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Curating How We Experience Landscape

Gardening has long been the art of curating - and in many cases, taming - the landscape; but landscapes have stories older than human interaction, and often the wilder landscapes defy our curation, or require a different flavour of custodianship.

Enter Hafod Estate- 400 plus hectares of lush wilderness tucked away in the Ystwyth valley and surrounding hills of the Cambrian Mountains of Mid Wales.

The story of this area starts eons ago, before humanity even dreamed up the field of Geology, but flash forward several hundred million years and one would find a Cistercian Abbey in the vicinity, complete with sheep farming fuelled by the wool trade.

We often think of people’s influence on the landscape in recently modern terms, but in fact the Cistercians’ animals would have greatly influenced their environment. Land would be cleared for grazing sheep, and munching sheep would affect which plants were likely to grow to maturity and reproduce. This in-turn would affect other wildlife, such as pollinator insects and other species dependant on the plants being eaten by the sheep. So while it’s tempting to imagine an untouched landscape of years bygone, the reality is that Hafod was indeed remote, but not always the romanticised forested land our minds envision. The curated beauty of the Picturesque would not come into fashion until later in the Hafod story.

Eventually, the English Reformation would divert the course of history and cause the dissolution of monasteries; meaning that Hafod would be owned privately by the Herbert family for some time, before coming into the ownership the Johnes Family by the marriage of a Herbert heiress.

In 1783, Thomas Johnes inherited Hafod from his father, and it would be the vision and guidance of his family which greatly transformed the landscape to highlight the Picturesque views and wild awe of sublime wilderness. Johnes would take the natural beauty of Hafod and enhance it, building more dramatic cascades, and adding sculptural pieces to key points in the landscape. He would also plant over 80,000 trees including Scots Pine, European Larch, Oak, and Beech. Like everything, this estate would have its own life cycle; and eventually the home and work of Johnes and his wife and daughter would fall into decay and disuse.

Today, 200 hectares of the estate are managed by the Hafod Trust in partnership with Natural Resources Wales to conserve the land. They have recreated Jane Johnes’ walled flower garden, and reinstated the path network and Picturesque views of Hafod designed by Thomas Johnes and his contemporaries. While their work is ongoing, the trust and local community's passionate contributions mean more people can learn about this interesting sliver of history and explore the magical wonder of Hafod.

What landscapes do you find wondrous? Do you know the history of them? And how do you decide which part of a place's past are worth preserving?

For more information on Hafod and the conservation work underway by the team at the Hafod Trust, visit their website.

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