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200 years of evolution, Middleton Hall continues to display ethos of innovation and improvement; DR LOWRI ANN REES in association with.

In May 2000 the National Botanic Garden of Wales opened to the public. Over the past 12 years, the place has seen its ups and downs, with fluctuating visitor numbers and even the threat of closure in 2004.

Nonetheless, in 2006 Western Mail readers voted the Great Glasshouse as their number one Wonder of Wales, a sure sign of the structure's iconic status. It is the largest single spanned glasshouse in the world, showcasing a dazzling display of Mediterranean climate plants. The site as a whole spreads across 560 acres of beautiful countryside, on which grow more than 8,000 varieties of plants.

The garden's mission is to foster research and lifelong learning, conserve biodiversity, promote sustainability and cater for the needs of visitors. Being the most visited garden in Wales makes it an important place.

However, the garden's popularity also draws attention to the fact that Wales has a rich garden heritage, with an array of parklands and woodlands open to visitors. Many of these sites have long histories, and the NBGW is no exception. Indeed, it is very fitting that the site between the villages of Porthyrhyd and Llanarthne, on the cusp of the Tywi Valley, was chosen as the home of the NBGW, as more than 200 years ago, another enchanting garden had just been established there.

The Middleton Hall estate The history of the Middleton Hall stretches back to the early 17th century. During this time, the landlord, Henry Middleton, built a substantial house on the estate. This building must have been of considerable size, as according to the Hearth Tax records of 1670, it contained a total of 17 hearths. The Middleton family continued to reside on the estate until financial difficulties forced them to sell in order to settle debts. Towards the end of the 18th century the estate was purchased by a newly wealthy banker and merchant, who was to make the most visible mark on Middleton Hall.

William Paxton (c.1744-1824) was born in Edinburgh.

His father was chief clerk to the wine-merchant and Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Archibald Stewart. Although a Scotsman, Paxton spent much of his childhood in London, following the family's relocation due to his father's work commitments. At the age of 12 Paxton joined the Royal Navy as a Captain's servant. He soon rose through the ranks to become midshipman, but his career path diverted when he became an officer on a private British merchant ship bound for India. It was there that he made his fortune. Having trained to become an assayer, analysing minerals and ores to determine their worth, Paxton became assay master at Fort William in Bengal. He later set up his own agency house, called Paxton, Cockerell and Trail, which became most successful, with a branch set up in London. Due to British expansion in South Asia, predominantly through the activities of the East India Company, there were opportunities to amass considerable fortunes. Paxton was not alone, and even some Welshmen succeeded in profiteering from the colonial rule of India.

Having secured his fortune, Paxton returned to Britain during the 1780s. With a new wife and growing family to provide for, Paxton was keen to purchase a landed estate. Buying a landed estate was also a way Paxton could try to climb up the social ladder and integrate into the ranks of the landed elite. It appears that his sights were set on Carmarthenshire. In 1785 he had expressed an interest in the 3,048-acre Taliaris estate near Llandeilo, but on the day of the sale was outbid by Lord Robert Seymour.

However, another estate was up for sale in the county, and in 1789 Paxton purchased Middleton Hall. Between 1793-95 a grand new mansion was built, described as "one of the best built, and most magnificent houses in Wales" and "a truly magnificent mansion ... seated on a prominent elevated spot, in the midst of a beautiful valley, branching off to the eastward of the river Towey [sic], between a chain of hills to Llandilo [sic] and the sea, forming a grand and highly picturesque scenery". The new Middleton Hall had been designed by the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell in the neo-classical style, complete with a grand and imposing portico. The interior of the mansion was equally as elaborate, and decorated in the latest fashions. The new mansion also had water closets, with water supplied from a roof top cistern, which was fed by a reservoir built on the side of a nearby hill. This was an innovative feature at the time, and few country houses in Wales could boast such technology.

The modernisation did not stop with the mansion, as located on the estate was an ice house. This was a building designed to store ice and preserve food in the days before refrigerators. Although this was a feature of many large country estates at the time, with another local example to be found at Dinefwr near Llandeilo, the Middleton Hall ice house is classed as one of the best examples of its kind in Wales, and can still be seen to this day.

Garden innovations at Middleton Hall During his 35 years as landlord of Middleton Hall, Paxton oversaw the transformation of the parkland surrounding his new mansion. In addition to building a series of service buildings and a stable block, a double walled garden encompassing more than three acres of land was constructed. The double walled garden was not a common feature found in Welsh gardens. An outer wall constructed of stone, and an inner wall constructed of brick helped create a milder microclimate within the garden. This extended the growing season of a variety of fruits and vegetables.

A glasshouse was built within the double walled garden, and via a sophisticated system of under floor heating, peaches, along with a range of other fruits, were grown.

Paxton also developed ornamental parklands and woodlands, a necklace of lakes, dams, sluices and a stunning waterfall at the site of present day Pont Felin Gt. The artist Thomas Horner was commissioned to capture these features in a series of watercolour paintings dated 1815.

On discovering that water with a high mineral content was found on his estate, Paxton built a bath house for the exclusive use of the family. However, Paxton ensured that this water was to be piped to the outskirts of the parkland wall so that visitors could also take to the waters. Visitors travelled from far and wide to sample the Middleton Hall waters, many finding accommodation at nearby Llanarthne. Such innovations in garden technology and landscaping set a precedent for years to come, and provided inspiration for the establishment of the NBGW 200 years later.

Paxton's Tower Another building on the Middleton Hall estate of great symbolism is Paxton's Tower. The 36-feet high, gothic three-sided tower was built during the first decade of the 19th century. Having already requested the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell design his new home, Paxton turned to him again to draw up plans for the tower.

Paxton's motives for erecting such a building continue to be debated to this day. As the tower was built not long after Paxton's spectacular defeat in the infamous 1802 Carmarthenshire county election, one theory suggests he wanted to emphasise that the contest had not ruined him financially. Paxton was billed for more than pounds 15,000 following his treating of voters in an attempt to secure their support. A total of 11,070 breakfasts, 36,901 dinners, 6,842 suppers, 25,275 gallons of ale and porter, 11,074 bottles of spirits, 8,879 bottles of porter, 4,060 bottles of sherry, 509 bottles of cider, pounds 18.18 shillings worth of milk punch, pounds 54 worth of mulled wine and 4,521 horse hire items were charged. Another theory suggests that Paxton funded the construction of the tower with money promised for the building of a much needed bridge across the river Tywi. Therefore the tower was meant to serve as a visible reminder to the people of Carmarthen who failed to support Paxton during his ill-fated foray into Carmarthenshire politics. This is why the tower is sometimes called 'Twe r Sbeit' (the tower of spite).

However, the most likely explanation is that Paxton had the tower built in order to conform to the landscaping trends of the day. It was fashionable to build follies on estates, utilising architectural features in order to enhance the landscape. Paxton dedicated the tower to the memory of Horatio Nelson, killed during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Originally called 'Nelson's Tower', engraved tablets commemorating Nelson in Welsh, Latin and English were placed on each of the three sides of the tower.

Paxton's contribution to the local area The Middleton Hall estate was transformed by Paxton, however he also had a wider impact in the community. To name a few examples, Paxton established a charity school at Llanarthne, donated land on a lease for the building of Bethlehem Baptist Chapel in Porthyrhyd, and subscribed a substantial pounds 1,000 towards the building of a canal along the Gwendraeth Valley and improvements to Kidwelly harbour. Perhaps the most visible mark made on the Welsh landscape was the regeneration of the seaside town of Tenby. From the mid-18th century, seaside resorts became increasingly fashionable, especially with the curative properties of sea bathing being promoted. Towards the end of the century, restrictions on travel to the Continent were imposed by the French Revolutionary Wars, therefore a greater number of the elite opted to holiday at home, which contributed to the rise of the coastal resorts.

Landed families flocked to Wales to enjoy the benefits of sea bathing, but also the accompanying social rounds of balls, parties and assemblies.

Travel writers published descriptive accounts of tours across Wales, portraying a romanticised image of the country to entice visitors. In this climate, other seaside resorts developed - Aberystwyth was known as "the Brighton of Wales", and Swansea was also transformed into a fashionable bathing place.

Landowners played an important role in the development of seaside resorts. In addition to Tenby, another Welsh example is the transformation of Llandudno through the help of the Mostyn family during the mid-19th century. Tenby was a town that had fallen into decline, but with Paxton's financial support and initiative, it became a vibrant and fashionable resort. Crowds of visitors were drawn to the town, boosting the local economy.

Following a visit to Tenby in 1805, Paxton again commissioned the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell, requesting the designing of a bathhouse in Tenby. By 1810, the Carmarthen Journal proudly declared that the Tenby baths were open "for the conveniency [sic] of the Gentry, and others who visit this charming Bathing Place".

Visitors could bathe in one of the two swimming baths or submerge themselves in either the cold, warm or vapour baths. However, the social aspect of the seaside resort was also important, therefore within the bathhouse was a grand billiard room and drawing room with spectacular views across the bay and out to sea.

Paxton built several lodging houses to cater for the steady influx of visitors. He also funded projects to widen streets within the town and build new roads to allow for easier access. He was even a key subscriber of a new theatre in Frog Street in 1810. The theatre proved a success during the early decades of the 19th century, and attracted professional companies. There was room for 80 spectators in the pit, 120 in the boxes and 160 in the gallery.

However, Paxton's projects were not exclusively to benefit elite visitors to Tenby. A major contribution was bringing a supply of fresh water to the town, thereby improving the quality of life and general health of the urban populace. The travel writer Richard Fenton praised Paxton "the worthy knight" (for he had been knighted and became Sir William Paxton in 1803), exclaiming "the town is indebted to the spirit and liberality of Sir William Paxton for having effectually remedied the most essential of its defects, the want of water".

This was not the first project of its kind that Paxton had undertaken. During his time as Mayor of Carmarthen in 1803 he was instrumental in plans to improve the water supply to the town. The plans involved the installation of iron pipes to replace the previously used wooden ones, which unsurprisingly leaked.

Imperial wealth As highlighted by Professor Huw Bowen in an article in the first New History of Wales series in 2010, Wales does not feature very prominently in histories of the British Empire. However, that is not to say that Wales did not see the influx of wealth into the Welsh economy through imperial exploitation. The development of Middleton Hall and the far reaching effects of Paxton's projects highlight this. Money generated in India paid for the Middleton Hall estate and the building of Paxton's new home.

That same fortune was pumped into the Welsh economy, be it through the funding of urban regeneration in Carmarthen and Tenby, subscriptions to canal building and improvements schemes, through charitable donations or during election campaigns, especially the notoriously expensive 1802 Carmarthenshire county election. This influx of wealth left its mark on the local area, and should not be forgotten, especially as the source of wealth came from British colonial expansion overseas at a considerable cost to human life.

Conclusion By acknowledging the importance of the site of Paxton's former estate, we highlight the important garden heritage that Wales possesses. William Paxton's role was also significant. During his time at Middleton Hall, he enacted several improvements. Some were purely cosmetic, while others improved the quality of the land. Acknowledging the importance of Middleton Hall also acknowledges the impact Paxton had on south-west Wales. This impact can be seen even to this day. Paxton's Tower still stands and is a striking feature in the landscape, which can be seen for miles. Tenby remains a bustling seaside resort which relies on the crowds of tourists it attracts year on year. The blue plaques scattered around the town to commemorate Paxton's projects are a nod to his urban regeneration efforts.

The ruins and remains of the once spectacular Middleton Hall estate provided the foundations for the establishment of a national botanic garden in Wales in the new millennium. Therefore, considering these wide ranging factors, the former Middleton Hall estate site is arguably an important place in Wales - a site that has evolved over the past 200 years, but a site that continues to display the same ethos of innovation and improvement.

TOMORROW Pumlumon/The Elenydd ONLINE Visit WalesOnline to vote for the most important place to Wales...

WHO ARE YOU, LOWRI ANN REES? As an undergraduate I studied history at Aberystwyth University, and stayed on to complete an MA in the history of Wales and a PhD.

I now lecture at Bangor University, teaching modern history, with a particular focus on the 19th century. Among my current research interests are landed estates and country houses, upward social mobility and the utilisation of East India wealth in Wales. Having to pick one favourite place in Wales has proved difficult as there are so many to choose from. Living in North Wales, the dramatic mountain ranges of the Snowdonia National Park are high on the list, but as a native of Carmarthenshire, so is the beautiful Tywi Valley, with its rich history and stunning landscape.

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* Middleton Hall's innovations in garden technology and landscaping under the guidance of Sir William Paxton set a precedent for years to come, and provided inspiration for the establishment of the NBGW 200 years later. PICTURE: Trevor Waters
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 4, 2012
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