Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Big House - a very self indulgent trip. Catherine Johnson


Lovely isn't it. Although by the time this picture was taken the house had been restored and repainted. If you go through the side gate to the left and over the cattle grid you'll see the equally lovely eighteenth century stable block which contains not only beautiful original loose boxes complete with ironwork from 1772, but a little theatre which during the 30s and 40s was briefly an important, if tiny, powerhouse of Welsh culture. This is not, just so you all know, my new home. I may have moved out of London but I have not, sadly, moved here.  The family who lived here were the Wynnes, no relation to the older Wynns of nearby Gwydir who were so stonkingly rich during the seventeenth century that they had a hand painted alabaster gravestone shipped all the way from London. I don't have a picture but it's worth a look, I imagine some kind of ox cart - did they call them pantechnicon - negotiating every rut and hill from London via Shrewsbury and across the Mynydd Hiraethog then down the Conwy Valley to Gwydir.  That's Gwydir below, 14th Century, and visited by Charles the First.  There are cedars in the park supposedly dating from the crusades.  In comparison, Garthewin is the equivalent of a Barratt new home.

 Oh I am going off at a tangent here. But both places are important to me in different ways. If you love old things and ever make it to the Conwy Valley check out Gwydir, the old church in Llanwrst with some lovely sarcophagi and finally the new chapel - new here is 1673 - that Robert Wynne built in consultation with a Jesuit priest. It looks unremarkable from ther outside, a stone built church up the hillside from Gwydir, hidden in the forest, but go inside and check the ceiling. It is a riot of heavenly golds and blues, this picture, from Cadw, does not do it justice.

In large letters it reminds us we 'know not the day nor the hour'. It really takes your breath away and like Bevis Marks or Agia Sophia, makes me wish I believed in something.

But I have gone off topic. Again. I was talking about big houses. lords and ladies of the manor. that kind of thing. I need to take you back to Garthewin, by the river Elwy, here it is again...


The drive up to the front from the main road is at least a mile and a half through broad leaved woodland, a thick ceiling of oak and ash that shut out the light until you reach a small lodge house called the Book Room. Then the lawn opened out and there was always something magic about seeing that huge wedding cake mansion, a building so completely foreign to the rest of the landscape it might as well have been a spaceship.  As I said it was semi derelict when I knew it, too big and too expensive to live in and heat I imagine. I was a kid and scared to look too hard at the empty windows in case a face appeared and looked back. To me, the house and the woods were full of ghosts. All those other people who had done that walk before me from the village across the river and up the drive, day in day out, all that linen to wash and launder, all that silver and wood to polish.The North Wales my family lived in seemed a million worlds away from this stucco'd house with its' great ballroom, and a vast estate that stretched up and away over the mountain and down the other side as far as the next village.

I'd do that walk almost every day of the holidays, twice a day, in spite of the ghosts, and this
is why;


I think I am probably out of sight in the photo, right at the back on the smallest pony, aged 11.  I'd close all the gates and hold back until the rest of the riders were out of sight and gleefully canter like hell to catch up. I'd get there ridiculously early and help take the ponies in from the field, the one you can see between the buildings, brush them and feed them bran and molasses, those beasts worked hard, and sadder still I can remember their names. Talisker, Red Hackle, Kathleen, the piebald is Buck.  And yes I bought the postcard, it just hasn't arrived yet. 

It was seeing this that set me off. I had been researching Garthewin for the blog. I hoped to uncover some legend about the place, something illuminating and erudite. But I didn't. There are some tricky inheritance issues in the nineteenth century, there's the sale of the place by the last resident Wynne in 1996. But there was no ghost story to set anyone's heart a flutter, no last minute wedding, no baby born in mysterious circumstances, no visiting royalty. Just this postcard from 1973 that sent me back forty years in a blink.


8 comments:

Theresa Breslin said...

I love your photograph of the interior of the church, Catherine - a real hidden treasure! Thanks for very interesting post.

Leslie Wilson said...

What a lovely post, and I loved your image of the ghosts who did all the work, so important to remember!

Katherine Langrish said...

I thrill to your pony memories, Catherine - I did very much the same thing myself, once upon a time.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Lovely post, Catherine. Exactly like you - can remember the name of every pony I loved at that age, but these days have difficulty remembering the names of old friends!

Beth MacBain said...

My mother was the Wynne who sold Garthewin. Do you remember her, Menna MacBain? I told her what you wrote and she remembers you. The Wynns at Gwydir were our family, the same Wynnes as at Garthewin, and sadly there was no ballroom but there should have been!! Garthewin itself was 16c so I find it difficult to liken it to a Barrett home, lol! Do you remember the pony you rode? It would be nice to know, I like to remember them myself on a regular basis! Regards, Beth.

Beth MacBain said...

Ps there are a few ghost stories connected to the big house!! If you are interested get in touch. x

Ann Turnbull said...

I just love this post, Catherine! Thank you.

Catherine Johnson said...

Oh my god! Of course I remember Menna ahe was always lovely to me, tell her I have such a lot of lovely memories. I remember the first time I ever saw a Range Rover, they seemed incredibly high off the ground and I remember the wonderful country .I was joking about Barratt of course, 1772 in comparison to 1300! And the little chapel too. Menna would remember my cousin Sylvia and her children who lived at the bookroom in the late 80s early 90s. Hope you and yours are all well, and lovely to hear from you xxc