Penrhyn’s Palace

Allow me to take you back, some time now, to last September. The sun was shining. I was poor. I was fighting to be free of a wicked villainess. This is a story about a trip to one of my favourite places, which at the time I really needed.

Every man deserves a place to call his own. A home or a house, a private sanctuary. I’ve been thinking about this a lot these last six months, and to have somewhere of my own, away from the world, would be perfect. In the last two years I’ve moved twice because other people can’t behave themselves, and I’m currently in the process of fighting for a third move. Each time I’ve had to move because of disrespect, because people can’t treat others with a semblance of humanity. A long time ago I wrote a piece called “A Not So Far Fetched Fantasy,” where I imagined a place of my own. That is what I want right now, a place of my own. Though the dream is still essentially the same, a tumble down cottage with a tree out front and a Jack Russell in the window, some of the later bits have changed. I no longer want other people there. No partner, no children… Just me and my terrier, though even he is hanging on by his paws right now, a pleading look in his big, puppy-dog eyes. Sorry mate, but is it fair on you if I’m always away travelling the world? Didn’t think so.

It’s September, and the weather is still good. My MA is done and money is at an all-time low. That tumbledown cottage with the Jack Russell in the window is looking further off than ever. After the summer I have had, I deserve to treat myself and, happily, I can do it for free, today.

Nearby Penrhyn Castle has an open doors thing, and whereas a ticket usually costs sixteen pounds visitors can, for one afternoon, wander the castle and the gardens without charge. I’m glad of that, for I do like Penrhyn Castle. It might well be one of my favourite places in all North Wales. It’s appeared in my work a number of times, and I spent a significant portion of my undergraduate dissertation discussing how it’s meant to reflect an imagined, fantasy medieval past. These days I don’t hold that much of a grudge against the National Trust for not letting me near the place until a month before the dissertation was due, I’m more miffed that the Dawkins-Pennant family (descendants of those built the place) sold the prize painting of the collection; an original Rembrandt (simply described as being ‘of a wealthy woman.’). Why they auctioned it off is not clear, but it turns out that everything inside the building, everything that isn’t the building, is only on loan to the National Trust. I wonder what they’ve replaced the painting with?

I decide, since the day is so nice, that I’ll walk. I have forgotten how far Penrhyn is from Bangor. As far as places go, it’s close. It’s not that close though. It takes a good twenty five minutes to get there- Google say it takes forty five, but it really doesn’t. Even at a gentle pace, it takes me nowhere near forty five minutes. Goes to show, you should never trust the internet.

‘It’s a bloody miracle they never built any of those concrete monolith tower blocks there’This isn’t a nice road. It goes out of Bangor along the coast, but most of that coast is blocked, first by houses and then the huge wall of the Penrhyn estate itself. On the other side is Maesgeirchen, the third largest housing estate in Wales and the largest crap-hole this side of the Conwy. Like every self-respecting post-war housing estate it has the usual terrors of social housing, yobbos, louts and everything else bad that comes with them. It’s a bloody miracle they never built any of those concrete monolith tower blocks there, though I’ll bet it was considered.

I have only had one run in with the estate, and it still makes me shudder- One of my early adventures in Bangor was a quest for an abandoned railway. It brought me perilously close to the estate and I ended up accidentally stumbling too far in the wrong direction. It wasn’t long before I was turning back, only to find myself under the vacuous glare of two tiny chavs.
‘Awww…. What cha doin’ round ‘ere mate?’ one of them probed.
‘Where ya from mate?’ One of them had a hammer and the other had a golf club. I’m sure they were about to cheese me. Quite as any sane young adventurer in the wild jungles of the British council estate ought to do, I got my size eights out of there as fast as I can.

Maesgeirchen vanishes behind trees and industrial estates and the local crematorium, meaning that I’m left with only the road and the wall and the powdered dead for company. Eventually, of course, the wall reaches a change of direction and beyond I find the gate to the estate. This is as much a statement as the house itself, a four turreted castle, kind of like the gate you’d expect to see as the entrance to Nottingham in an unreliably cheap Robin Hood movie. A red ivy clings to it, and the road going forward to the entrance passes through a neatly pressed lawn, like a bridge across a filled in moat.

There was no need for a concession to pedestrians when it was built, the only four wheeled vehicle going through was the occasional carriage, but now I have to wait for a break in the traffic before I can slip through to the other side and then proceed along the verge at the edge of the trees.

‘Penrhyn is only a hop, skip, and a jump from Richard Briers jumping out of the undergrowth with an antique blunderbus’The driveway up to the house is super long and lined by trees. It has always reminded me of the old… I guess it is now old, given that it began twenty years ago… TV series, Monarch Of The Glen. Their castle, Glenbogle, had an equally long drive lined by equally tall conifers. The characters would get into all sorts of fits and scrapes and car accidents on the drive and every time I’ve been here this drive has reminded me of that. Penrhyn is only a hop, skip, and a jump from Richard Briers jumping out of the undergrowth with an antique blunderbuss, some wacky adventure in the goings on.

Of course, that was filmed in Scotland, but Penrhyn has had a couple of its own screen glories; the deservedly forgotten 1997 feature Prince Valiant, and more recently in HBO’s Watchmen. It looked especially good in Watchmen, making a perfect and atmospheric, aristocratic, set piece for Jeremy Irons to ride horses about and rage around inside, naked.

There will be no naked Jeremy Irons today, however. What there will be, I see from the extreme number of cars going by, are tourists.

They are stopped at a roadblock ahead, a lady directing them to the car park. I’m waved through to the entrance lodge, which is knew, and then along the last portion of the drive to the castle.

  —It creeps out from between the trees, first in small glimpses through the trees and then the tower, or donjon as it is called here, and then the cascading spread of the rest. The fantasy that this place is is on show. It looks like a Hollywood set. No wonder they used it for Prince Valiant, where it stood in for Castle Branwyn. It looks like the home of a princess, where she wiles away her days waiting for a bold knight on noble steed. The view in the other direction isn’t bad either. Rolling fields run down to the sea, then the northern Carneddau run headlong across the horizon.

From the drive the castle looks beautiful, fantastic, but a short walk around the corner brings out the brooding fortress in the place- The entrance into the stable yard, with a suspiciously modern looking clock above it, has all the features of a prison. Specifically, the prison that was Lancaster Castle. The tower on the corner has a lot in common with that place.

The view changes again around the far side. It’s gone from fantasy palace, to prison, and now to a rag tag collection of turrets and towers, an old fashioned medieval citadel! From the outside this castle is a chameleon, constantly changing shape and form. To the uninitiated, it could be anything. Prison? Citadel? Palace? From a distance, from the Carneddau yonder or from Bangor, it looks like it might be an old ruin. Get up close and time puts all the rubble back in its place, and the castle is complete again. Yet, look too deep and the castle’s tricks reveal themselves. Stand under one of the crenelated towers and look up. Those are no battlements. They’re decorative. Archers, like myself, might have once defended this place from those arrow loops… If we were as thin as flat Stanley and if there weren’t stone walls the other side of them.

Just like a Hollywood set, this is a fantasy. It was built as a throwback to an imagined past, in the early 1800s, and for all its pretences, for its battlements and towers and turrets, it is no more than an elaborate fake. This isn’t a castle. It’s a stately home.

But for the sheer golden bollocks of the attempt, it works in its favour. You can’t help but love it, be amazed.

I take a trip through the stable yard museum, which has a display of industrial locomotives and trains. It’s slow, because a lot of people are looking, but I don’t mind. It gives me time to look. In one room there are old railway posters, and one for Bangor which I really like. I wonder if they have it in the shop, but when I go in to have a look, and there is even less room to manoeuvre in here I see no trace of railway posters. I wonder if I could find them online?

Once I have done with the railway museum and the shop, I head around the castle to the entrance. Here there is a terrace which looks out over the mountains and, unlike the stable yard entrance, this is absolutely made to say: ‘Oh my, how absolutely spiffing old bean!’ A young Lady Wankingsock might pull up in her horse drawn carriage for the first time and say ‘This reminds me so much of Italy!’ Parts of the architecture do have a kind of early renaissance flavour about them, especially around the gateway. Horse backed condotieri might ride through the gate, plumes in their helmets, come to inform his grace the Duke of Penrhyno that Lorenzo di Llandudno is riding forth to attack. The difference of class is on show as well. The wealthy, the elite, got the nice bit, the oh my how absolutely spiffing old bean bit. The poorer classes kind got a replica of a medieval prison. Go figure!

If the outside of the castle is a mad menagerie, a medievalist’s fantasy, it has nothing on the inside.

I step into the entrance hall and it might be normal. Further down there is a picture, of one of the barons and his staff, and I have to look over the shoulder of an old lady and a granddaughter to get a look, before I enter into the grand hall.

This is like some sort of a cathedral; a great square space surrounded by pillars, and a kind of cloister, with a gallery around the top. At the far end there are two enormous stained glass windows and at the other another set of huge windows look out over to the grounds. The most intriguing feature is the lamp stands, a series of stone dragon heads atop carved pillars, holding the lamps in their mouth, as if they were puppies carrying a toy. Palatial is definitely the word, and it’s so easy to see Captain Balthazar marching through in a hurry to inform Duke Penrhyno that Lorenzo di Llandudno is on the move.

The next room is the library, and like with a good chunk of North Wales my other life, the part where I invent history rather than study it, rears its noble head. Charlie Fuller… It always seems to be Charlie Fuller… It was this room where Charlie played pool with the Baron Penrhyn. That random moment comes back to me, and I’d forgotten it had happened. Where Penrhyn usually sticks out, from my other life, is the art heist from Max And Anna.

It’s a slow troop through the building, so many are the people who are coming through this afternoon. It gets diabolical upstairs, where people are tangled up in different directions, and hanging about in doorways rather than keeping the flow going. The upstairs gallery is the only place they seem to be moving, and it gives me a chance to look at the paintings properly. I look to see if any of them are the wicked first baron, but I can’t make him out. He’s actually downstairs, I will later find out.

It takes a while to navigate the upstairs, it’s more pedestrian than the downstairs, which was the bit that was meant to amaze and astound the guests. There’s no pretention in the upstairs. The staircase, a slate statement in itself, leads up from a world of palatial grandeour that would make even the most extravagant of German monarchs (like Ludwig of Bavaria) envious, and into a world that is a lot more ordinary. As I always do, I stop by the mirror at the end of the gallery hall to indulge in my vanity.

Back downstairs, the next room is where they used to keep the Rembrandt, above the fireplace. It’s now Charles II. It makes little sense to me as to why the estate sold the Rembrandt, for it was the star painting of the collection. It must have brought visitors here, and Penrhyn can stand without it, but to sell it smacks of foolishness. It wasn’t in the interests of the nation, or heritage, it was sold, but for personal gain. Self-interest governs the world these days.

THE CHANT OF THE PENRHYN SLATE MINERS:
Rydym yn gweithio,
Rydym yn llafurio,
Darnio a sleisio,
Dydd ar ol dydd.
Like in the dining room. Here, in the Downtonesque splendour of a table freshly laid for a banquet, where Maggie Smith will have some wry quip to make regarding Lorenzo di Llandudno, the flow halts completely. I struggle to see the table and I struggle to get out again. This busy, the staff should be doing more to keep people moving at a steady pace, not letting them stop in doorways.

I despair.

Downstairs, in the scabby servants section (you don’t deserve anything that looks nice, peasants!) there are less people and they all seem to be hurrying through anyway, which means they miss the display of Victorian baking and sampling that is going on in the kitchen. We all know, despite the fact that I am technically a Manx prince and descendant of an actual God, that this is where I belong. Give me a kitchen like this, to fill with steam and smoke and smells, and a cosy little snug, as once belonged to Penrhyn’s Patmore. Leave the grandeous palace above, amazing as it, to the dukes and the barons with their pretentions and the need to impress, the need to show off.

A home should be a personal place, and whilst the main parts of the castle have personality, they’re not very personal. It tells me nothing about who the Dawkins-Pennants were, other than show-offs with far too much money.

There’s something missing from all this. There’s no hint that all this was built off the back of servitude and slavery. The slave trade paid for this, and when the abolition came to Dawkins-Pennants fought against it, and got compensation. They exploited the resources around Bethesda, men and slate, and then hardly ever came here. They left behind them something fantastic though, and their fortune helped found my alma mater, but one can’t help but feel their nastier side is (here) brushed under the dining room carpet, along with Lady Wankingsock’s leftovers.

The gardens, at the end of summer, are stunning. I feel, again, that this is more me. Then, as I lean on the lawn, looking out over the Carneddau, my Carneddau, humming The Chant Of The Penrhyn Slate Miners to myself, I can’t help but have it reaffirmed that I do like this place. Pretentious? Palatial? Indubitably. But probably one of the finest palaces in North Wales.


I also filmed a little video for this, as part of a pilot attempt. You can check that out below, with apologies for my bad camera work in places. Thanks for reading.

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