Plas Mawr

During our day in Conway, after visiting the castle and before our walk along the walls, we decided to pay a visit to Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan town house on the main street in the middle of the town. It’s owned by Cadw and has been beautifully restored.

Plas Mawr is Welsh for the ‘Great Hall’, and it was built between 1576 and 1585, at a total cost of around £800, for a wealthy merchant, Robert Wynn, the third son of a local landowner who’d made his fortune by working for a Tudor diplomat, which led to him travelling across Europe. When he returned home to North Wales, he had the house built and it’s design is influenced by the Flemish buildings that had impressed him during his travels. After his death legal complications meant that ownership of the house took time to resolve and so it was left untouched, which is why it hasn’t changed much over the years.

Entrance is through the gatehouse which is on High Street. Visitors then pass through a small courtyard into the main building. It’s a self-guided tour but visitors are provided with one of those audio guides that you point at a data point to listen to the relevant commentary.

Robert Wynn wanted to impress his visitors to show off his wealth and the house has a number of features to try and achieve this, including some very fancy plasterwork. There were examples of this in the first room we visited, the hall. Cadw have had it restored, wit the figures of “Greek” priestesses and other symbols painted in bright colours. The owner’s initials featuring prominently.

There was plasterwork all over the house, even in the kitchen. It must have cost a fortune to have all this work done by travelling craftsmen.

After looking round the kitchen and pantry, the next stop was the brewery – an important room as until relatively recently water wasn’t fit to drink so the “small beer” (dilute ale) was the staple drink. Stronger beer would also have been brewed here.

The commentary made a point of stressing that the brewery was located directly underneath the master’s bedroom and that he would have had to endure some strong odours on brew day!

We then visited the courtyard and restored Elizabethan garden where we got a good view of the exterior. Notable features are the tower and the stepped gables, influenced by Flemish architecture and which would have been very unusual in North Wales.

Some of what looked like the original woodwork was visible on the exterior doors

Back inside we went upstairs to the top of the house. The large attic is where the servants would have slept.

The timber roof has arch-braced collar trusses, joined using an unusual system called “double pegging”, which was only used in the Conwy valley during the late 16th century.

In 1683 the Mostyns, who were a powerful family in North Wales, took over ownership of the house and over the years it was used for various purposes, with rooms subdivided and let out as cheap lodgings and at one time an infant school occupied some of the rooms. Cadw have furnished one of the rooms on the top floor of the house to show ho it would have looked when it was rented out by a poorer family

Moving down a floor, we saw the bedchambers of Robert Wynn and his wife.

More fancy plaster work in his bedroom

and here’s his privy, just off his bedroom. Rather a luxury for it’s time!

And here’s Dorothy’s chamber. He married her in 1588 after his first wife, also called Dorothy, had died childless. Although he was getting on in years they had 7 children together.

Most of the first floor was occupied by the very grand Great Chamber, the main room where the Wynns would entertain their guests. Of course, there was yet more plaster work

The remaining rooms on the first floor were devoted to an exhibition about hygiene and water provision. These would originally have been used as bedrooms for guests and the children of the family. We rounded off the visit by climbing the steep stairs and ladder up to the top of the tower where there were views over the town, castle, harbour and nearby mountains.

Plas Mawr is certainly a very well preserved and interesting building. It provides a glimpse into the life of a prosperous family living in a small town in North Wales during the Elizabethan period. The architecture is interesting too, showing the influence of continental styles on the British gentry.

Haddon Hall

DSC01868Haddon Hall is on the A6, just a few miles south of Bakewell, and is, along with Chatsworth, one of the main tourist attractions in the area.It’s quite different from the Georgian mansion owned by the Duke of Devonshire though. Although altered over the years it’s largely a medieval and Elizabethan house. The house is owned by  the family of the Duke of Rutland and it is currently occupied by Lord Edward Manners, the brother of the current Duke. But as these grand houses are expensive to run, parts of the building opened for paying visitors.

Visitors first enter via the gate below the north west tower intothe grand Lower Courtyard with it’s mainly medieval facade

DSC01883At the south west end of courtyard is the chapel, which at one time was  the parish church for the nearby village of Nether Haddon. The oldest part, with the alter, was built in the 14th Century.

Of particular interest are the frecoes on the walls. In England we’re used to our churches having pretty plain walls. In earlier times they would have been highly decorated, but this all during and after the Protestant Reformation as the Protestants viewed large scale religious images and sculpture as a form of idolatory. So sculptures in churches were removed or destroyed and frescoes obliterated or covered over. The frescoes in the chapel suffered the latter fate but were rediscovered when it was renovated.

Although the colours have faded the paintings are in remarkably good condition. I felt that they had something of an “Arts and Crafts” Movement look  – the foliage pattern being rather reminiscent of some of William Morriswallpaper designs. But this is, perhaps, not surprising given that the Arts and Crafts artists were very much influenced by the medieval period.

Then into the Banqueting Hall. Originally this was the Medieval Great Hall where everyone in the household would have lived, ate and slept – including the Lord, his family, various hangers-on and the servants. Social standing was denoted by conventions such as the nobles dining table being located on a raised dais. Over time the Lord and his family moved out to live in their own private rooms and apartments elsewhere in the house as it was expanded and extended.

Then into the Tudor style kitchens. I doubt that the current occupants have their meals prepared here!

The kitchens date from 1370,  and with the Banqueting Hall are the oldest part of the house. There are three separate areas for butchery, baking and cooking.  Stone bread ovens, chopping blocks, and water troughs are still in place.

A number of later, domestic rooms are open to visitors, but the most interesting is the rather magnificent Long Gallery

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Long Galleries were an Elizabethan status symbol. They were used for taking exercise – walking up and down, particularly when the weather wasn’t to clever (likely to be often the case in this part of the world!), playing games, displaying art coll and for entertaining guests.

At Haddon Hall the large windows, with their diamond shaped panels which allow in the maximum amount of sunlight, overlook the gardens.

DSC01896Finally,into the gardens. Given the time of the year many of the plants had died back, but with their views of the house and over the River Wyre and the Derbyshire countryside, it was still very pleasant to stroll around them.