This week’s episode of Country House Rescue seems to have found one of the most anonymous houses I have come across, with so little information available about it. Perhaps, however, this is indicative of the rather quiet existence so many smaller country houses do enjoy. Yet, as Ruth Watson discovers (as she has in so many inherited houses), quiet enjoyment and a commitment to a house and the estate by the owner does not translate into being able to look after it.
Pen-Y-Lan is situated at the head of a bucolic valley, in the centre of its 500-acre estate, which straddles the English/Welsh border – indeed
Cheshire Shropshire is at the bottom of the hill and across the river. The house was originally built in 1690 by one of the founders of Lloyds bank, though as Quakers they suffered extreme persecution in Wales and moved to Birmingham in 1689, so I suspect the house was more a rural retreat or symbolic connection as the family’s main homes were in and around Birmingham. The house was then sold to the Holloway family in 1849, where it has been passed down through the generations to the current owner, Emma Holloway.
The grade-II listed house is in the regionally popular Regency gothic style – essentially a five by four bay house which was re-modelled in 1830 to add crenellations, hood moulds over the windows, decorative turrets, and an imposing entrance. We have already looked at the particularly strong Welsh Regency gothic tradition in a previous post about Kentchurch Court, which although in Herefordshire, was very much a part of that movement. In fact, in some ways, King Edward I could be said to have been one of the strongest architectural influences in the Wales. It was his chain of 17 mighty castles which stretched across the country ensured continuing conflicts necessitating defensible houses which filtered out in later years in the architectural vocabulary of the Picturesque movement which drew heavily on castle features such as crenellations, arrow slits, turrets, towers and battlements.
The difficulties in controlling the Welsh were first experienced by the Romans who also were forced to built extensive fortifications and, in fact, established the pattern of requiring large garrisons to defend themselves and the settlers. The later autonomy granted to the very powerful Marcher lords, who were given the task of securing peace through marriage, trade or force of arms, ensured that the language of building in Wales was mostly either defensive or small-scale. To help prevent any local challenges to the King’s authority the Marcher lords were mainly English (comprising the Earls of Chester, Gloucester, Hereford, Pembroke and Shrewsbury) whose estates were very much centred around their English seats and the court in London – even if the wealth generated made them some of the richest families in the country.
One notable feature of Wales is how few large estates there were. Considering the size and wealth of the nation, the fact that it was mostly ruled through local clans (where not owned more directly by the Marcher lords) meant that their wealth would limit them to building fine, but smaller, manor houses (for example Gwydir Castle – there is also a superb account of its restoration: ‘ Castles in the Air‘). This has meant that there are few ‘stately homes’ in the same sense that there are in England. A survey in Country Life magazine in the mid-1960s suggested that of the 200 estates examined, only about 20 would be regarded as ‘stately homes’. However, within those 20 are such notable houses as Chirk Castle (now National Trust), Erddig (National Trust), Gwrych Castle (now a ruin), Hawarden Castle (still Gladstone family home), Penrhyn Castle (National Trust), Powis Castle (National Trust), Plas Newydd (National Trust), Vaynol (privately owned) and Wynnstay (now flats) – all in north Wales. In the south, the main seats were Dynevor Castle (National Trust), Fonmon Castle (still Boothby family home), Golden Grove (empty), Penllyn Castle (unknown!), Penrice Castle (private home), Stackpole Court (demolished 1963) and Tredegar Court (council owned). Sadly, as shown in Thomas Lloyd’s ‘Lost Houses of Wales‘, over 350 Welsh country houses were demolished, mainly in the latter half of the 20th-century, as poor finances combined with blinkered Socialism meant that many were lost with little protest.
This means that the smaller Welsh country houses of minor gentry, tucked away in the rolling valleys, should be treasured all the more. Sadly, as in the case of Pen-Y-Lan, when faced with an owner who had to take out a £300,000 loan for urgent repairs when she inherited in 2007, yet, as she admits “I have absolutely zero business acumen, whatsoever“, creates significant challenges. Pen-Y-Lan is in a state of considerable disrepair which will require something of a miracle if the owner, Emma Holloway, is to overcome her lack of business skills to pay off the debt, restore the house, and preserve it to hopefully hand it on to the next generation.
Country House Rescue: ‘Pen-Y-Lan‘ [Channel 4]
Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes
Before you comment…
This particular episode of Country House Rescue was one of the most controversial and provoked much reaction when broadcast and every time it is repeated – some are in sympathy and many not. This is one family doing what they thought was best and perhaps the editing of the show was designed to present a particular angle. Either way, the purpose of the comments on this blog are to contribute useful information, particularly anything related to architecture, and so I won’t permit comments I think are intemperate/abusive. Thank you for your understanding.