There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Both Sides of the Menai Strait: (1) The Mainland, Penrhyn Castle and Bangor

Our annual wedding anniversary excursion into the world of fine dining encountered a hitch this year. Researching restaurants, I became so enamoured of the 'Gourmet Friday' seven course tasting menu at Tyddan Llan in rural north Wales that I overlooked a salient detail: our wedding anniversary was on a Thursday. After making the booking I realised what I had done and had to confess. Lynne suggested/demanded we go away on Thursday as well.

So, on Thursday morning we set off on what tradition demands is a mystery tour, at least for Lynne. Google had prepared me for delays on the Nantwich by-pass, but it was stop-start all the way to Chester - forty miles at a woeful average of 29mph. The A51 is generally inadequate, but on a sunny day at the start of the holiday season it is hopeless.

Bangor, beside the Menai Strait separating the island of Anglesey from the Welsh Mainland
The A55 North Wales Expressway sped us up, but holiday crowds mean hold ups and the 100-mile journey to Bangor took nigh on three hours.

Penrhyn Castle, Bangor

Penrhyn Castle stands on a hilltop above the city. Superficially it looks like a Norman castle with a square tower and crenellated walls, but no Norman castle ever had so many windows.

Penryhn Castle
Ednyfed Fychan (c. 1170 – 1246) built a fortified manor house here and in 1438 a stone castle was started by Ioan ap Gruffudd but the current building is the work of Thomas Hopper, a prolific architect responsible for many country houses, including more than several mock castles. Constructed between 1822 and 1837 for politician George Hay Dawkins-Pennant who had inherited the Penrhyn estate from his second cousin Richard Pennant, the castle is an oversized caricature of its predecessors.

It was, though, the perfect spot for a National Trust sandwich and a cup of tea, and as the café was in the basement we continued to the servants' quarters, first to the cook’s comfortable parlour, then the brush room, where hats and boots were made to shine….

Brush room, Penrhyn Castle
…the laundry and the kitchen.

Kitchen, Penryhn Castle
From the servants quarters, we walked round the castle to the main entrance. Ednyfed Fychan would have appreciated the extensive views along the North Wales coast as an early warning of marauders, but for the Pennants - and today’s visitors - it is just a scenic spot, especially when the sun shines, which of course, it always does in North Wales (except when it doesn't).

Looking along the North Wales coast to Llandudno and the Great Orme
From the actual courtyard…

Courtyard, Penryhn Castle
…we went through the entrance hall, described by the room guide as a ‘covered courtyard’...

Entrance Hall, Penryhn Castle

...into the library. Maybe a clue about the intellectual ambitions of the Pennants can be gleaned from the presence of a billiard table in the library. The family owned slate quarries a little to the south of here and the table not only has the usual slate bed, but the parts normally made of wood are slate too.

Library, Penryhn Castle
The drawing room is relatively comfortable, the photo shows the area round the fire, smaller tables for playing cards were dotted around the room. North Wales winters are notably cool and damp and I doubt it was possible to heat such a vast space effectively.

Drawing room, Penryhn Castle
Outside the next room is a spiral staircase going nowhere, a sad survivor from the 15th century castle. The room beyond was dark and dingy and although sections of wallpaper and fabric unexposed to sunlight showed it was once much brighter, it felt an uncomfortable space. The room guide was keen to point out the standard of craftsmanship, and he had a point, my beef is with Pennant’s taste, not the skills of his workforce.

The main stairs presented Hopper with a problem; the Normans only had spiral staircases. As no one can make a grand entrance down a spiral staircase, he had to imagine what a 2-quarter-landing staircase would have looked like had it existed. Space did not allow me to do justice to his vision, but maybe Maurits Escher would have improved it by putting the stairs on the underside.

Non-Norman staircase, Penryhn Castle
Upstairs, as you might expect, are bedrooms and bathrooms…

Bedroom, Penryhn Castle
… and up a spiral staircase, on the third floor of the keep, is ‘Harrison’s Garden’, an installation by Luke Jerram. In memory of the great clockmaker John Harrison, he has laid out over 5,000 clocks across a suite of otherwise unused rooms.So many familiar clocks, some still in use, others long gone from living rooms, were all chiming and ticking together. I found it strangely soothing.

Just a small part of 'Harison's Garden', Penryhn Castle
Descending the stairs, we left the castle and headed for the gardens.

Walking in the grounds of Penryhn Castle
It is difficult to calculate how much George Hay Dawkins-Pennant paid for his new home. He used his own workforce, slate from his own quarries and timber from his own forest without billing himself, but a reasonable estimate is £150,000 (around £50m at today’s value). That is undoubtedly extravagant, and I would say he had more money than taste, though others may disagree. To be fair, though, this is not a house of Chinese vases, Louis Quinze furniture and Belgian tapestries; he sought out the best craftsmen, locally if possible, nationally if not and the money went back into the local economy. Nor is my hint of philistinism over the billiards table in the library entirely fair. Before he died George charged his son-in-law with buying paintings for the castle, and he was so successful it became known as the Gallery of North Wales.

But where did the money come from? George Hay Dawkins-Pennant inherited the Penryhn estate, the Bethesda slate quarry and the wealth that came with them from Richard Pennant. Pennant had inherited the quarry and much more from his father, his marriage made him even richer but he really made his pile in Jamaica where he owned six sugar plantations and 600 slaves. Worse, as an MP he was a staunch anti-abolitionist, in a 1788 debate he was one of only two members who spoke in favour of continuing the African slave trade – though 9 years would pass before that trade was abolished (and other 26 before slavery itself was ended). So, this house, in questionable taste, was built with money immorally made.

With these thoughts in mind we strolled through the extensive grounds to the walled garden, which looked lovely in the sun…

Walled garden, Pentyhn Castle
…and in parts suggested that warm weather is not that rare a visitor.

Some surprisingly warm-weather plants in the walled garden, Penryhn Castle

The city of Bangor is a five-minute drive down the hill from Penryhn Castle. With 19,000 inhabitants it is the third smallest city in Wales, but as that figure includes the 11,000 students of Bangor University it feels somewhat empty in July (though the 8,000 permanent population is almost twice the combined populations of the cities of St Asaph and St Davids).

The pedestrianised city centre is marked by a clocktower presented in 1887 by the then mayor, Alderman Thomas Lewis (who otherwise might have been forgotten).

Alderman Lewis's clock tower, Bangor City Centre
Behind the tower is the Menai Centre, with all the same shops and shop fronts as everywhere else in the country. The High Street has a little more character, but not much.

High Street, Bangor
Bangor Cathedral or, as half the city’s permanent residents speak Welsh, Eglwys Gadeiriol Bangor, is down a slope from the end of the High Street. St Deiniol founded a monastery here around 525 and was (allegedly) consecrated the first bishop of Bangor by St David himself. The low, inconspicuous site of this low squat building may have been to avoid the attentions of Viking raiders but if so it failed, the monastery was sacked in 634 and again in 1073. The earliest parts of the current building are from the 12th century church built in the reign of Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd. There is not much from that time as the church was seriously damaged in 1211 when King John raided Gwynedd, again in 1282 when Edward I invaded and yet again in 1402 during Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion. Most of the existing cathedral is from George Gilbert Scott’s 1868 restoration (to which Lord Penryhn donated £2,000). He planned a central tower and a spire but abandoned them when cracking suggested the foundations were inadequate – a more convincing explanation for its squat appearance. Despite the ‘welcome’ sign we found the building locked, so I can say nothing of the interior.

St Deiniol's Cathedral, Bangor
Bangor also has a ‘Roman Camp’ actually the surviving earthworks of a Norman castle, and a pier, partially closed at present, but we contented ourselves with an ice-cream at a High Street café and moved on.

The Menai Bridge

The Isle of Anglesey, in Welsh Ynys Môn , is separated from the mainland by the Menai Strait. Until 1826 the strait, 25 km long and between 400 and 900m wide, could only be crossed by boat, or if you were taking your cattle to market – and Ynys Môn was and is a cattle farming area – by swimming. But the strait is dangerous - differential tides at each end caused swirling currents and lives were lost, not to mention valuable cattle.

Thomas Telford's Menai Bridge
Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge was built between 1819 and 1826 as part of the trunk road from London to Holyhead, its 180m span making it, at the time, the world’s longest suspension bridge. It still carries the A5 across the strait, and we drove over it to the Isle of Anglesey and the next post….

Both Sides of the Menai Strait

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