Playing with Castles

We’ve been in Wales for the weekend, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, in a little dreamworld. With our friends Brandon and Will (and their dog Lewis) we’d rented the Landmark Trust’s Clytha Castle for a Friday to Monday (as all good weekends used to be called; I wish they still were, and lasted for four days).
It was a dream little palace on a hill, built in the closing decade of the eighteenth century both as an eye-catcher, and as a memorial to the death of his wife, by its patron, William Jones.  The castle looks out far over the valley of the River Usk, surrounded by ancient trees with branches thick with mistletoe, and is encircled by an old, mossy ha-ha.

Here is Lewis:

And his girlfriend Mavis, going crazy (as usual).

The interior, like all Landmarks, is simple but just right, consisting of two rooms in the square tower, a few little rooms tucked in a rabbit warren behind, and at the end of a long stone-flagged passage, a tall-ceilinged circular kitchen.

After taking in a beautiful Saturday morning, as the early light came up, and with the day seeming full of promise, we jumped in the car with the dogs and made our way into the Brecon Beacons, with the intention of walking up a hill.

We had the nicest drive through beautiful countryside, which got bleaker and bleaker, just as it began to rain. Arriving at our destination, already thick with parked cars and burger vans, and tea trucks, we got out of the car into freezing wind and realised immediately that we were all slightly underprepared. This wasn’t a stroll in Dorset, let’s face it.

As we watched the relentless long line of hundreds and hundreds of hill walkers, dressed in vivid neon shades and carrying every accoutrement under the sun (I mean, cloud), I began to have serious doubts about this enterprise.

Luckily so did everyone else. We made the long walk from one end of the carpark to the other and got back in the car. That’s my sort of walk in these sort of conditions.  It was the crowds that did it for me.   Mavis and Lewis would have had to have been firmly kept on the leash and at no point could one have got away into solitude, which seems to me to be the only point of walking up a hill in the first place (maybe I can refer you the later part of this blog, written a few weeks ago in Dorset, to prove the point).

The valleys were spectacular, 

But bleak was about the right word at that particular moment.

Time for a cuppa.  Only Charlie would have brought the perfect picnic basket and enamel ware.

We drove to the far end of the National Park, to a little town I had visited years before, Llandovery, where it seems as if every house has been painted in a bright and jolly colour, each more vivid than the next, where the paint might have fallen off the back of a lorry rather than being specifically picked.  Perfection, therefore.

We climbed up the little hill to the castle and looked over this little town with its fine classical buildings, now gently no longer at the best of their days, but still all there, and I wondered at the prosperity of this tiny market town and the richness of its streets of houses, built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when somehow otherwise uneducated and illiterate men managed to build towns of incredible civility.

Here is the playground:

Here is the pub:

And the beautiful war memorial, wreaths scattered in the wind and rain: On the way back, we wondered why this beautiful farm stood forlorn and apparently empty…

But the windows were spotlessly clean, so maybe it was the rustic retreat of an architectural historian of the ‘scrapey-scrapey’ school.  Who knows?

The funny thing about being in Wales, and I think I’ve witnessed this every day of every time I have ever been there, the day is suddenly freezing and wet and sunny and warm by turns. Blue skies, all of a sudden.

We were making our way to superb Crickhowell – talking of civilised towns, this is it. Years ago I had visited here too, on a study trip writing a pattern book of Welsh houses for a project I worked on, and we stayed in the Bear Hotel for three nights, and photographed and measured nearly every house in town. Hardly anything had changed in the intervening decade, and nothing for the worse.

I’ve always thought this little row of houses to be about perfect. When I first saw them, they were very, very inspirational for projects I was working on – and still are. So humble, yet so full of dignity.

Another beautiful row of cottages curve away on a falling street, leading out of town, the eaves line staying constant, the floor heights increasing as the land slips away. 

Dark clouds and brilliant sunshine lit up the facade of the Bear Hotel like a drawing from a picture book.

The town is surrounded by hills; the ever present relationship between town and country, not blurred by suburban sprawl. Note the street lamps. 

The high street, lined with brilliant, small, local shops, and grand buildings. 

We had a huge lunch at the Bear Inn and felt very glad not to be trekking half way a grim mountainside and after plenty of pints made our way back to Clytha, where we settled in front of the fire and mixed cocktails by the light of Gothick windows and candles.

Supper was riotous, perfectly cooked beef from the butcher in Crickhowell, and an early celebration of Brandon’s birthday.  Which continued long into the small hours, but here the photos end.

We woke the next morning to a rainbow.

We were heading for lunch with my friend Penny Morrison, who is an interior decorator of great distinction but for those of you who do not know, has teamed up with that other great eye, Caroline Irving, to produce lots of good things that you will find here, or you can visit their new showroom in London.

I’ve known Penny for a while now and she had always said most generously “COME AND SEE US ANYTIME!!!” (she does speak a bit like that). And now we were taking her at her word.  But nothing, and I mean nothing, prepares you for the view of the valley from Penny and Guy’s house, a beautiful, pure white Regency house built high on a steep embankment in 1810. The view is spectacular.

Penny style. Pure comfort, and a lot of nice stuff. 

A collection of vintage fabrics in the workshop, waiting to be made to cushions.

A good way to spend the afternoon, sinking into the deepest sofas on earth, sun streaming in, chatting.

We called for tea on the way back with fellow guests Edward and Emma Bulmer, who make beautiful, natural paint, which you will doubtless already know about, and had a look around another amazing place, their dreamy Queen Anne house, surrounded by watery canals which they have restored entirely. Heaven. We left as it was getting dark.

Monday morning: weekends go fast and slow all at the same time, and suddenly it was time to leave. We packed our bags and tidied the house and made our departure as the housekeeper was making her way up the drive. And then, we had to head home; but on the way, made a stop at nearby Raglan Castle, which possibly turned out to be the most beautiful part of the trip.

Massive (and deserted at 10 o clock on a Monday morning, note to self, a good time in the week to visit places) the castle was a building of once immense beauty, attacked and destroyed during the English civil war, and left as a ruin thereafter.  I supposed that this is what civil war looks like. History repeats herself.

Now, only birdsong fills the trees surrounding this once great, and richly furnished, medieval powerhouse. 

High up, on the third floor of one wing, was the former Tudor long gallery, with a huge oriel window facing north over the distant countryside, and with only a fragment of the elaborate fireplace high up on the wall to attest to the splendour of the decoration.

Here, once, were huge water gardens and pleasure lakes.

The building was a palimpsest of memory, empty and haunting.

And then it was time to leave. Charlie and Mavis drove back down to Dorset, and Brandon, Will, Lewis and I returned to London, and for the rest of the afternoon I couldn’t quite focus on very much at all. I think short but fantastic little trips like these have that ability – to shift us out of time and place, and catapult us into other worlds – and it takes a day or two after we have physically returned for our mind to come home too.


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