Our North Wales Break, Part 1: Buildings (and sheep)

Maisie and I have decided that we’re not great ones for long holidays. We prefer to take three or four day breaks instead, and this year we decided to visit north Wales. Maisie was keen to see the well-known garden at Bodnant, while I wanted to photograph Caernarfon Castle (Gwynedd), with its famous striped masonry. And after having kept Lleyn sheep for over twenty years we both wanted to see these wonderful animals munching grass on their home turf, the Lleyn Peninsula.

The break was a great success. It rained a bit, but not as much as we feared (statistically Wales has vastly more rainfall than the Fens), and the sun shone. Our cottage, the gateway lodge of the ancestral home of the Armstrong-Jones family, and now a fine country house hotel, Plas Dinas, near Caernarfon, was very reasonably priced and extremely comfortable and well-appointed, as they say in the leaflets. Although it was close to a road, the traffic noise was minimal. We certainly plan to go back there in the future when we’ll give the fine dining at the main hotel, down the long wooded drive, a taste. Sadly, this time we were far too busy. And we’d also brought lots of fresh vegetables we’d grown ourselves. I’ll say a few words about the great gardens we visited in my next blog post; right now I’ll concentrate on buildings.

One of the pleasures of visiting great gardens is discovering unusual antiquities, sometimes concealed within them, often as picturesque ruins. But at Arley Hall in Cheshire, just across the English border, the surprise wasn’t concealed: it was right there at the main entrance. In fact it was a popular venue for weddings. So was it a church, a chapel, a temple even? No, it was none of these things. It was a seven-bay timber-framed cruck barn, built around 1470. The so-called crucks were huge curved vertical supports which stretched from just above the floor to the apex of the roof in a vast soaring curve. I never visit a cruck barn without feeling elated – and Arley’s was no exception – it must be a great place to get married.

The great cruck barn at Arley Hall, Cheshire.

The great cruck barn at Arley Hall, Cheshire.

The next building was the first one we visited in Wales: our cottage, the Gatekeeper’s Lodge at Plas Dinas on the southern approaches to Caernarfon. It wasn’t particularly spectacular, but I do like Arts and Crafts houses. Unlike so many modern houses, they’re always laid-out unpredictably, often with staircases where you’d least expect them. And this one was no exception. I don’t know what date it was built, but I’d guess it was quite late, but undoubtedly pre-1914. As we drove around we couldn’t help noticing that many of the rural buildings in that part of Wales were Victorian or Edwardian and they date to the period when monied and not-so-rich people wanted to live amidst spectacular scenery, but I’ll have more to say on this shortly.

 

The Gatekeepers Lodge, Plas Dinas, near Caernarfon.

The Gatekeepers Lodge, Plas Dinas, near Caernarfon.

The big attractions in this part of Wales have to be the great castles at Conwy and Caernarfon, built by King Edward I in the 1280s – a staggeringly long time ago. Both buildings were meant to be symbols of English power and both dominated walled towns which were in effect English boroughs. I discuss Conwy, especially the walled town, at some length in The Making of The British Landscape. Both castles were designed by Edward’s master mason – today we’d call him an architect – James of St. George, who was actually a Frenchman from Savoy and learnt his trade building castles in his homeland in the 1260s. Both Conwy and Caernarfon are now World Heritage Sites. Caernarfon is famous for its polygonal towers (most towers and turrets of the time were round) and the striped masonry of its walls was certainly intended to impress. Historians have suggested the stripes echoed the walls of Constantinople, or alternatively Roman towns in Britain. I honestly don’t think it matters which, because it’s still abundantly clear that Caernarfon was intended to impress and over-awe. It’s a symbol of power – if ever there was one.

Caernarfon Castle, from across the port and River Seiont.

Caernarfon Castle, from across the port and River Seiont.

If you want a complete contrast with Caernarfon, then Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, is the place to choose. At first glance it’s a massive, grey gloomy Norman structure. It positively glowers at you as you approach it. But relax: it’s entirely fake. Yes, there was an early tower (keep) on the site, but it was almost completely smothered by the huge Victorian ‘castle’ designed by Thomas Hopper in the 1820s and ‘30s. Both Caernarfon and Penrhyn were designed to impress; the former does so with grace and elegance, the latter with brooding menace that owes much to the then popular fashion for Gothick horror. And I don’t think it helps that the man and the family with the vast fortune that paid Hopper, acquired their wealth from slave-run sugar plantations in Jamaica. That fact alone somehow makes the building even darker.

Penrhyn Castle, Bangor. An early Victorian reconstruction.

Penrhyn Castle, Bangor. An early Victorian reconstruction.

The buildings of north Wales are very varied, which is one of the reasons they make for an excellent holiday. Sometimes an itinerary of churches alone can become rather wearisome, leading to extended lunches and sleepy afternoons. On a visit to Conwy we strayed into the town, away from the massive walls, to see the superb Elizabethan townhouse of Plas Mawr (in English: Great Hall). This is a hidden jewel. Simon Jenkins in his superb book, Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles describes it as ‘…the most splendid town mansion of the Tudor period remaining in Britain.’ Built in 1576, and enlarged shortly thereafter by a family of prosperous Welsh merchants, this wonderful house (I shall resist the temptation to describe it as a monument to mercantile munificence) was not rebuilt and enlarged in the 18th and 19th centuries – the fate of so many Tudor town and country houses in England – so its interiors, including superb plasterwork, remain remarkably intact.

The Tudor merchant’s house, Plas Mawr, Conwy.

The Tudor merchant’s house, Plas Mawr, Conwy.

But we did manage to visit at least one church (sadly, as happens these days, some were locked) and it was most remarkable, being essentially all of one period (Perpendicular – 15th Century), although it was actually founded very much earlier, in the 7th Century. Pilgrims would make their way from Caernarfon to Bardsey Abbey on its small island off the western tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, as part of a pilgrimage route along the north coast that became hugely popular In the later Middle Ages. The church of St. Beuno, at Clynnog Fawr (where the eponymous saint’s bones are buried) was the starting and assembly point for the pilgrimage, which still takes place from time to time to this day. But what makes this church remarkable, is its range of medieval and later church furniture including a fine screen, chests and a remarkable device for catching dogs. I doubt the RSPCA would approve of it.

St Beuno, Clynnog Fawr

And finally, those wonderful Lleyn sheep, which were all around us, although very often I could detect that many lambs had been crossed with a Charollais ram. It’s an excellent cross and produces a fine lamb with well-built hind quarters. But these sheep I photographed on the edge of marshy ground near Llangian, were all, I think, pure-bred Lleyns. And they looked in very good order indeed. Let’s hope lamb prices pick up later in the year!

Lleyn sheep near Llangian, Lleyn peninsula, Wales

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