112. Aberconwy House – 26/4/2017

Conwy is not a big town so it didn’t take long to walk from the bridge up to Aberconwy House, which is on the corner of High Street and Castle Street. Apart from the castle and the church, it is the town’s oldest building, with parts believed to be as old as 14th century, although its present construction was completed sometime in the 16th century. Ideally located not far from the quay, it has served mainly as a merchant’s house, but also spent some years in the 19th century as a Temperance Hotel.

The rooms of the house are presented to show several different periods in the building’s history. The kitchen and dining room are designed around the time of Captain Samuel Williams, a prosperous slate, copper and lead trader, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, while the Great Chamber upstairs has an earlier feel and is furnished as it might have been when the merchant Evan David owned the property in the 17th century. During the Civil War, there was said to be a great divide in Conwy society, with Royalists and Parliamentarians in constant battle. Many of the town’s older buildings were destroyed during this time but the volunteer told us that Aberconwy may well have been home to a Parliamentarian spy, which would account for its survival.

The bedroom upstairs takes us forward in time again to the period when the house was run as a Temperance Hotel by William and Jane Jones. The town would have been full of inns and pubs at this time – many of them likely to be fairly rowdy – but the hotel offered a safer and more wholesome option for travellers, albeit at a slightly inflated cost. As with the bridge, a visit to Aberconwy House doesn’t take long but the volunteers can tell you more about the town and the castle as well as the properties owned by the NT. We were interested to hear about the various ways in which Conwy Castle has fallen to the enemy over the years; it seems that it is fairly impregnable and can be held by only a minimal number of men… unless the enemy dresses up as tradesmen or builders and walks right in through the back door!

Highlights: A varied history

Refreshments: None (although I can highly recommend Parisella’s Ice Cream Parlour just up the High Street from Aberconwy House – fantastic ice cream sundaes and crêpes)

Purchase(s): None

Companion(s): Mum

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111. Conwy Suspension Bridge – 26/4/2017

Conwy Suspension Bridge with the castle as backdrop

After a beautiful walk around Bodnant Gardens, we headed back up to Conwy, which is a lovely old walled town, with a castle dating back to Edward I’s reign in the 13th century, a bustling quay and a multitude of coffee shops and eateries for the hungry tourist. The quayside is also home to the smallest house in Britain so that’s worth a quick glance.

Conwy is also home to two National Trust properties, one of which is the only bridge on my list. Conwy Suspension Bridge is particularly striking in that some of the suspending chains connect directly into the old castle so anyone crossing into the town is met with the imposing sight of the fortress looming above. The bridge was the work of the revolutionary engineer Thomas Telford who was simultaneously overseeing the construction of the Menai suspension bridge between Anglesey and the mainland. It was built in 1826 and immediately made life easier for visitors to Conwy who had previously had to rely on ferry transport – or a long detour – to reach the town. The towers of the bridge were built to look like castellated gateways and were once stained to match the colour of the nearby castle. Unfortunately, views of the bridge are now slightly spoilt by the two-lane road bridge – built in the 1950s to improve access – on one side and the railway bridge on the other.

The last car passed over the suspension bridge in 1958 and today it is only open to pedestrians. Fortunately, you no longer have to pay a toll; in the 1890s, it would have cost one old penny (1d) for a pedestrian to pass over, although this doubled to 2d if you had a barrow, bicycle or horse with you, and if the horse was pulling anything the cost went up again. Unlike the Dartford Crossing, though, you only had to pay once, with the toll covering the return journey too. In a nice touch, the Trust issues visitors to the Toll House with a ticket to indicate they have paid their 1d and you can then use this to get into Aberconwy House in the town.

I was also interested to read in the guidebook that each item of mail was also charged a penny to cross the bridge and between 1826 and 1836 the Conwy and Menai suspension bridges raised £101,708 from postage charges alone!

The Toll House on the opposite side of the bridge from the castle is open to visitors and displays four rooms as they would have been when David and Maria Williams were living there in 1891 with their four children. They had to be on hand to collect the tolls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but David still found time to grow produce so he could feed his family and supplement their income by selling spare vegetables to the toll payers. The vegetable garden has apparently been recreated but unfortunately we didn’t notice it, which is perhaps easily done as the imposing bridge and castle in the opposite direction do tend to grab your attention.

Highlights: Up close and personal with a feat of engineering

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Guidebook (also covers Aberconwy House)

Companion(s): Mum

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110. Bodnant Garden – 26/4/2017

I have just worked my way through Bodnant Garden’s 64-page guidebook, which gives you an idea of how much there was to see. Located on hillsides sloping down (sometimes fairly sharply) to the River Hiraethlyn, it has a huge variety of botanical sights, from formal gardens, lawns and terraces to the wilder Dell with its giant sequoias, trickling water and pretty bridges. There is also open parkland with a carpet of daffodils (sadly over), swathes of woodland and both natural and manmade lakes and ponds.  The garden is particularly known for its laburnum arch, which is a sight that thousands of people travel to see in late-May/early-June, but although we missed out on that I wasn’t at all disappointed as we timed things exactly right for the azaleas and rhododendrons. The words ‘stunning’ or ‘spectacular’ spring to mind but even these don’t really do justice to how Bodnant looked today, with the rhododendron family delivering bursts of colour everywhere you turned. I must have taken about 20-30 pictures of those alone so it was a real challenge picking which ones to include here.

Bodnant is actually world famous for its rhododendrons, with its red Rhododendron forrestii and the 300 hybrid rhodies raised and registered by the garden both qualifying as National Collections. It also has three other recognised National Collections: magnolia, embothrium and eucrypha. There are reported to be 115 different known rhododendron species in the gardens today, although it is believed that there are others that have lost labels and are growing incognito.

The Old Mill

The Bodnant estate (previously known as Bodnod) dates back to the 17th century, and some of the landscaping from the Georgian period still exists, but the garden really came to life after 1874 when the property was acquired by industrialist Henry Pochin, who as well as his work on the garden also remodelled the house to create the Victorian stone building that exists today. The house is still occupied by Pochin’s descendants and the future generations – first his daughter Laura and her husband Charles McLaren (the first baron, Lord Aberconway), then their son Henry, his son Charles and his son Michael – have also made their own significant contributions to the gardens. Such is the family’s importance in the gardening world that both Henry (the second baron) and Charles (the third) also served time as Presidents of the Royal Horticultural Society.

View from the Top Rose Terrace, including the Lily Terrace, the Pin Mill on the Canal Terrace and the Carneddau Mountains

It was Henry that gave Bodnant Garden to the National Trust in 1949, with a deed allowing him and his heirs to continue involvement with the garden and to maintain ownership of the house and wider estate. Henry was also a particularly important member of the family in terms of the garden’s development, overseeing the creation of the five terrace gardens between 1904 and 1914 and working closely with plant hunters to bring a vast collection of international plants to Wales, including specimens from China, India, South America and the Himalayas.

The many Head Gardeners who have served at Bodnant over the years have also been important to the garden’s development, including three generations of Puddles – Frederick, Charles and Martin – who managed affairs for 85 years between 1920 and 2005 and are worth a particular mention, not only for their efforts, but because they are called Puddle and are being added to the list of novel names I have come across on my travels!

Britain’s tallest tree (or at least some of it!)

The more recent Head Gardeners should also be given some accolades as they continue to work on improving the visitor experience, with new sections of the garden regularly being opened. For example, the Winter Garden opened in 2012, the Old Park in 2013, the Yew Dell in 2014, the Far End in 2015 and Furnace Hill and Meadow in 2017.

Other things I would recommend you seek out at Bodnant include Britain’s tallest tree (yes, it’s a sequoia) and the Old Mill, which is a nice resting spot on a tour of the garden, with a small refreshment kiosk and toilets. We took a break on a bench overlooking the Mill and met a robin who beat the Plas yn Rhiw chap for bravery. This one actually came and sat on my knee before hopping over to the arm of the seat where he posed happily for a photo. Sorry if you’d prefer another shot of the dazzling rhododendrons here but I couldn’t resist putting my new friend in the blog.

Highlights: Rhododendrons and azaleas; the Dell; the terrace gardens

Refreshments: Hot chocolate and toasted teacake

Purchase(s): Guidebook; silver necklace from one of the on-site craft shops

Companion(s): Mum

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109. Plas Newydd – 25/4/2017

Plas Newydd (plass no-with) is the only National Trust property on Anglesey so we had a day off from crossing the Britannia Bridge back to the mainland. We couldn’t get away from the bridge completely, though, as it is very much part of Plas Newydd’s impressive portfolio of views. Perched high up on the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait, the imposing house looks out on the bridge to the north east, on Y Felinheli village and harbour to the south and to the mountains of Snowdonia directly opposite. The weather gods were certainly smiling on us as well, giving the mountains a nice dusting of snow overnight, which resulted in an even more beautiful view across the Strait.

The views alone make Plas Newydd a must-see property, but for me, it is the Whistler mural in the dining room that turned this into a must-must-must-must-see and in fact single-handedly justified my eight and a half hour journey to Wales. I think we were planted in the mural room for about half an hour, discussing aspects of the painting with the volunteer and constantly finding new things to look at. The mural shows a harbour scene with a town to one side and mountains in the background and it is packed with detail and interest. Whistler was a clever and fairly cheeky painter and he included various members of the family in his picture, including some in a little rowing boat in the foreground, plus others in the town scene on the left-hand side. Here, you can also see a man with one leg leaning against the wall and this is a shout-out to Henry ‘One Leg’ Paget, the 1st Marquess of Anglesey (more of him later). The wet footprints leading out of the water next to an abandoned crown and trident suggest that Neptune has walked from the sea and into the dining room to have a meal with the family. There is much more to spot in the picture, though, so I would advise giving yourself half an hour with the volunteer so you can get the most out of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thankfully, Plas Newydd doesn’t run scared of the light and allows the blinds to hang at half mast so visitors can truly appreciate Whistler’s work in a way that they can’t at Mottisfont. The mural also made me wonder what might have been at Mottisfont if Whistler had been allowed to follow his heart rather than being constrained by the owner’s demands for plain work. We do have Mottisfont to thank for some bonus material, though, as their exhibition of Whistler’s work includes many items that are usually displayed in Plas Newydd’s own exhibition room so a number of new items have been taken out of the archive as replacements for the time being.

Rex painted himself into one of the side wall ‘arcades’

As far as the rest of the house is concerned, I couldn’t really make my mind up about it. It’s very long, which gives the impression of vast size from the east front overlooking the Strait, but it is only two rooms deep (albeit rather large rooms!) and is a real mix of eras, with neo-Gothic from the 18th century blended with some Georgianised exteriors and more modern interiors added to make the house more comfortable for family life. There are some eye-catching rooms, including the grand Music Room and more intimate Octagon Room, but without the Whistler mural or the views, it wouldn’t really have the wow factor that you find at some properties… but then again it does have the Whistler mural and the views and that was enough ‘wow’ for me.

But that wasn’t all. I was actually extremely interested in the story of the 1st Marquess of Anglesey (the aforementioned ‘One Leg’), who made his mark on the battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars, before finally – and famously – losing a leg at the Battle of Waterloo. It was said that he had eight or nine horses shot from under him during the battle but his luck finally ran out late in the day when his right knee was smashed by grapeshot. He is rumoured to have turned to the Duke of Wellington and said ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!’ to which the reply came, ‘By God, sir, so you have!’. This story and that of his military career are the subjects of a special cavalry exhibition in the house where you can also see one of the Marquess’ wooden legs, several of which were apparently found forgotten in the attics by the 6th Marquess.

While a series of Bagenals, Baylys and Pagets have owned Plas Newydd over the years since the 16th century, it is from the time of the 1st Marquess that things get most interesting. As well as his glittering military career, the 1st Marquess also had a colourful personal life, having 18 children – 8 by his first wife and 10 by the second. There was no straightforward transition from wife one to wife two, however, as the Marquess was embroiled in a scandalous divorce in 1810 and eloped to marry Charlotte Wellesley, who was the Duke of Wellington’s former sister-in-law. He fought a duel with Charlotte’s husband (both survived) and the decision also damaged his relationship with Wellington, which took some time to repair. Through his 18 children and 73 grandchildren, the Marquess also ensured that there was a steady stream of Pagets in Victorian court life and Prince Albert – presumably not keen on some of them – once described the family as ‘a plague of locusts’.

Jumping ahead through a few Marquesses, we reach the 5th Marquess who was another flamboyant character. It was rumoured that he was actually the son of a French actor, Benoit Coqeulin, and was brought up by the actor’s sister in France after his mother died, which certainly suggests that there may have been some truth to the rumours. His genes may also have encouraged an obsession with the theatre and he loved dressing up in lavish costumes, particularly those dripping with jewels. Unfortunately, jewels are expensive and his spending didn’t seem to have an off switch, so he quickly worked his way through his finances… and beyond.

The 6th Marquess was instrumental in rescuing the house after these excesses and it was he who commissioned Whistler to paint the mural, thus adding those extra ‘musts’ to Plas Newydd’s must-see status. He also created the rhododendron garden, which is only open at this time of year and was well worth the 1km walk to reach it.

The Trust has been in charge of Plas Newydd since 1976 and continues to make improvements, adding a new Mansion tearoom in 2016. Something I was particularly hoping to learn about was the ground-breaking change to the heating system made in 2014, with the previous oil-fired boilers being replaced by a new green technology that sucks heat from sea water from the Menai Strait. I was intrigued to know how this is done but there was no information on display anywhere. Perhaps the Trust feels that it’s just a lot of hot air, but I for one would have found it interesting.

Highlights: Whistler’s mural; the cavalry exhibition; the views; the rhododendron garden

Refreshments: Pot of tea and a shortbread; chicken and mixed vegetable salad with new potatoes, egg and a spring dressing

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): Mum

NT Connections: Mottisfont, which also has a notable Rex Whistler mural

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108. Plas yn Rhiw – 24/4/2017

Plas yn Rhiw is pronounced ‘plass-in-rheeoo’ with the ‘h’ also pronounced in the last word if you can master that kind of Welsh tongue twister!). It was built in 1634 and remodelled in 1820 and while it is certainly not what you could call a ‘stately’ home, it is a pretty house with its stone façade and verandah and also benefits from a lovely terraced garden and spectacular views across Hell’s Mouth Bay. But it is perhaps most important to the Trust in that it is a clear example of how even fairly ordinary people have been instrumental in preserving property for future generations.

By 1938 when it was put up for sale for £600, the house had fallen into neglect and it was the Keating family, originally from Nottingham yet familiar with the area from family holidays, who managed to scrape together the funds and step in to save it. The three sisters – Eileen, Lorna and Honora Keating – along with their mother Constance, moved into the property in 1939 and invested time, love and money in restoring the building. They opened parts of the house to the public very quickly and then donated surrounding land to the National Trust in 1946 before handing over the house itself and further land in 1952. They continued to live at the property until the last of the sisters died in 1981 and were actually strong advocates for the Trust, helping to recruit new members when they came to visit. In fact, in one of the early years, it is reported that Plas yn Rhiw recruited more new Trust members than any other property in the country, no mean feat for a small house located an hour’s drive down a peninsula.

The house is today presented as a lived-in family home, standing as a monument to the Keatings and filled with many of their belongings,including a lot of Honora’s watercolour paintings of the area. There may not be any significantly valuable artefacts in the house but it is something of a time capsule across different ages, with an old spinning wheel sharing house space with an antique typewriter and even a Teasmade that reminded my Mum of how my Grandma sometimes forgot to put the teapot under the water spout of her own Teasmade with damp consequences and a lack of morning tea!

The gardens at Plas yn Rhiw were ideal for a gentle stroll at the end of our visit. They are not huge in size but are cleverly stepped down the slope in front of the house and have a real cottage garden feel, with a current splash of colour from camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas. At the same time, when you reach the bottom of the garden, you can soak up the views of the bay below.

There is a small tearoom at Plas yn Rhiw that has outside ‘seats with a view’ for better days. We decided to go indoors, as did an adventurous robin who ended up exploring the cake stand, the kitchen, and a nearby window ledge before leaving a small ‘deposit’ on the floor and making his way back out again. He may not have mastered tearoom etiquette, but we can’t blame him for loving a National Trust scone as much as the rest of us!

I apologise for including a photo of the car park but the weather was better in this shot than in the others I took earlier and you can see the mountains of Snowdonia in the distance

Highlights: The azaleas (as I said to my Mum – only around three hundred times! – I do love an azalea); the views

Refreshments: Pot of tea and (half of) a chocolate caramel shortbread

Purchase(s): Short guide

Companion(s): Mum

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107. Porth y Swnt – 24/4/2017

Porth y Swnt (porth-ee-sunt, which translates as ‘gateway to the sound’) is very different from any other property I have visited so far and I wasn’t even sure whether to include it on my list as it is simply an interpretation centre for the Llŷn Peninsula. I was travelling to the end of the Peninsula to visit another nearby property, though, so I thought I’d stop by to have a look.

The centre opened its doors for the first time in 2014 and it seems fairly experimental in its presentation of the life of the peninsula through the use of poetry and art installations. Visitors are given an audio guide so they can listen in to information about different aspects of the Llŷn, which are classified as follows: The Deep, which tells of the importance of the sea to farmers and fishermen as well as the pilgrims who travelled off shore to Bardsey Island and its monastery (later demolished during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries); The Way, which focuses on the landscape, human activity on the land and the wildlife; The Light, which talks about the beauty and colours of the landscape and also exhibits the optic that was removed from Bardsey Island lighthouse in 2014; and The Sound, which describes the tidal forces in the Sound and includes an atmospheric installation in which you can create currents and whirlpools by moving your hands (or your head, as one fellow visitor tried!) over the bowl.

This is certainly something a little different and may not be to everyone’s taste but for those considering a trip to Bardsey Island or spending some time walking in the area it is a good starting point.

Highlights: The Sound interactive exhibit

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): None

Companion(s): Mum

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106. Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant – 23/4/2017

I promised pronunciation guides for some of the Welsh language names this week and I imagine this one might stump a lot of folks east of the border. I can’t really do it justice with a basic explanation as it will never sound as lyrical as when spoken by a native Welsh speaker but the best I can come up with is Tea Mour (to rhyme with ‘hour’ but with a beautifully rolled ‘r’) and Wibbernant to denote that it is in the Wybrnant river valley.

The meaning of the name is almost as befuddling as it translates as big or great house… as you can see from my pictures, this is more than a little misleading when considered with a modern eye. At the same time, the cottage was once located on a drovers’ road that was one of the main routes through Snowdonia and I can confidently attest that it is not on any main route today; in fact, I would go so far as to say that if you want a definition of ‘middle of nowhere’, look no further than the location of Tŷ Mawr. We must have travelled several miles on an extremely narrow road with very few passing places and a lot of changes in direction and altitude, so perhaps it’s not one for the faint hearted, but besides a few other intrepid NT visitors, you’re not that likely to meet much on the road (except perhaps the occasional chicken or goose from the nearby farm).

Those who persevere with the drive into deepest darkest Snowdonia will find a traditional Welsh farmhouse displayed as it would have looked in the 16th century when it was the birth place of William Morgan. Morgan may not be that well known to many but to Welsh speakers he is something of a hero as he was the first man to fully translate the Bible into Welsh, a move that greatly improved literacy in the region and was largely instrumental in preserving the Welsh language.

An example of the original printed Bible can be viewed in a display case in the farmhouse, while the full story of William Morgan is laid out in a small exhibition in a neighbouring building. I would say, though, that this is one of those properties that you will only get the best of if you are happy to engage with the volunteers on duty. There is not a huge amount to see but there are plenty of interesting facts and snippets to learn from those in the know. When we arrived, the greeter was giving a brief talk to a group of NT volunteers on a working holiday in Snowdonia so we listened in on that and got some extra insights into what Morgan’s early years may have been like… including being hung from the wall in swaddling clothes to avoid the danger of rats on the ground!

There is certainly a dichotomy in the stories that Tŷ Mawr has to tell: on the one hand, the everyday life of rural farmers in Snowdonia, and on the other, the importance of language and learning. As a lover of linguistics, the most fascinating aspect of the property for me was its collection of Bibles in many different international languages. Most of these have been donated over the years by visitors who failed to find their own language in the collection and they range from familiar languages to more unusual tongues, such as Aboriginal, Maori, and Cornish. I picked one up that looked unusual and found a written message in the front where the German who donated it had explained that it was in Sorbian, a language spoken by a Slavic minority in a small part of East Germany. Who knew that you could read a Sorbian Bible in a tiny Welsh homestead in the heart of Snowdonia?

Highlights: The globe-trotting bibles

Refreshments: None (we brought our own picnic to eat in the cottage garden)

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): Mum

NT Connections: Penrhyn Castle, whose owners bought Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant in 1854 and held it until both properties were taken on by the Trust in the 1950s

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