the Roses it fell into the hands of the Tudors. The south range was built in 1529 for Henry VIII, when Chirk belonged to the Crown. In the early seventeenth century, the first Sir Thomas Myddelton built the North range.

Chirk Castle

 

There was a medieval deer park surrounded by oak palings as early as 1329, but the estate was neglected was neglected during the fifteenth century. The gardens today occupy the same position as the formal gardens established in 1653, which were in the French style including neat compartments, terraced lawns and a bowling green. Later landscaping in the eighteenth century retained much of the layout of the formal gardens, adding some informal walks and newly planted trees and shrubs.

 

The visitor enters the gardens beside the north east tower of the castle, known as the Bachelor's Tower from the rooms inside. Here a mature Hydrangea petiolaris climbs the ancient walls, while a mixed border of roses, jasmine, celastrus and aromatic shrubs, under-planted with herbaceous perennials, extends down to the south east tower. In front lies the Formal Garden, reminiscent of the seventeenth century garden with its lawned terraces and topiary yew trees, though these were only planted in 1872. At the lower end are two charming bronze nymphs in Art Nouveau style by Andrea Carlo Lucchesi, which date back to before the Second World War. The path between the yew cones leads down to the colourful Rose Garden, with numerous varieties planted in beds first laid out in the late nineteenth century. The sundial in the centre of the Rose Garden is much older, probably made in 1696 and originally placed in the seventeenth century formal gardens.

 

The path now leads down to an informally planted area of grass, with a long border along its eastern edge planted with shrubs, herbaceous plants and flowering cherries, established for over sixty years and making for a gorgeous display in Spring and Summer. Opposite the border, to the west, lies an area of rough grass planted with rhododendrons, Chilean fire bushes and Magnolia salcifolia,as well as a large Cedar of Lebanon and a larch, which may date back to the seventeenth century, shortly after the species was first introduced to Britain from central Europe in 1620. Beyond is the Lower Lawn, dominated by a thatched hawk-house built in 1854 to a design by E.W. Pugin, the son of the designer Augustus Pugin, the leading force of the Gothic Revival movement. The elder Pugin was engaged on redesigning much of the interior of the castle, and after his death in 1852 his son took over the commission. The Lower Lawn then gives way to a wooded area, the Wild Garden, filled with rhododendrons, some dating back to the 1940s.

 

The visitor can then go into the Lime Avenue, which is the surviving central axis of the seventeenth century formal gardens. At the end is placed a version of the Farnese Hercules, one of the most famous statues of antiquity, representing Hercules dressed in a lion skin and leaning on his club. This copy was made in 1720 by Jan van Nost and stood for the next fifty years in the north courtyard of the castle before being moved to a woodland location. Copies of Classical sculptures were popular features of eighteenth century gardens. It was placed in its present spot, at the top of the slope up from the Lime Avenue, only in 1983.

 

From the Lime Avenue gates lead off into the Pleasure Ground Wood, the area under the trees filled with snowdrops in February, followed by bluebells, foxgloves and other wild plants. A path leads through the wood to a lovely Neo-Classical pavilion, called the 'Retreat Seat' which stands on a terrace, bounded by a Ha-Ha, built by William Emes, giving wonderful views over the river valley below. Following the terrace, one then discovers at the far end the Shrub Garden, dominated by a very large Rhododendron arboretum dating back to the nineteenth century. Under the rhododendrons lies a shady pool, planted around with Davidia, Magnolia, Pieris and the white flowered Eucryphia glutinosa. The path from the Shrub garden leads back up to the Formal Garden lying just under the castle walls.

 

Not to be missed, though, is the remaining castle park. There has been a deer park at Chirk since the early fourteenth century, and it still contains medieval trees, but it was greatly expanded in the seventeenth century and then completely landscaped in the eighteenth century by the designer William Emes, who planted thousands of trees and laid out new approaches to the castle. His scheme survives virtually intact today, though only that part of the park immediately surrounding the castle belongs to the National Trust. As well as the views, you should also try to see the superb gates made between about 1712 and 1719, astonishing examples of the ironsmith's art. These were originally placed in the north forecourt of the castle, and then moved in 1770 to the New Hall entrance to the park. They were moved again to their present position, near the exit from the park, in 1888.

 

Chirk castle remained with the Myddelton family for almost four hundred years until it was transferred to the National Trust in 1981.

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