Tredegar House was described in the introductory talk as a very extravagant council house, which is not something you hear very often about the National Trust’s properties! It is also slightly odd to think of the National Trust as a council house tenant but to all intents and purposes this is what it became when it took on a 50-year lease of the house from Newport Borough Council in 2012. Tredegar appears to have flourished from this arrangement, however; after acquiring the house in 1974, the Council initially did great work in restoring and refurbishing the property before the Trust stepped in to carry on the good work going forward.
As with a number of other NT properties I have visited, Tredegar had a slightly chequered history during the 20th century as the maintenance – and indeed inheritance – of stately homes became increasingly expensive. Having been sold by the last of the Morgans of Tredegar in 1951, it was then inhabited by a couple of schools for 23 years before the Council stepped in to try to return it to something like its former glory.
For me, the Morgan dynasty is what made Tredegar such an interesting visit so I would highly recommend that you listen in to one of the daily introductory talks and learn about them for yourself. While I was listening to my cheerful and informative guide, I couldn’t help but think about the 2009 film called ‘Did You Hear About the Morgans?’ Well, yes I did, and they were a fascinating bunch to hear about.
The Morgan family had every kind of character you could imagine: there were the militant pre-Tudor Morgans who backed first the wrong horse and then the right one in siding with Owain Glyndŵr and Henry Tudor, respectively, during their 15th century revolutions; the shrewd William Morgan who married well – not once but twice – so he could afford to replace the grey stone Tudor property with the more impressive red-brick house we see today (unfortunately, the second of his wives was later declared a lunatic); the commercial Morgans who tapped into the financial potential of their estates with canny leases of land for mining and the construction of transport links on which they could levy tolls (leading to earnings of around £30m a year in today’s money); the philanthropic Godfrey Morgan who was such a generous and popular landlord that he inspired the comment that ‘Socialism would not flourish at Newport as long as Lord Tredegar was alive’; and the later extravagant Morgans, Courtenay and Evan, who steadily frittered away the family’s wealth.
It was also notable that marriage in the Morgan family was not always as romantic as might be expected. While the early William Morgan married twice for money, it seems that the much more recent Evan Morgan married twice for cover, using his wives to deflect attention from his homosexuality. Of the whole Morgan bunch, this one – Evan Morgan – was probably my favourite, if only for the reason that he apparently kept a menagerie in the grounds, including a baboon called Bimbo. That’s the first non-human addition to my list of funny names!
There is actually another delightful animal story associated with Tredegar, which is the tale of Sir Briggs the horse. Godfrey Morgan, the philanthropist mentioned in my Morganography above, was one of only two officers to survive the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War, and he was so grateful to his horse, Sir Briggs, that when the animal died, he was buried in the Cedar Garden, and an obelisk was set there to mark the spot.
During a visit to Tredegar, you will find three different Morgan eras evoked in the presentation of the rooms. The New Hall, Dining Room and Gilt Room are ornate and elaborate rooms designed as ‘show-off’ rooms by William Morgan, the builder of the brick house in the 1660s. If you look closely in the Dining Room, you can find all manner of unusual carved faces in the wooden panelling, including a bewhiskered, almost mouse-like, representation of Charles I who had stayed a night in the old Tudor building in 1645 (one for my list of regal visits). And in the Gilt Room, you can actually lie down on the day bed in order to get a good view of the painted and plasterwork ceiling. You might also want to admire the walnut panels on the wall, which are actually pine painted to look like walnut, with a similar trick performed on the fireplace’s ‘marble’ columns.
Moving on, you come to the Victorian rooms of the industrial Morgans, and children will love the New Parlour where there are various period board games for them to play, along with dressing-up clothes. Then, moving upstairs, you find the 1930s bedrooms of Evan Morgan’s era. Overall, the restorers have done an excellent job so far and a third of the items in the house are original to the property, including many Morgan family portraits so you can track down your favourites and meet them face-to-face. Tredegar is by no means an extensive house to visit but there were more rooms on display than I expected from a ‘project house’ of this kind, and as the restoration work continues later visitors could well see more than I did.
Anyone interested in life downstairs will also be satisfied by Tredegar, which has a number of cellar rooms open to the public. This is not usually my favourite thing but Tredegar’s kitchen is probably the best I have been to so far, thanks mainly to the very friendly ladies making Welsh cakes for the visitors to sample! I am not sure if these welcoming chefs are there every day but you might be lucky and I highly recommend their warm, home-made Welsh cakes as a light bite before you head to the tearooms for a more substantial snack.
I have just noticed that I listed the Orangery parterre as one of my highlights but I haven’t mentioned the gardens beyond Sir Briggs’ obelisk. The parterre is unusual in that many of the patterns are picked out in coloured stones rather than plants, but it is very effective and the Orangery is a lovely building so this is a beautiful area of the grounds. In addition, there are some nice herbaceous borders in the Orchard Garden and Cedar Garden and the wider parkland offers open space for walks and picnics alongside the lake. And all within spitting distance of the M4, so it is a perfect spot to break any long journey into Wales.
Highlights: The Gilt Room; the story of the Morgan dynasty; the Orangery parterre
Refreshments: Tuna and cucumber sandwich and crisps
Purchase(s): Guidebook, Mint Dark Chocolate bar