Playing with Castles

7 March 2017
Ben Pentreath

We’ve been in Wales for the weekend, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, in a little dreamworld. With our friends Brandon and Will (and their dog Lewis) we’d rented the Landmark Trust’s Clytha Castle for a Friday to Monday (as all good weekends used to be called; I wish they still were, and lasted for four days).
It was a dream little palace on a hill, built in the closing decade of the eighteenth century both as an eye-catcher, and as a memorial to the death of his wife, by its patron, William Jones.  The castle looks out far over the valley of the River Usk, surrounded by ancient trees with branches thick with mistletoe, and is encircled by an old, mossy ha-ha.

Here is Lewis:

And his girlfriend Mavis, going crazy (as usual).

The interior, like all Landmarks, is simple but just right, consisting of two rooms in the square tower, a few little rooms tucked in a rabbit warren behind, and at the end of a long stone-flagged passage, a tall-ceilinged circular kitchen.

After taking in a beautiful Saturday morning, as the early light came up, and with the day seeming full of promise, we jumped in the car with the dogs and made our way into the Brecon Beacons, with the intention of walking up a hill.

We had the nicest drive through beautiful countryside, which got bleaker and bleaker, just as it began to rain. Arriving at our destination, already thick with parked cars and burger vans, and tea trucks, we got out of the car into freezing wind and realised immediately that we were all slightly underprepared. This wasn’t a stroll in Dorset, let’s face it.

As we watched the relentless long line of hundreds and hundreds of hill walkers, dressed in vivid neon shades and carrying every accoutrement under the sun (I mean, cloud), I began to have serious doubts about this enterprise.

Luckily so did everyone else. We made the long walk from one end of the carpark to the other and got back in the car. That’s my sort of walk in these sort of conditions.  It was the crowds that did it for me.   Mavis and Lewis would have had to have been firmly kept on the leash and at no point could one have got away into solitude, which seems to me to be the only point of walking up a hill in the first place (maybe I can refer you the later part of this blog, written a few weeks ago in Dorset, to prove the point).

The valleys were spectacular, 

But bleak was about the right word at that particular moment.

Time for a cuppa.  Only Charlie would have brought the perfect picnic basket and enamel ware.

We drove to the far end of the National Park, to a little town I had visited years before, Llandovery, where it seems as if every house has been painted in a bright and jolly colour, each more vivid than the next, where the paint might have fallen off the back of a lorry rather than being specifically picked.  Perfection, therefore.

We climbed up the little hill to the castle and looked over this little town with its fine classical buildings, now gently no longer at the best of their days, but still all there, and I wondered at the prosperity of this tiny market town and the richness of its streets of houses, built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when somehow otherwise uneducated and illiterate men managed to build towns of incredible civility.

Here is the playground:

Here is the pub:

And the beautiful war memorial, wreaths scattered in the wind and rain: On the way back, we wondered why this beautiful farm stood forlorn and apparently empty…

But the windows were spotlessly clean, so maybe it was the rustic retreat of an architectural historian of the ‘scrapey-scrapey’ school.  Who knows?

The funny thing about being in Wales, and I think I’ve witnessed this every day of every time I have ever been there, the day is suddenly freezing and wet and sunny and warm by turns. Blue skies, all of a sudden.

We were making our way to superb Crickhowell – talking of civilised towns, this is it. Years ago I had visited here too, on a study trip writing a pattern book of Welsh houses for a project I worked on, and we stayed in the Bear Hotel for three nights, and photographed and measured nearly every house in town. Hardly anything had changed in the intervening decade, and nothing for the worse.

I’ve always thought this little row of houses to be about perfect. When I first saw them, they were very, very inspirational for projects I was working on – and still are. So humble, yet so full of dignity.

Another beautiful row of cottages curve away on a falling street, leading out of town, the eaves line staying constant, the floor heights increasing as the land slips away. 

Dark clouds and brilliant sunshine lit up the facade of the Bear Hotel like a drawing from a picture book.

The town is surrounded by hills; the ever present relationship between town and country, not blurred by suburban sprawl. Note the street lamps. 

The high street, lined with brilliant, small, local shops, and grand buildings. 

We had a huge lunch at the Bear Inn and felt very glad not to be trekking half way a grim mountainside and after plenty of pints made our way back to Clytha, where we settled in front of the fire and mixed cocktails by the light of Gothick windows and candles.

Supper was riotous, perfectly cooked beef from the butcher in Crickhowell, and an early celebration of Brandon’s birthday.  Which continued long into the small hours, but here the photos end.

We woke the next morning to a rainbow.

We were heading for lunch with my friend Penny Morrison, who is an interior decorator of great distinction but for those of you who do not know, has teamed up with that other great eye, Caroline Irving, to produce lots of good things that you will find here, or you can visit their new showroom in London.

I’ve known Penny for a while now and she had always said most generously “COME AND SEE US ANYTIME!!!” (she does speak a bit like that). And now we were taking her at her word.  But nothing, and I mean nothing, prepares you for the view of the valley from Penny and Guy’s house, a beautiful, pure white Regency house built high on a steep embankment in 1810. The view is spectacular.

Penny style. Pure comfort, and a lot of nice stuff. 

A collection of vintage fabrics in the workshop, waiting to be made to cushions.

A good way to spend the afternoon, sinking into the deepest sofas on earth, sun streaming in, chatting.

We called for tea on the way back with fellow guests Edward and Emma Bulmer, who make beautiful, natural paint, which you will doubtless already know about, and had a look around another amazing place, their dreamy Queen Anne house, surrounded by watery canals which they have restored entirely. Heaven. We left as it was getting dark.

Monday morning: weekends go fast and slow all at the same time, and suddenly it was time to leave. We packed our bags and tidied the house and made our departure as the housekeeper was making her way up the drive. And then, we had to head home; but on the way, made a stop at nearby Raglan Castle, which possibly turned out to be the most beautiful part of the trip.

Massive (and deserted at 10 o clock on a Monday morning, note to self, a good time in the week to visit places) the castle was a building of once immense beauty, attacked and destroyed during the English civil war, and left as a ruin thereafter.  I supposed that this is what civil war looks like. History repeats herself.

Now, only birdsong fills the trees surrounding this once great, and richly furnished, medieval powerhouse. 

High up, on the third floor of one wing, was the former Tudor long gallery, with a huge oriel window facing north over the distant countryside, and with only a fragment of the elaborate fireplace high up on the wall to attest to the splendour of the decoration.

Here, once, were huge water gardens and pleasure lakes.

The building was a palimpsest of memory, empty and haunting.

And then it was time to leave. Charlie and Mavis drove back down to Dorset, and Brandon, Will, Lewis and I returned to London, and for the rest of the afternoon I couldn’t quite focus on very much at all. I think short but fantastic little trips like these have that ability – to shift us out of time and place, and catapult us into other worlds – and it takes a day or two after we have physically returned for our mind to come home too.


26 comments on this post

Dolores Gainessays:

While researching my ancestry, I stumbled upon your site. My family once occupied many of the castles and ruins but I have never had the chance to tour them. Great article and pictures! Thanks so much for sharing. Cheers!


Such a glorious tour, bursting with scenes and memories and olds and news—I have no words for all the wonders you’ve shown and written. I’ve simply looked my eyes full of all of it, longing, longing to return soon to all those lovely places.

What a glorious way to spend this freezing Monday morning after all the Spring that’s been dangled in front of us this month here in the Heartland. And after this surfeit of such history and charm, it will take a while for my own mind and heart to “come home.”


William Kochersays:

Terrific! Thanks.

Nicola Lawrencesays:

Dear Ben – I too felt dispirited when I saw those people all following each other, sheep like, around the side of the hill – before even reading your comment. I would have turned around, too, misty rain or not. Lovely other photos inc PM’s dreamy home – but I was transported to see your images of Raglan Castle – which was the setting for the second day Peter and I ever spent together – three months after meeting in Australia just before I headed to London – and one day after he arrived in London to see me. It was drizzling at Raglan Castle that day but we just loved it – and had our picnic in the car, too… So many similar photos. Thank you xx

Michael Thomassays:

Great pictures,even with the rain.My great grandparents lived in Crickhowell,behind that Tudor gateway.I havethe diaries,mostly to do with endless walks and the weather.Back to Bruton again,have you seen the Frink exhibition?Those heads close up are extraordinary.Apparently modelled on an African dictator of the day.Another plus is you get a very good lunch.

Diane Keanesays:

You’ve scored another winner, Ben! As I was reading it, I thought that most Americans would not know what a ha-ha is, so I had to smile at Jacqui’s post! But I’ll admit “scrapey-scrapey” left me scratching my head. Is that Benism?

Penny’s & Guy’s place is gorgeous, inside and out. The castle was charming too, and the town tours. You guys pack a lot into a 4-day weekend! So glad you shared it with us.



Thank you for this beautiful post and also for introducing me to the word ‘ palimpsest’.


I so enjoy your blogs Ben, they are always so interesting and informative, I find myself looking at buildings in quite a different way and chuckle at your sense of humour. It was lovely peeking inside such amazing houses, Charlie’s picnic basket and mugs were just heaven and supper looked ace with those creamy mashed potatoes. My husband and I have visited that part of Wales and thoroughly enjoyed it. We found a wonderfully remote Chapel near the Llyn Brianne reservoir using a lovely book called 52 Weekends in the Country which you and Charlie might enjoy as it takes you to a hidden treasure trove of out of the way places. So glad you all had a lovely weekend.


Thank you for those great few days. Doesn’t paint make houses look neat: that and no cars parked outside. Don’t blame you for abandoning the great trek either. Love these interiors and exteriors. Our so-called Civil War always makes me cross when you see the results, and don’t get me started on that vandal Henry VIII. Love Lewis. best, Nicola

venita fishersays:

Glad you enjoyed.There are so many parts of Wales that are beautiful.You missed a treat at Tretower Court a stone throw from Crickhowell or Crick as we know it, also Penpont House along the edge of Brecon town is quite lovely.You will have to re visit and discover more hidden gems.If you manage to get to Pesteigne visit Bryan’s ground, It’s delightful.

Anne Guionsays:

What a lovely weekend you have had! I enjoy your adventures and travels. Thanks for sharing!

Debra Morgansays:

So YOU’RE the reason we weren’t able to book Clytha last weekend! Ha! We ended up in a lovely cottage just over the border in Herefordshire instead, but Clytha Castle has been at the top of our Landmark Trust list for ages (my husband descends from the same Morgans as Elizabeth). We almost went to Raglan on the way home on Monday, too, but decided to stop at Llanthony Priory near Abergavenny instead. Magical spot, and had it all to ourselves. You’re right about Monday mornings being a good time to visit sites like that, and it seems the weather usually improves on Mondays, too…


Ya know, Ben…we across the ponders aren’t familiar with “ha-ha”s, but I’m ever more committed to my Anglophilia. I love my Monday mornings. Blessings.


I’m catching my breath after this post, Ben. I love your blog highlights of weekends spent exploring. You’ve shared fascinating buildings, people, towns and views, but this time, for me, the street shot of the bold yellow traffic lines snug up against Llandovery’s painted buildings made me smile. And the signage of course.

New terms:
Ha-ha and “Scrapey-scrapey”
Got it.


I lived in Wales for about 18 months, and every weekend I’d go off exploring the country. It is a stunning place with incredible views around every turn. It’s very off the radar for most Americans, which isn’t a bad thing…

You’re right that Raglan (indeed, the sleeve style named after this), is an amazing place, as is Chepstow, the White Castle and much more.

Thanks for sharing this special place.


Thank you for this vivid trip to Wales whose beauty is astounding…. Wales has also produced an amazing product….. our beloved dog’s breed. The Sealyham Terrier is sporty midsize breed of great heart and unfailing sense of humor. Captain John Tucker Edwards, soldier and sportsman, owned the SealyHam estate in Pembrokeshire, between Haverfordwest and Fishguard and originated this fabulous breed of dog in the 1850’s. Thank you Ben as always, for letting us tag along.

andrew Beansays:

Thank you once again for the visit to arcadia..


I agree Ben. Short trips ( or rather long weekends) are always the best because you pack more into a short time and really feel like you have had a proper holiday. My husband and I also went to the Brecon Beacons a couple of years ago for 4 days in the Spring and seeing the Bear brought back many lovely memories of Crickhowell, walking by the river Usk accompanied by Spring birdsong, the beautiful sunshine filtering through the daffodils and lambs in the fields. We had lunch at the Bear too- fantastic food and I loved the way they had decorated the interior of the hotel; sophisticated and comfortable. Seeing this blog makes me want to go back!!

Mary Jenkinssays:

We had wonderful fish and chips (chips cooked in lard – heavenly) in the pub in Llandovery – actually The Castle Hotel! Their fish is delivered early morning from Cornwall apparently!

There is a wood filled with snowdrops along one of the lanes behind Clytha – but maybe a bit late now?

So glad you loved Wales Ben, we are keeping the best bits secret!

dominique lepagesays:

i am a french photographer who live in France, in Provence. Thanks a lot for these wonderful blog posts wich are so an inspiration for me. And a glorious reverie !

Isla Simpsonsays:

What a weekend, sounds completely idyllic and thanks for taking us on the journey with you. I’m always amazed by how much you and Charlie pack in to one weekend. Love Charlie’s hamper and enamelware. Lots of love xxx


We downsized recently and left Somerset to live near family in a house only a few miles from Llandovery. I have a lovely view of Mount Eppynt in the Brecon Beacons from my sitting room window so your post this morning has special meaning for me. I have come to love Wales so much – not only the heartstopping beauty of the landscape but the people and the culture – music and poetry flow in their veins. Such a joy!


Can your blogs possibly get any better? Pure indulgence for a few minutes a week thank you for sharing with us. Beautiful images l particularly like the photo of you and Charlie you both look so happy having dinner by candlelight.


mind boggling! dear ben. impressive, the engineering in the construction of raglan castle, before there was what we call engineering. am a fan of penny morrison’s work, love her use of suzanis to loosen up english country. kiwi charlie sure can make a good strong cuppa, could almost taste it. thank you for sharing your journey to another time’ weekend, dear ben, charlie and mavis, lewis, brandon and will. prosperity to you ben, all these trips you are taking us on must be adding up!


Deborah Wagnersays:

Oh, Ben! What a lovely blog post. All glorious, as usual, but two things stand out particularly: the view, the view, the view from your friends’ house, and Raglan Castle, which makes me think of an unraveling sweater, somehow. Hugs for guaranteeing me sweet dreams tonight. Deborah

Jan Fawkesays:

Ben, Your postings are wondrous! I am a confirmed Anglo-phile( although, in fact, Australian and living in Sydney), having spent 4 years living in London in the 70s, and retaining many friends from that time. I re-visit as often as I can ( my next trip in 2018, probably)and gain much travel inspiration from your blog. Your love for your beautiful country shines through…don’t ever stop!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *