First things first: I’m in Wales! Another milestone.
Second things second: pronunciation. My Welsh is non-existent so I had no idea how to pronounce Dinefwr but I can now confidently say that it’s Din-ever. Thank you to the lady that gave the ‘Hidden House’ tour for clearing that up.
As far as the day was concerned, it was gloomy, dark and raining steadily when we arrived at Dinefwr. This may be a little stereotypical of a day out in Wales but then again it is December so it could have happened anywhere. A little planning paid off, though, as the weather forecasters had predicted drier conditions after lunch so we left the outdoor part of our visit for later on and thus managed to squeeze everything in without a soaking.
We started with Newton House, which has only a limited number of show rooms on public display. It was only opened in 2006, however, and it sounds like a lot of renovation was needed to get it fit for visitors after the Trust took it on in 1990. From what I can tell, there are still many plans in place to improve the house experience so another visit in a few years would probably result in more to see. For now, though, I would strongly recommend that you sign up for one of the daily ‘Hidden House’ tours as it really fills out the Newton House experience.
Before we started, we grabbed a quick cup of tea in the Billiard Room tearoom where there is a fine example of a Christmas tree, non-obtrusive but delivering just the right quantity of Christmas spirit to the house (there’s another tree in the Inner Hall, which is just as understated and complementary to the hall rather than taking over as it had done at the Vyne). We then wandered around the Dining Room and Drawing Room, which are the two main rooms on display. Both were very dark, with shutters, blinds and curtains (overkill?) at the windows, so you couldn’t really see any of the paintings. This could well have been due to the time of year, rather than a usual state of affairs; after all, I doubt they expect too many visitors on wet Fridays in December so they may use this time to reduce the rooms’ exposure to light damage. It was a shame though.
In the Outer Hall, we were interested to learn from the guide that much of the china in the cabinet was used during the visit of George IV in 1821 after his ship was forced to put in at Milford Haven (another royal visit… I must draw up a list for the Miscellany section when I get a minute). Just as interesting was the inclusion of women’s chamber pots in the collection as they looked just like gravy boats, so much so that we had to wonder how many people may inadvertently be using them on their dinner tables unaware that they were once slipped under a lady’s skirts so she could relieve herself during a lengthy sermon in church!
A number of the servants’ rooms in the basement are also open so we whizzed around those quite quickly. In the Brushing Room, we were rather alarmed to hear a man whistling when there was clearly no one in the room but when he started talking we realised it was a recording of an actor pretending to be one of the servants. It was fortunate that we hadn’t yet heard about the various ghost stories attached to the house or there may have been squealing and fleeing rather than mild alarm.
On the first floor, the rooms are used to house displays about the history of the castle (now a ruin on the hillside nearby) and Newton House. The house was built in 1660 by one Edward Rice, remodelled in 1770 by George Rice and his wife Cecil (at which time the corner towers were added, initially with domed roofs) and then modernised in the 1850s by George Talbot de Cardonnel Rice (the 4th Baron Dynevor) with the addition of the Victorian Venetian Gothic shell over the top of the older building.
I had to go back later and photograph the displays about the Rice family history as there is no guidebook available for the property, just a free leaflet that doesn’t give very much detail. I was a little disappointed about this as I do like my personal stories and the Rices are quite interesting. They anglicised their name from Rhys to Rice during the reign of Henry VIII after the last Rhys lost his head for treason (clearly not born under the same lucky star as the residents of Sutton House and The Vyne, either that or he was simply less skilled in toadying up to the king). The next Rice to come along – Griffith Rice – was convicted of murder but for some reason earned a pardon from Elizabeth I and later became a JP, a mayor and a high sheriff. From murderer to high sheriff: that’s certainly an unusual career path. The other notable Rices are those involved in altering the house, but I must just mention Walter, the 7th Baron, who managed to get the family name reverted back to the Welsh Rhys, and Charles, the 8th Baron, who was once MP for Guildford. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see my local county town mentioned in deepest Wales.
As you can tell from this Rice pudding (sorry, couldn’t resist!), the human stories caught my eye once more so I was also interested to learn about the use of Newton House as a military hospital during WWII and then as a temporary base for a POW camp housed in Nissen huts. I had to laugh at the old Daily Express war map featured in the WWII displays, which included a list of ‘belligerent’ countries and another of ‘neutral’ countries. I’m not entirely sure why the UK was at the top of the ‘belligerent’ list; I’m hoping this was simply because it was a British-made map and not because they were ranked in order of belligerence. Another gem picked up later from the ‘Hidden House’ tour was that murals of glamorous women were painted on the walls of one room by a Canadian patient during the war years. Although these murals were later destroyed by fire, copies have been recreated from photos and the memories of a former resident of the house so it is nice that the unknown Canadian’s efforts are not forgotten.
The ‘Hidden House’ tour is offered every day and is certainly worth signing up for. We had to wolf down a quick bowl of soup in the tearooms in order to get to the start line in time where we joined a party of just two other people. This small group meant that we really benefited from the personal touch and could interact with the guide and ask questions, which was a big advert for visiting out of season. A lot of the tour is outside but the rain had stopped by then so we got the full experience and learnt many interesting facts about the house and the park. We also got to explore rooms that aren’t open to the general public and were shown the Victorian papier mâché decorative ceiling at the top of the stairwell, which was very unusual and was apparently bought in by mail order! The tour even takes you up onto the roof of the house (perhaps not ideal for those who can’t do steep stairs) and for once the wildlife was playing ball and there was a large herd of deer scattered across the grass below, just waiting for us to come and admire them. That’s my theory although it may be more likely that they’d been hiding under the trees all morning and had finally ventured out because the rain had stopped.
I’ll just give a little snapshot of some of the other interesting facts gleaned from our tour:
- Some of the decorative stonework on the front of the house remains unfinished to this day, although no one really knows why it was stopped in the first place and why no one bothered to follow through and complete it later. Mysterious…
- The White Park cattle on the estate are rarer than giant pandas and have been chewing the Dinefwr cud for nigh on 1,000 years. They were briefly absent during the war as it was found that German pilots en route to drop their bombs on Swansea could use them for navigation, so they were shipped to Canada temporarily. Initially, the cattle were painted green to stymie the Germans but that only made them angry (the cattle not the Germans) and as you’ll see from their horns making them angry is highly inadvisable. (I guess this may well have made the Germans angry too but as they were already bombing everything to smithereens it’s difficult to tell.)
- Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was invited to visit and give landscaping advice in 1775. A few of his ideas were taken on board but even he admitted that nature had done most of his job for him at Dinefwr. There wasn’t even any need to add an atmospheric folly in the grounds as the estate already had its own castle ruin.
- Newton House is apparently the fourth most haunted house owned by the National Trust (I’m afraid I didn’t ask what the top three are, maybe I’ll find out when I visit them).
After our tour, we made our third visit to the tearoom for afternoon refreshments then headed off up the hill to have a look at Dinefwr Castle, which offers spectacular views across the Towy river (perhaps a little more spectacular on a clearer day). It was a bit of a wet walk underfoot but the clouds were continuing to clear and we were treated to a lovely pink sky on the way back (although as usual the photo doesn’t do justice to the actual colour).
All in all, I have to say that – despite the slightly inclement conditions – my first Welsh visit was a great success.
Highlights: The Hidden House tour and its stories, the White Park cattle
Refreshments: Redbush tea; Roasted butternut squash soup, with extra bread (for free!); tea and bara brith (had to be done considering where I was!)
Purchase(s): ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ by Stef Penney from the secondhand bookshop