Category Archives: Wales

I Love England, Heartless Yobs and All

Sensible people who live in places where it snows (a lot) in April go off for sunny beach vacations if they can. Not me. I’m off to England where I fully expect a little rain.

I love medieval buildings that people still live in and use daily. The two above are in Lavenham. Pretty much the entire town looks like this, and it has looked like this since the 1400s. The roads are better now, though.

History abounds. The gatehouse above, at Charlecote, was familiar to both William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I. It was old even in their time, property of the Lucy family.

Bodiam Castle dates from 1385.

I haven’t had a chance to actually visit Stonehenge in years, but it’s a thrill to drive by the ancient mysterious stones and see them from the highway.

The British love their history. At Erddig in Wales, family servants were honored with portraits. That’s the venerable Spider Brusher above.

Schoolchildren make a day of learning to be servants at Erddig. Looks like more fun now than it probably was in the past!

The British love their Queen.

And she’s surprisingly easy to rub elbows with, if you know where to go and how to dress for the occasion.

If I were invited to the upcoming Royal Wedding, I’d certainly wear a fascinator. Sadly, I’m not invited.

The wedding will be in St. George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle. Anyone can attend the daily 5pm Evensong there, and it is a beautiful experience. A couple of years ago, my husband was shown to his seat in the choir. It’s where Prince William sits during the Order of the Garter ceremony! His coat of arms was right there on the back of the seat (photos were not allowed inside).

I might be in England when the new royal baby is born. When little Charlotte arrived, I happened to be near the hospital. The fence was decorated with pink pennants celebrating the birth, and I mingled with people who had camped outside for weeks in hopes of a royal sighting.

Part of the reason I love England is that I have some British ancestry. As a child, I heard all about my ancestor Thomas Guy, who founded Guy’s Hospital in 1721. He had made a fortune from the slave trade, sold that business, and then made more money printing unauthorized Bibles. Years ago I made a pilgrimage to the huge hospital/medical school complex, only to learn that Thomas Guy never married and had no children. So he was not a direct ancestor! But he did divvy up his money among various nieces and nephews and such. The great diarist Samuel Pepys was one of the witnesses to his will. I was disappointed, but I still like being a distant relative of a semi-famous British subject.

This will be a fairly short trip, and it will be relaxed. I’m hoping for a lot of time in tea shops and cafes, reading the very readable British papers. I don’t exactly know the definition of “yob,” but that’s half the fun is sitting down for a British cuppa. And then there are the scones with clotted cream and jam…I’m off!

Penrhyn Castle: A Neo-Norman Victorian Fantasy

I can’t believe I even have a “least favorite” castle, but right now Penrhyn is it. Why would that be? Penrhyn is spectacular in every way. It was built to impress: a fabulous Victorian gingerbread castle in Wales.

Penrhyn is in the very northern part of Wales overlooking Snowdonia. Originally, there was a medieval fortified house on the property. In 1438 the house was expanded into a stone castle and tower. Between 1822 and 1837, the architect Thomas Hopper expanded the building into a “neo-Norman” castle–in other words, a castle like the ones built by William the Conqueror after 1066, in order to show his new British subjects who was in charge.

That’s William above, in the Bayeux Tapestry, lifting his helm to show that he’s still alive during the Battle of Hastings (public domain).

The Tower of London is the best-known example of a Norman castle in Britain. William began the White Tower as a timber fortification almost as soon as he left the battlefield, and work in stone continued until about 1100. It still dominates the Tower complex. (The photo is by Bernard Gagnon, licensed under Creative Commons).

The owner of Penrhyn was the fabulously wealthy George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, who inherited the property and a whole lot of money from his second cousin, Richard Pennant. The money came from Welsh slate mining, from Jamaican sugar, and from Jamaican slavery. (I do realize that a lot of British wealth came from slavery and other ills of the colonial era).

Starting at the entrance, everything about Penrhyn seems overbearing.

The cavernous entrance hall is meant to impress. It does. I found myself wondering whether I was all that welcome, even with my National Trust Pass.

Everything looks somehow overdone. The huge stained glass windows seem like they belong in a cathedral, plus they block the light from outside.

I know the huge entrance hall is meant to be welcoming, but I felt like menacing faces were looming high above me in the arched ceilings.

Even the chairs looked uncomfortable.

Oh, well, I thought, maybe it’s just my silly reaction. I looked at one of the framed photos, which showed a visit by Albert, Prince of Wales, in June 1894. Bertie is the portly fellow in the hat. He was a regular–he obviously liked the place. Maybe I could learn to like it.

Guests would have proceeded into the library for some aristocratic R & R.

There’s the dinner gong! I wonder if I would even hear it, if I was still upstairs checking the mirror in my evening dress and trying to remember which fork to use for which course.

And so to dinner, admiring the fine paintings on all the walls…

…and then coffee and conversation and cards in the drawing room. So what’s not to like? I don’t know exactly. It all seems dark and heavy and confining, without feeling very Norman.

Especially in the stairwells, there are acres of fine stonework and plasterwork. It’s beautiful, but it seems to me that actual Norman architecture is a lot more elegantly austere.

In the family and guest bedrooms, there’s fine wood carving and canopied beds galore.

At least one person found the decor too heavy for her taste: Queen Victoria. The photo above was taken in 1860 by J. J. E. Mayall, public domain.

A one-ton bed was carved from local slate especially for a royal visit. Victoria took one look and refused to sleep in it; she said the slate headboard and footboard looked like tombstones.

Maybe she ended up in the very pretty Lower Indian bedroom instead. That’s beautiful handpainted wallpaper from around 1800. The last Lord Penrhyn chose this as his bedroom. I would have, too.

I’m sure Victoria enjoyed a world-class bathroom–essential for any vacation, especially if it’s tended by an army of discreet servants. I liked the more modest bedrooms and bathrooms better than any of the grander rooms.

I hope the many carved stone faces in the hallways didn’t scare Victoria if she wandered around in the middle of the night.

Maybe she wandered all the way down to the kitchens, and maybe the French chef was still awake, cooking and baking goodies for the royal visit.

Family members lived in the castle until 1951, when the dreaded British “death duty” taxes plus the staggering costs of upkeep, drove them to more modest digs. Penrhyn is now owned and run by the National Trust.

There’s a very entertaining little railroad museum, trains having been important to the family slate business. The photo above shows the open bench car that slate mine workers rode in.

The shiny red car towering over the workers’ car was for mine owners and other bigwigs. They got cushy swivel chairs and stained glass. Sorry, that’s me being judgmental. But if I’m honest, I should admit that I’m very privileged myself. I’m a budget traveler. But I know how fortunate I am to be able to hop on a plane and go pretty much anywhere I want, even if it’s in a too-narrow seat with no legroom. So I really have no business turning up my nose at Victorian luxury.

I’ll visit Penrhyn again if I happen to be nearby. Maybe I’ll be in a better mood and I’ll like the place better. I do love castles, but I like them to be authentic. For my taste, Penrhyn is not–at least not authentically Norman. On the other hand, it’s a reflection of the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. In Penrhyn’s heyday, British business tycoons were Masters of the Universe. That’s about as authentically Victorian as anything gets.

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

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.

A hall chair can be steeped in history. This chair, at Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire, has the emblems of one of the many owners over the years. I’m not sure whose emblems they are. But the oldest part of the existing mansion was built by William Parr, the brother of Catherine Parr, the only one of Henry VIII’s six wives to outlive him. William lost his title and Nunnington in 1553 when he made the big mistake of plumping for Lady Jane Grey as Queen. After her nine days on the throne, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. But a pardon allowed him to keep his head. Eventually, Elizabeth I restored his title, but not his mansion or his hall chairs.

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 six to eight 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:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11682406/The-Battle-of-Waterloo-is-this-the-most-British-conversation-ever-to-be-held-on-a-battlefield.html