We arrive in a storm. It is late, the night alive with wind and slanting rain. For the last few miles the narrow lanes, lit by the car’s headlights, have been strewn with a winter confetti of leaves, twigs and branches. In contrast to all this wild movement and scattering through which we’ve been driving our destination, Llwyn Celyn (meaning Holly Bush or Grove) at the mouth of the Llanthony Valley near Abergavenny, appears as a settled mass of stillness and solidity, looming dark above us into the sky. With no exterior lights and the rain dashing the windscreen it’s hard to make out much more so, with two sleeping children in the car, I head into the house to find the locations of their bedrooms.
A key has been left, large and simple in the palm, a key from fireside stories. The lock it turns sounds a note of substance from an older world, while the door it opens, I find, is not just a door into a hallway but also a deep well of lived history, sensed more than felt, on the level of the skin as well as the eye.
As I move through the house turning on lights the centuries seem to unfold with each illuminated room. Finely carved ogee door heads, heavy flagstone floors, a table etched with ancient initials, the timbers of a decorated spere truss, a cavernous bread oven, elegantly arching roof crucks. In the dining room, a 600 year old bench is fixed along the far wall. This is where the master of the house, I later learn, once sat at the ‘high’ end of the hall looking down through an open fire and a wooden screen towards the ‘low’ end of the buttery and pantry, now a boot room and a study. In a cobbled yard between the kitchen and the cider house (converted into a bedroom and bathroom) I find a huge stone trough receiving a steady flow of the hill’s runoff, its curves, worn over the centuries, making it appear more grown into being than placed.
It’s only with the morning and the giving of the storm to sunlight that the exterior of Llwyn Celyn reveals itself in full, its renovated roof tiled in stone from the nearby Olchon valley and its new coat of white lime wash bright against a wide view of fields and hedges on the surrounding low ridges. The main building, which has been dated through oxygen isotope research by Swansea University to 1420-21, has the classic floorplan of a vernacular medieval hall house of this area. Attached to it, and making the house an even more unique survivor of the 15th century, is the rare feature of a two-storey solar wing (possibly from the Latin solus, meaning alone) which housed the Lord and Lady’s private sleeping chambers. Beyond these living quarters a spread of outbuildings speak not only to the once high status of this house but also to the particular breed of mixed self-sufficiency born of this close-knit valley landscape of upland grazing and rich alluvial fields - a threshing barn, stables, pigsty, beast house, cidery and a kiln house for malt and corn.
Llwyn Celyn was built just 5 years after Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the English crown (1400-1415), during which many similar hall houses in Wales were destroyed. Who it was built for isn’t known but given the land belonged to the estate of the nearby Llanthony Priory (the cellar bar of which is nowadays the perfect end point for walks in the area) it’s possible the first owner of the house was the Prior himself. A succession of farming families inhabited the house since and in around 1690 one of them, the Watkins family, undertook major improvements, most noticeably inserting a ceiling into the open space of the hall to create a large chamber reached by a wooden staircase alongside a substantial chimney stack.
It is to this 17th century arrangement the Landmark Trust have, over a period of two years and at a cost of £4.2 million, ‘gently returned’ Llwyn Celyn, discovering bread ovens, fireplaces, windows, doorways and even a pair of shoes to ward off witchcraft behind layers of 19th and 20th century plasterboard as they did. The restoration is unquestionably elegant, balancing a fine line between authenticity and modern comforts (those rooms I moved through on our first night all had underfloor heating, the bathrooms rose head showers and in the living room a Herefordshire Merlin wood stove, not an open fire, now throws its flame-light over the rafters) but it is also, as one carpenter who’d worked on the house described it to me, ‘honest’. New inserts and graftings of wood have been left a lighter shade than the original surrounding carpentry resulting in a building that wears the patchwork of its recovery on its sleeve.
Lying on a sofa in Llwyn Celyn looking over this play of light and dark in the structure above, it’s impossible not to feel, at a visceral level, the decay and alternative future from which the house has been saved. It’s a sensation amplified for me by the fact that for many years when I was younger I only ever knew Llwyn Celyn as I walked, drove or rode passed it, as a rough canvas of emergency scaffolding and sheeting occupying the mouth of the valley. What exactly lay under those coverings, I could only ever imagine, so to find myself now eating, sleeping and playing with my children within its walls is both a strange and comforting experience. We’re so used to the world around us travelling in the one persistent direction, governed as it is by time’s unforgiving rulebook that by now the dilapidated and obscured Llwyn Celyn of my youth should, in all likelihood, have become a present day ruin. The fact it isn’t and time has, for once, been persuaded to perform a switchback, hasn’t just returned a building to its landscape and former splendour, but also a land-mark to the memory of all those who have ever known it, individual and communal.
Just as Llwyn Celyn remained unknown to me when I was younger, so did its immediate surroundings. The Llanthony Valley, just a few miles up the road, is a walker’s and runner’s playground with numerous paths and trails traversing the valley between the Hatteral Ridge and Offa’s Dyke to the east, and the ridge of Grwyne Fawr to the west. It’s also a place rich in history, from the intricate 15th century rood screen in the church at Patrishow to the chapel and monastery at Capel-y-Ffin, once the home of sculptor and typographer Eric Gill and, briefly, the artist and writer David Jones. The high ridges of the valley itself, therefore, was always my destination rather than the gentler undulations at its mouth. With this in mind we choose to walk from the Llwyn Celyn itself, taking a circular route through the mature beech, oak and sycamore woodland of Coed y Cerrig then rising up around Twyn y Gaer, an iron-age hill fort, before dropping back down to the nearby Queen’s Head pub for lunch.
The woods are a revelation. In contrast to the sparse mosaic grassland of the valley’s higher slopes with which I’ve always associated this area, their rich vegetation, and intimate paths through rocky gullies and holloways have the feel of another region altogether. They also feel remarkably in tune with the atmosphere and age of the house from which we began our walk, and as we climb the slope under their moss and fern-filled branches lines of a medieval poem by Llwelyn ap y Moel, To the Greenock Woods, come to mind, partly unearthed by Llwyn Celyn and its history I’m sure:
‘Faultless nurture, it’s been good
To have you as my safeguard,
Sweet close and veil for refuge,
Strong and swiftly sheltering hedge,
beneath me level greensward,
Green, kind earth, gem of a lord,
Trusses of sweet leaves crowded
Like a dark tent overhead’
Trans. Tony Conran
Established in 1965, the Landmark Trust was founded upon a double mission to preserve historic buildings and promote public enjoyment of them. For the last five decades they’ve managed to achieve both on an astonishing scale through a philosophy of habitation; renting out their buildings not just to pay for their upkeep but also to enact the organisation’s ethos of providing opportunities to harvest rare moments of enrichment through experiencing a place and its history not just by looking at them, but by living in them.
Over our three nights in Llwyn Celyn we found this to be increasingly true. A house, a home, especially one invested with so much life and living as Llwyn Celyn, shifts and alters about you in different lights and moods - yours and the building’s. As such, we found, a relationship is developed over the hours and days spent together, with the house itself but also with everyone who’s ever breathed, looked and thought within its walls before you. I was struck how all of us, parents and children alike, kept touching the house as we moved through it - window sills, beams, doors - as if to attempt to read them and their centuries of witness. I don’t know how successfully we did but certainly on leaving my wife and I felt an odd sense of ownership over the place, of a quality we’ve never known with other holiday rentals, as if in some way there’d been a kind of reciprocal exchange. Llwyn Celyn had, undoubtedly, over our brief time staying there, contributed to our lives. But perhaps the reverse was also true and by adding the minuscule weight of our family’s years to its held archive of experience we had also, however infinitesimally, added to the depth of the living and being imbued within its stones and rafters.
A version of this first appeared in The Guardian on 5 October 2018. Read the review here.
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