Coffee and Cake at Powis Castle

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Have you ever walked around a ruined castle and wondered what it would have been like if it hadn’t been ruined? Well, for me, Powis Castle, just outside Welshpool in the English/Welsh Marches feels like an ancient castle that survived intact. We stopped off there at the weekend on our way home from Snowdon.

Powis Castle sits on top of a hill, which must once have been heavily in its favour as a defensible site. From the outside it looks very much like a medieval castle (which is what it started life as). Inside, it’s more of a mini stately home or country house. It boasts extraordinary terraced gardens, which are wonderful if you’re fit enough to attempt the steps – more of a challenge for the less fit. As ever, I saw a mother lifting a baby’s buggy up the steep flight of garden steps, while her partner stood at the top watching her!

With spring being so forward this year, I was fascinated to see so many irises in flower – mine are either backward, or just not playing the game, as there’s no sign of a bloom – but at Powis, they’re lovely.

Probably the wisteria is the garden’s current big star – simply beautiful swathes of pale bluey/lilac cascades, draping the orangery.

We weren’t alone on our visit – it was heaving. Who can blame us all for heading out there to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the holiday. But I think the National Trust were struggling a bit to cope with the numbers. There were anxious faces and quite a lot of overt reminders of all the things visitors are not allowed to do.

I do think the National Trust is on thin ice regarding it’s conservation policy at the moment. Have you seen any of the programmes from Petworth, with Andrew Graham Dixon? Of course we have to applaud efforts to maintain the treasures that the Trust is responsible for – but how do they reconcile the very obvious need for our money to fund their efforts, with the fact that we pay to experience the treasures, not to be treated as a nuisance? Visitors might bring in damaging dust and leave behind particles of dead skin, but without these ‘paying guests’ the treasures would be left looking for another benefactor to fund their conservation.

I think my personal jury is currently out on this one, although it really concerns me. The National Trust has had a chequered past where visitor relations are concerned, and it’s worrying to think that just as many of their properties are getting more right, their conservationists are in danger of setting them back again. Extremely prominent signs at the entrance explained the various ways in which visitors can harm the interiors – is this really the way to welcome the people who actually care enough to pay to enter? Surely the way to get visitors ‘on-side’ is not to lecture us, and certainly not to make us feel that it would be better if we didn’t go at all.

Ultimately they will have to do better if they want to encourage more paying members, because what we don’t want, is to feel that they’re only interested in us for the money we give them (pay attention here The Historic Houses Association – you have a VERY LONG WAY TO GO) – the more people the Trust sign up, the more visitors they will have to expect and prepare to welcome.

But griping aside, there was one place at Powis that was coping beautifully, and where the service was excellent, and that was at the little coffee shop in the garden – Lady Voilet’s. Here we enjoyed an excellent cream tea and the girls raided the ice cream cabinet. I wonder if it’s success may have been due to the long walk to get there, or the very subtle signage, which I suppose might just have reduced the numbers of people who managed to find it – anyway, well done to the caterers for getting it right.

We decided to have a look around the interior of the castle later in the afternoon, although it was not our first visit and I’m glad that we did. It’s a charming building, especially if you’re a fan of the heavy oak, Jacobean textiles and family portrait brigade (which I am). I think there should be a special mention for the people who provide the flower arrangements. So often in National Trust properties, I find that these temporary works of art are more alluring than some of the items the conservationists get all het-up about.

We ended up in the ‘old kitchen’, which certainly had a kind of atmosphere. Suffice to say, I’m glad it was busy and that I wasn’t the room guide attached to it. Perhaps it was just the cold permeating from store rooms below, but it definitely sent a shiver down my spine.

Oh, and one more gripe – sorry – I do wish the National Trust wouldn’t position gentile matrons at the exits, requesting us to buy raffle tickets ‘to support the restoration’. It’s tantamount to asking us to pay to get out, and that really isn’t the way to leave us with happy fluffy feelings, or to encourage us to return.

So our visit to Powis – a bit of a curates egg. Gorgeous house, amazing gardens, good refreshments. Needs to do better on the customer services front.

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