Category Archives: Wales

British Hall Chairs: Putting Visitors in Their Place

If you turned up at the entrance to a grand home in Britain without an invitation, you’d likely be told to go around to the servants’ entrance. If you were obviously respectable and had a convincing story, you might be shown into the drawing room to wait for the master or mistress. But if the maid or butler was not sure whether you were fish or fowl, you’d be told to cool your heels on a hall chair. The one above is at Attingham, a Georgian mansion near Shrewsbury.

Hall chairs were often custom-made for grand homes, the style carefully considered to reflect the wealth and taste of the owner. The one above is from Penrhyn, an over-the-top 19th-century stone pile built to resemble a medieval Norman castle. It’s in North Wales, and in its heyday it was a favorite haunt of Bertie, Prince of Wales.

At Plas Newydd, also in North Wales, hall chairs boast the family’s coat of arms.

This chair, at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, looks like a spot to squirm in discomfort. But then comfort is not the point in hall chairs. They almost never have arms. This one barely has a seat.

Hall chairs are almost never padded or upholstered. A docent explained to me that a visitor relegated to a hall chair might have fleas. Hall chairs had to be easy to sanitize.

If you were lucky enough to be invited into a drawing room and dared to sit down, you might feel comfy on an upholstered chair, like one of these at Attingham. But if you were kept in the entry hall, you might have a long wait perched on a hard chair. I suspect that often a servant would be delegated to watch you as well, to be sure you didn’t make off with a silver candlestick.

At Sandringham House, the private home of the Royal Family in Norfolk, paying visitors are welcome to see a few rooms when the Queen is not in residence.

Everybody enters through this door. But photographs inside are strictly forbidden.

It seemed all right to take a picture of one of the Queen’s very elegant hall chairs just inside. But I didn’t quite dare to sit down.

In refreshing contrast to aristocratic chair rules, stately and historic homes run by the National Trust often have special non-historic chairs set aside for weary visitors to take a load off. This one, at Standen near East Grinstead, even has an inviting pillow. Standen is entirely done up in William Morris style, which was all about beauty, comfort and practicality. Sit down? Thank you! I don’t mind if I do.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

The Ha-Ha at Chirk Castle

I’ll be the first to admit that it rains in England. So when visiting castles and stately homes, I often scurry through the gardens and take refuge inside. But the day I made it to Chirk Castle was gloriously sunny, so I got the full effect of the gardens.

The views across the Ceiriog Valley in Wales are spectacular. I’m sure the herd of 500 deer, established by the 1500s, enjoy the views as much as their ancestors did (when they’re not being hunted by their owners). But deer and cattle are not allowed inside the 5 manicured acres of the garden. They’re kept out by the Ha-Ha, built in 1764 by landscape architect William Emes.

What’s a Ha-Ha? It’s a deep ditch with a stone or brick wall set into one side. Presumably the name comes from the reaction of a person who stumbles into it, although I’d expect to hear some choice words beyond “Ha ha!” Anyway, it works as well as a fence, but preserves the views. I’ve always wanted one, but I would probably get sued if someone stumbled in.

Generations of the Myddelton family lovingly tended the gardens. I visited in springtime.

The yew-tree topiaries are about 130 years old. These days, there are only three gardeners. It takes them 6 to 8 weeks every year just to trim the topiaries.

The grandest topiary is the Crown on the Cushion.

In 1901, it was not that much taller than a Victorian lady.

Now, it’s big enough to pitch a tent under.

I like this bird topiary, perched in a shady spot among the ferns.

In recent years a beloved tree was felled by a storm.

The Myddelton family had its trunk carved into a garden bench.

If I were more of a gardener myself, I’d know exactly what I’m looking at. Rhododendrons? I like the wildness of the grassy bordered walks, after the formality of the manicured gardens.

Inside the castle, there was a special exhibit of embroidery based on the grounds and gardens. The piece above, “Across the Fields,” is by Janet Vance of the Embroiderers’ Guild.

Sue Sercombe made “Snowdrops in the Woods.”

Sheila Foggin used her sewing machine in ways I would not dream of, to create “Through the Gate.”

I always think that needlework is under-appreciated as an art form. I have trouble appreciating the gardener’s art too, because I know so little about it.

Well, I’ll head back into the castle for one last look at the grand Drawing Room.

It has an 18th-century look to it. In a 700-year-old castle, each succeeding generation makes its mark.

And there’s that famous Red Hand again! It’s the subject of all kinds of entertainingly bloody legends, but really it just represents the title of Baronet which the Myddelton family bought themselves a few centuries ago.

So many faces have come and gone at Chirk. We know a bit about those who made it into the history books. The more humble “below stairs” stories would be just as fascinating.

On my way out, I’ll admire this cottage perched on the edge of the Ha-Ha. Maybe it was once the home of the chief gardener. I’d cheerfully move right in! Just show me how to use those garden shears.

Join me next time for more explorations in Europe and the British Isles!

Chirk Castle

Catching-up time: I’m off to England soon, so I’m posting about places I will not see because I’ve seen them before. For a hopeless Anglophile like me, England has way too many stellar sights. Chirk Castle is one of my favorites.

Construction began in 1295, under Roger Mortimer. He was an English army captain who received the land from Edward I, with a mandate to show the recently-subdued Welsh who was in charge. A powerful ring of fortresses grew within a few years on the Marches, the brooding borderlands between England and Wales.

Most of these stone piles are now picturesque ruins, but Chirk has been continuously inhabited since it was finished in 1310.

I’d like to think this emblem, showing a hand above a crown, is from the days of the Mortimers. I’m a “Game of Thrones” fan. Was Roger Mortimer the “Hand of the King?” No, actually the hand emblem is from the late 1500s, when the Myddelton family owned the place and bought themselves a title.

When they added to King James I’s coffers by paying for the title of Baronet, they were entitled to add a red glove to their coat of arms.

The original Roger Mortimer and his namesake nephew both turned against the Crown. The first died in the Tower, and the second was executed as a traitor by Edward III. Three other owners of Chirk were also executed as traitors over the years. It’s easy to imagine the castle being haunted.

In Tudor times, in 1563, Elizabeth I gifted the castle to her favorite, Robert Dudley. Some rooms and parts of the gardens still have a distinctly Tudor look.

After Robert Dudley died, the castle was eventually sold to Sir Thomas Myddelton I. His son, Sir Thomas Myddelton II, found himself in the peculiar position of being ordered to break in and occupy his own castle in 1643. It had been taken by Royalists under Charles I in the English Civil War. Myddelton was ordered to retake it, which he could have done with artillery. But he didn’t feel like bashing his own home to smithereens. Eventually, the Royalists were bribed to leave peacefully, Charles I was executed, and Chirk went on as before. If these walls could talk!

Later, subsequent generations of Myddeltons were forced to rent out their castle to make ends meet, but the family managed to hold on until 1978. Even after giving the castle to the National Trust, family members lived there, and they still actively help manage the castle and grounds. That’s a Lady Mary Myddelton above, circa 1613.

One of her descendants sits, wineglass in hand, in the Bow Drawing Room.

The room is furnished as it was for posh parties in the twenties and thirties.

A gramophone plays dance music, and visitors are invited to make themselves at home.

Maybe we should take a turn in the Long Gallery?

Wait, I heard the dinner gong!

The dining room, last decorated in the 1930s, has entertained the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Augustus John, and any number of other people I would love to meet.

I’m not big on romantic castle ruins, but I’d go back to gloriously UN-ruined Chirk Castle anytime.

The exuberant Baroque Davies Gates, made by two local blacksmiths in 1712, will be waiting.

Plas Newydd: Royalty and Green Skilly 

I admit to being a hopeless Anglophile. I can easily see myself sweeping down a grand staircase to greet visiting royalty, as the  Angleseys of Plas Newydd in Wales did for centuries.

The house has Tudor origins, but much of it was built in stages beginning in the 1700s. According to a docent, it was more or less a summer cottage, so costs were kept down. The stone walls and pillars in the entry hall? Faux painting. Works for me.

Royals attended Anglesey weddings as a matter of course. And royals stopped by Plas Newydd to play cards in the saloon (toffspeak for the main living room, where everybody gathers. If there are children, this is where they play checkers and race around on tricycles).

Show me a drawing room or saloon, any room where my betters relax, and I’ll head straight to the obligatory black-and-white framed photos, casually strewn on the grand piano or the museum-quality writing desk.

I love faded chintz, tastefully worn Persian rugs, and slightly shabby velvet.

I asked whether this little ceramic pair represented any couple in particular. No, the docent said, it’s just a prince and princess. This figurine was probably mass-produced, but somebody liked it enough to set it on a table alongside family heirlooms.

In another lifetime, maybe I was a British aristocrat–not a snooty one, but a slightly eccentric one who welcomed artists of all stripes. The artist Rex Whistler would have a permanent room in my mansion.

I’d look over Rex’s shoulder as he worked on whatever he wanted, maybe costumes and stage design for a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” I think this is Alonso, Prospero’s brother.

Caliban is spiky and green.

Miranda looks lovely, and remarkably like Caroline, a daughter of the family (to whom the artist was devoted).

The 6th Marquess of Anglesey had a fine sense of humor. These are his photos of his four daughters. I’m guessing that none of these daughters inherited any of the property. British families kept their estates intact by passing on everything to the oldest son. Most of them still do. But growing up as an aristocratic daughter looks like a pretty good life all the same.

In the breakfast room, there’s a special side table with a screened box to keep the family dogs away from the sausages.

The bedrooms were completely redecorated in the epitome of 1930s country house comfort and style. I’ll take the pink one, please.

I’ll be down for dinner when the gong sounds. Just let me fuss a bit more with my hair…

In the kitchen far below, servants bustle with pots and pans and silver platters. They sit down to their own dinners. Do they say grace after the meal instead of before? Sounds like it:

We thank the Lord for what we’ve had,

It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad.

The sodduck was stale, the skilly was green,

But thank the Lord the plates were clean.

I’m blessed with a husband who likes old stuff as much as I do. We celebrated our 49th year of wedded bliss at Plas Newydd. This year, we made it to 50! I’d like to go back to Plas Newydd for a nice cup of skilly (tea), green or not.

Lord Anglesey, A Man of Parts

Henry, the dashing 7th Marquess of Anglesey, came to mind this morning. In a burst of fall energy, I started madly cleaning out drawers, cupboards, closets and even the dreaded garage. I thought of Henry.

After a couple of strenuous hours of pitching and organizing things I had forgotten I owned, I sank into my softest chair and thought admiringly of Henry’s study at Plas Newydd in Wales. Henry was Marquess from 1947 until he died in 2013. In 1976, he gave Plas Newydd–“New Mansion”–to the National Trust, but still lived upstairs with his family. I think his heirs still live there, too. So would I.

Henry’s study, used daily during his lifetime, is a magnificent jumble of books, papers, drawings, photos, magazines, and who knows what else.

Another part of Plas Newydd displays stuff from the family’s colorful history. Henry was a distinguished historian, and well he might be. His ancestors included the first Marquess, Henry “One-Leg,” whose leg was shot off by cannon fire at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, while he was right next to the Duke of Wellington himself. On the occasion, Henry coolly said, “By God, Sir,    I’ve lost my leg.” The Iron Duke replied, “By God, Sir, so you have.”

The Marquess had what remained of his leg amputated, with a stiff upper lip and no anesthetic, and was fitted with a wooden leg. Afterward, he fathered ten children and walked nine miles a day for the rest of his life.

But back to the 7th Marquess. He must have been something of an artist as well as a politician and a writer. He kept a special drawing table, under a window with good light. Of all the rooms in grand homes that I’ve seen, Henry’s study is one of my favorites.

I can see him happily puttering around, going from one table to the next. The jumble made perfect sense to him. He just kept a separate place for each one of his many projects. If only I had the space to do the same.

The other unforgettable room at Plas Newydd is the dining room. In 1936, the 6th Marquess commissioned Rex Whistler to paint the entire long wall as a mural.

The artist was happy to spend endless hours on the mural, partly because he was in love with one of the daughters of the family, whom he also painted. Tragically, Rex Whistler was killed in action in Normandy in July 1944, having insisted on fighting rather than serving in some less dangerous way. He had just arrived at the front.

I could spend hours taking in the detail of the Whistler mural, which is full of gentle humor and family references.

If I get to return to Plas Newydd, I’ll try to find time to look into the grounds and gardens, another interest of Henry’s.

Meanwhile, I’ll dream of having a room all my own, like Henry’s. “A man of parts” is the British term for a multi-talented Renaissance man.Henry is the best example I know of. Now, about my basement storage room…

There’s an article about the 1st Marquess at:

Palatial Bathrooms

I’m about to get on a plane, so naturally my thoughts turn to bathrooms. The bathroom is one of my main concerns when booking a place to stay.  I’ll be in Scandinavia, a part of the world  I’ve never visited. While I wonder what my luck will be on bathrooms, I’m looking at pictures of bathrooms in the stately homes of Great Britain.


I like a nice hot bath after a long day tramping a city or country lanes. But the owners of Erddig in Wales were proud to own one of the first showers, a newfangled and somewhat alarming contraption in the late eighteenth century.


They commissioned an artist to depict family members lining up for showers, and looking none too happy about it. Why the dunce caps?


At Plas Newydd, a palatial country home on the water in Wales, the Marquis enjoyed his leisurely baths with his valet in close attendance.  His bathtub had a handy window to the hallway, so the valet could hand him a fresh drink every now and then.


But at some point, the plumbing failed, as the rubber ducky warns visitors. (Once when I was a houseguest, I got up early to use a bathroom off the host’s kitchen, thinking I wouldn’t wake anyone. It turned out that the tap should have had a warning.  It had not been used in years, and I caused a flood).


Still, I’m not alone in wanting my hot bath.  When Lord Curzon took over Montacute, a grand Elizabethan house in the early 1900s, he appreciated the ancient architecture.


But he found a way to shoehorn a secret bathtub behind the priceless old panelled bedroom wall. (His mistress, the beautiful and accomplished novelist Elinor Glyn, was happily decorating and refurbishing the house when she received word that Lord Curzon was engaged to Grace Hinds, an equally beautiful but also very rich American. She packed up and left in a hurry, but I like to think she enjoyed one last bath).


I think the ultimate in luxury would be a hand-drawn bath in front of the fire, like the one at Standen, an Arts and Crafts mansion built in the late 1800s as a family retreat for a wealthy businessman. Life for the servants who had to haul the water was not so pleasant, of course.  In this house, a maid left a recorded account of the day she finally was allowed “upstairs.” It was the day the house was opened to the public by the National Trust. She had toiled “below stairs” in the scullery for her entire working life, not even allowed to haul water upstairs.


I hope this hard-working scullery maid at least had a foot bath for her aching feet, like this one below stairs at Wimpole.

As for me, I’m hoping for the best when I check in on my travels!




Erddig: Home of the Spider Brusher


Who is the Spider Brusher?  She is Jane Ebbrell, a beloved servant at the Welsh estate of Erddig, near Wrexham. Actually, she was more of an all-around housemaid, but she wielded a mean spider-brush in her day.  We know this because her slightly eccentric late 18th century master, Philip Yorke, not only commissioned her portrait, but wrote an affectionate ditty about her.  It begins,

To dignify our Servants hall

Here comes the Mother of us all;

For seventy years, or near have pass’d her

Since Spider-Brusher, to the Master

At the time of her portrait, she was 87.  Many other servants received the same oil portrait and poem treatment over the next 250 years. But the Yorkes went beyond lip service. Jane Ebbrell, for example, was encouraged to marry another servant, and when she finally retired it was to her own home on the estate.


In around 1852, the squire, Simon Yorke III commissioned a photograph of all the family servants, each holding an implement of his or her work, standing on the front steps.  He and his family appeared in the window behind the servants.


In 1912, Philip Yorke duplicated the photo with his own servants and his own young family.  He wrote a long poem for the occasion.  A book of his poems, all affectionate doggerel, is sold in the gift shop.

What made seven generations of the Yorke family treat their servants so well? This was an age when kitchen maid might always be called “Mary” because master and mistress could not be bothered to learn new names. Most likely the reason is that the Yorke family had somewhat humble origins themselves. When they unexpectedly inherited the house and its grand 18th century furnishings from an uncle, they found themselves rich in property but poor in cash.  They could not afford the usual wages, but they made up for it by treating their servants so well that they felt part of the whole enterprise.


Perhaps not wanting to waste anything, they eventually became epic hoarders.


When the property finally passed to the National Trust in 1973, the sole remaining Yorke required that no objects should EVER be thrown out or sold. About 30,000 objects were inventoried.  Only about 10,000 can be on display at the same time.


In their more orderly years, the family kept a “Failures Gallery:” a collection of objects and art they didn’t like but didn’t want to part with.  It lined the walls of the passage the servants used to get to the private chapel.


The chapel was the scene of daily prayers for everyone.


The family never used the Failures Gallery.  They entered the chapel through their grand eighteenth century rooms. So life at Erddig kept some of the traditional distance between master/mistress and servant.  But still, life in the Servants’ Hall at Erddig was pleasant enough that generations of families were happy to serve the Yorkes for low wages.

An article about Errdig is at: