I have been exceptionally lucky recently to have been asked to prepare a conservation management plan for the estate at Dinefwr (Din-ev-or) near Llandeilo in West Wales, which is owned and cared for by the National Trust.
It is quite a difficult task to paint a verbal picture of Dinefwr and it isn’t possible to convey the importance of the place in strictly factual terms. It’s only when you are lucky enough to visit Dinefwr that the sheer unusual beauty of the place strikes you in a way that the words that you have read cannot. It is a very, very special place indeed.
Dinefwr is of exceptional significance for its archaeology, designed landscape and buildings. The present day landscape was set out by George Rice and his wife Cecil with some assistance from Lancelot ’Capability’ Brown in the second half of the 18th century. It has been widely admired ever since with impressions recorded by means of painting, sketching and the written word – it even appeared on a dinner plate, part of a service commissioned by Catherine the Great.
Today the park is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest designed landscapes in the UK. At its centre is Newton House, originally constructed in the 17th century to a simple but elegant design, it was encased in limestone to a Venetian-gothic design in the 1850s.
Trees and open grassland are so important to the appearance and aesthetic qualities of Dinefwr’s landscape and they were deliberately set out as part of the landscape design, with most of the trees planted on the higher ground and the grassland occupying the valleys and the areas immediately adjacent to the house and the main drive.
Archaeological surveys have, inevitably, revealed evidence of earlier landscapes including the defensive structures of an Iron Age fort and most remarkable of all, two overlapping Roman forts. Faint earthworks mark the outlines of tracks and field boundaries that predated the construction of the deer park in the middle of the 17th century.
One of the most significant archaeological monuments in the park is Dinefwr Castle. The 12th century stone buildings and walls seen today apparently replaced an earlier timber structure dating to the 8th century. This castle was the capital of most of west and south Wales in the 12th century so the surrounding woodland and park must conceal evidence of medieval tracks and paths.
The park is well known for its fallow deer and, in particular, its white park cattle – a rare breed restored to the park in 1992 after a long absence, but that can be traced back to Dinefwr from at least 1000 years ago. Both the deer and the cattle are integral to the historic park in their own right, but also because they maintain a complex mosaic of ancient grassland habitats.
One of the most striking features of the grassland in the deer park is the abundance of yellow meadow ant hills, which indicates how undisturbed this grassland has been for centuries.
In some parts of the park there are remnants of medieval woodland featuring many ancient trees that are at least 400 years old. And at its core, this wood pasture is dominated by nearly 300 huge oak trees, including some of the oldest and largest trees in the UK – one, the Castle Oak, is thought to be over 700 years old.
Dinefwr’s ancient trees, important in their own right, are host to a remarkable assemblage of wood decay invertebrates including 400 “saproxylic” beetle species, 26 of which are classified as nationally scarce. More than 160 species of lichen have been recorded in the park, several of which indicate a long history of ecological continuity.
The assemblage of breeding birds at Dinefwr is very impressive, and some of the most important are the lesser spotted woodpecker, an increasingly rare species in the UK, as are the green woodpeckers, which thrive on the impressive colonies of yellow meadow ants, conspicuous by the presence of hundreds of ant hills in the deer park grassland. Other notable bird species breeding in the woodlands include tawny owl, tree creeper, sparrowhawk, tree sparrow, jay, long-tailed tit and pied flycatcher.
On the lakes, ponds and ditches of the Towy floodplain greylag geese, Canada geese, swan, widgeon, goldeneye, heron and snipe amongst many others can been found year round.