FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Playing castles at Penrhyn

Posted in Bangor, Wales by folkestonejack on March 26, 2016

A horrible weather forecast for the day (heavy rain from sunrise to sunset c/o storm katie) saw us look indoors for our day’s sightseeing, picking out the nineteenth century fantasy that is Penrhyn Castle. To be perfectly honest, we didn’t know all that much about the castle before our visit and assumed that we were visiting a traditional stately home. How wrong could we be!?

Although Penrhyn Castle is built on an ancient site, this building is an elaborate confection with pseudo Norman styling built in 1820-32 with funds of dubious origins (the wealth of the family owed a lot to the slave plantations of the West Indies). It has been a tourist attraction for its entire life, with a tourist route established by Lord Penrhyn and visitors shown around the building before the work was complete. It’s not hard to appreciate the draw when you step inside to see the truly exquisite interiors and craftsmanship on display (interestingly, most of the elements that you can see are the work of local stonemasons and carpenters).

Penrhyn Castle in the gloom of an Easter downpour

Penrhyn Castle in the gloom of an Easter downpour

It took us only five minutes to reach the gate to the property by bus from Bangor (stop: Castell Llandegai) but a further 15 minutes to walk down the driveway, by which point we were thoroughly soaked. A courtesy bus took us up to the property, sparing us a further drenching, and from this point on we moved between buildings at a dash!

The postcards and guidebooks show a remarkable building set in beautiful parkland but we couldn’t appreciate any of that in the gloomy conditions of the day which served only to accentuate the slightly forbidding nature of the exterior. It is an astonishing vision for a home, though perhaps not the easiest place to live in!

Our first stop was the industrial railway museum in the stables block, which opens an hour before the main house. It tells the story of industrial railways such as the system that grew up to serve Lord Penrhyn’s slate quarries at Bethesda and transport the raw material to Port Penrhyn, Bangor. The museum holds a small collection of steam locomotives, including a couple that worked on the Penrhryn Quarry Railway itself.

The main house opened at midday and we made a dash around the building to reach the entrance (passing through a wonderful doorway with an arch of carved heads and two wolves staring at each other). Once I made it inside I was struck by a series of bronzed iron lamps, each with a set of four snarling wolf heads, that line the narrow entrance gallery. Nothing quite prepares you for the surprise of the vast empty grand hall that lies beyond this with the most incredible stone carving and stained glass, illuminated by lamps hanging from the mouths of three headed stone beasts.

It soon became clear that the interior deserves the slowest of wanders to truly appreciate the detail, whether that be a small carved head on the walls or a medieval style archway. The fusion of medieval and Nordic design with colourful wallpaper and fabrics makes for some of the most vibrant interiors that I have seen in a long while. In one sense the gloom outside helped to intensify the romantic allure of spaces like the drawing room with the only light coming from elaborate tall bronze candelabras. Besides the great hall, highlights of the building include the library, chapel and the grand staircase. The latter features what the guidebook aptly describes as ‘an orgy of fantastic carving’ and a ‘riot of plaster’ yet only goes part way towards describing how mad it is!

The curves of the jaw-dropping grand hall

The curves of the jaw-dropping grand hall

Penrhyn Castle has to be seen to be believed, with all attempt at illustration or explanation insufficient to capture the absolutely bonkers opulence of the place. One early visitor had it spot-on when he said that what could once only have been accomplished by a monarch is today executed as a plaything, with increased magnificence, by a country gentleman!

Admission to Penrhyn Castle is not cheap, coming in at £12.50 for an adult if you are not a member of the National Trust. It’s a price worth paying as this is a remarkable building – it had been an itinerary filler and a response to the poor weather forecast but actually turned out to be the unexpected highlight of our trip to North Wales. It was a shame that we couldn’t fully appreciate the exterior but the rain was hammering down so hard that it would have been quite unwise to wander too far from cover!

The Easter weekend saw a number of family friendly events, including an Easter bunny hunt in the main house. So often these sorts of events can detract from anyone trying to appreciate the beauty of the buildings but the hunt was so tastefully staged that it would have taken a curmudgeon not to smile at a bunny seated at the dining table with a plateful of carrots or the bunny taking a soak in a bathtub. It was a delight to see and you couldn’t help joining in the amusement at spotting bunnies making themselves at home!

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