Here begins a week of Trusting around North Wales. I am staying – with mother in attendance once again – in a lovely converted farm building a few miles over the bridge on Anglesey. It took us eight and a half hours to get here on Friday (including one hour literally parked on our beloved M25 before we’d gone more than about ten miles!) so I decided to pick one of the nearer properties to visit on Saturday and we headed off to Penrhyn Castle near Bangor.
I may have to include pronunciation clues for some of the properties this week but Penrhyn is pretty straightforward (Pen-rin). Although I should maybe point out that local Welsh speakers would call it Castell Penrhyn.
Whichever way you say your ‘castle’, it should be noted that Penrhyn isn’t really a castle in the traditional sense at all. Prominent families have owned the Penrhyn estate since the 14th century so there have been a number of important buildings on the site over the years, but the current ‘castle’ was only built between 1820 and 1832 so is essentially a Victorian vanity project. It was built primarily to impress and, even if it is not to everyone’s taste, I think most would admit that it’s impressive. Perched on top of a hill, the striking Keep and turreted towers can be seen from miles around and this also means that the views from the castle are also fairly stunning. Meanwhile, inside the castle, the vast rooms with their carved stone, carved plaster and carved woodwork are certainly the kinds of rooms that have the ‘wow’ factor. I am sure you noticed the repetition of the word ‘carved’ in that previous sentence and this was fully intentional. After a few rooms, I did comment that it was an effort to find something in the castle that wasn’t carved.
Penrhyn Castle was the work of architect Thomas Hopper, who created the interiors very much in the Norman style, with the cathedral-like Grand Hall and geometrically carved stonework certainly in keeping with this period. The project was funded by George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, who inherited the property and the Pennant wealth in 1816. The Pennants’ money came initially from sugar plantations in Jamaica (so was controversially earned on the back of the slave trade) and later from the Penrhyn slate quarry, which my guidebook claims is still the largest ‘hand-made’ hole in the surface of the earth. The quarry is also notorious for a strike that lasted from 1900 to 1903.
My very detailed guidebook explains generations of high ranking Griffiths, Williamses and Pennants before we get to George Hay Dawkins, and while it is interesting that the estate has had such an eminent line of ownership, I am going to rudely ignore them all as today’s Penrhyn is all about the latter day Pennants – first Dawkins-Pennant and then a few generations of Douglas-Pennants, starting with Edward Douglas-Pennant who married into the family and made full use of his conjugal wealth, building up a notable collection of paintings, becoming the first Lord Penrhyn and nurturing friendships with the likes of Prime Minister, William Gladstone. He also welcomed Queen Victoria to Penrhyn Castle as a guest in 1859. (NB: Penrhyn almost made my list of regal visits twice but when Edward VII visited in 1894 he was still only the Prince of Wales and yet to become King.)
The Queen actually had first-hand experience of the source of Douglas-Pennant’s wealth as she was said to have slept on the slate bed that is still on show in the house (although the Keep bedrooms were unfortunately closed during our visit). Another notable slate item in the house is the billiard table whose legs and pockets are made from slate as well as the table base.
Another visitor attraction at Penrhyn that owes its existence to the slate quarry is the Railway Museum, home to a collection of steam engines from around the country, including some that used to ferry the slate to and from the quarry and Penrhyn port after a branch line was built specifically for this purpose. I am not a railway enthusiast but I had a quick look at the engines, including one of a type that inspired Thomas the Tank Engine!
Other notable things to see inside the house include the stained glass windows in the Grand Hall, which were created by Thomas Willement (who also worked on the Houses of Parliament), the Grand Staircase, and the collection of art, which includes paintings by Canaletto, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Teniers, etc. There were also works by Vermeer and Rembrandt until recently when the current members of the Penrhyn family, who still own much of the art, decided they were short of a few bob (by which I mean millions) and decided to sell them.
I will mention one other member of the Pennant family who seems to have had an impact on the castle and this is Sybil the Destroyer (my description not the National Trust’s!). A couple of times on our tour of the castle, we read that things had been removed because Lady Sybil – wife of the 4th Baron – didn’t like them, and it seems she was also largely responsible for installing the central heating that has wreaked some havoc on the wooden furnishings. However, although I dubbed her the Destroyer, she did create the lovely walled garden, with its water features, parterre and loggia, which was a tranquil resting spot on our walk around the grounds, so she wasn’t all bad. An entirely contrary view of some purists might be that she didn’t go far enough and should perhaps have torn down the entire pseudo castle but I for one think this would have been a tragedy. The Carved Castle surprised and impressed me and I doubt I will see anything like it on my future travels.
Highlights: Grand Hall; Library; walled garden; views!
Refreshments: Leek and cheese frittata with salad and home-made coleslaw; flapjack and pot of tea
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘The Rose of Tibet’ by Lionel Davidson (from secondhand bookshop)
NT Connections: Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, which was bought by the owners of Penrhyn in 1854 and held by the estate until both properties were passed to the Trust in the 1950s