Children’s gravestones ‘were used to decorate’ All Things Bright And Beautiful mansion in illegal transformation
Byline: Benjamin Wright, Walesonline website, 18 August 2015
The story is that Mr Kim Davies, the owner of C16th Llanwenarth House, in the Brecon Beacons national park, has been fined and ordered to pay costs totalling £400,000 for making illegal adaptations to his listed home; notably, sticking a bloody great, bright-red-tiled jacuzzi in one of the staterooms, and other hideously inappropriate ‘improvements’. The house at one time belonged to the composer of the famous children’s hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful.
Between May 2005 and February 2012, I was the resident Estate Manager, housekeeper and caretaker of Nanteos Mansion, near Aberystwyth.
Built for the Powell family between 1739 and 1755, with later additions, Nanteos is listed, Grade One (main house) and Grade Two-star (stables, walled garden). It is of considerable architectural and Welsh-cultural-heritage importance; which probably explains why, when I arrived to look after it, the only tools for maintenance I could find on the whole estate were a bent spade and a geologist’s hammer.
A blanket preservation order covers some 300 capital trees remaining on the 30-acre site – formerly at the heart of a 33,000-acre estate, mainly of tenant farms and hunting grounds. They are indicative of the problem: including many huge specimen Beech, these trees are over 200 years old and past the turning-point in their lifecycle: many are literally falling apart, and with public safety in mind require reducing or felling. Yet the cost of dealing with just one ‘problem tree’ of this size can run to a thousand pounds; as indeed, it turned out, would the monthly expense of ineffectually heating the house, with its elderly, much too small, oil-fired boiler!
Owning a historic property is not for the fainthearted.
In 2012 , Nanteos reopened as a neo-1970s provincial hotel, after an extensive period of what I can only call adaptation and refurbishment: restoration would be an entirely incorrect description of the process. The work was carried out as sympathetically as I suppose was possible by a building contractor, under tremendous time pressure from a commercial owner unfamiliar with historical architecture, planning regulations and conservation methodology, anxious to recoup his investment. Where sensitivity, time and craft skills were called for, the job simply had to be ‘blitzed’.
I personally witnessed things that were done, such as the creation of new doorways and channels for inserting plastic sewage pipes by smashing through C18th and even earlier masonry walls (the present Palladian ‘box’ having been constructed on top of the ground floor and around the huge chimneystacks of an earlier manor house on the site. Architectural vandalism is not a modern phenomenon); actions that – though almost certainly contrary to the rules – were approved by Cadw, the national monuments board, who clearly realised that Nanteos was in the last-chance saloon: without commercial development, the house would sooner rather than later be lost.
And in fairness, positive things were done: the external walls and crumbling chimneys were repaired and repointed correctly using ‘breathable’ lime mortar; sandstone corbels that had become badly eroded were repaired in detail by a stonemason, modern float-glass windows reglazed with German crown-glass more typical of the period. Rotted sashboxes were repaired, rather than replaced; missing ceiling cornices expensively remoulded.
But the vast expanse of the flat roof, that was sheathed in lead, has been covered over with a continuous sheet of fibreglass, to ensure permanent protection against the weather, yes – but at the expense of authenticity. What of future generations of architectural students, what is left for them to study? And without intolerable expense, nothing could be done to recover the genuine period feel of the missing furnishings. Most of what is there now – or was while I lived there – is early 20th-century ‘brown’ junk.
Like Llanwenarth, Nanteos is a prime example of the classic dilemma of what on Earth you do with these splendid old properties, given that, while the public and the authorities demand that they are preserved with a high degree of authenticity, there is no appetite for spending public money on them; while the vast cost of preservation is well beyond the resources even of bodies like Cadw and the National Trust.
After Margaret, widow of the last of the Powell dynasty, died in 1950 Nanteos fell into the clutches of a succession of dodgy characters, who notoriously stripped the house of all of its furniture, art and armour collections and historic fixtures and fittings. At times virtually derelict, over the years it underwent several amateurish, cheapjack attempts at restoration; so that, when the present owners were faced with my refusal to allow them to continue operating their shoddy guest-house and weddings business on grounds of public safety, since the house was effectively uninsurable, the challenge became: how exactly do you ‘restore’ Nanteos, starting from where we were in 2008?
The Grade One category, belatedly applied to Nanteos in the late 1990s, boneheadedly required that any restoration should take the house back in time only as far as it had been at the time of listing. The aim being, to ensure authenticity and to disallow any hint of historical ‘pastiche’; nevertheless, to have done so would have been to preserve too much that was unoriginal, clumsy and anachronistic other than in its outward appearance: the shell of a historic building surrounding the hell of an inauthentic and poorly executed restoration. There might, I suppose, have been some value in presenting the property as a public curiosity: how not to restore a valuable Georgian house!
We were advised that any recreation of the ‘Georgian experience’ would not be allowed – for instance, putting the heating under the floors and dispensing with the ugly retrofitted modern radiators – but a glass service elevator attached to the outside of the building in a stainless-steel tower was deemed acceptable, provided it was not visible from the car park at the front! (The idea was dropped on cost grounds, leaving the problem of access to the upper floors.) Also allowed was the inclusion of a concrete ramp for wheelchair users, disfiguring the neoclassical portico; while the enlarged parking facilities occupied the entire ‘historic’ aspect of the front elevation, as seen from across the valley.
The conservation business is all a bit illogical, if you ask me.
Where it is now, is what I have unkindly dubbed the ‘Laura Ashley museum’, being the 1970s chintzy period style in which it has been redecorated. Also inappropriately, square-shaped continental ceramic bathroom fittings attend the 14 guest-bedroom suites. Other things have been done that Georgian purists would no doubt blench at. But what was the alternative? Modern hotel guests expect modern standards of comfort and convenience. Building regulations insist on standards incompatible with even recently past designs. ‘Retro’ was not an option. And, all credit to the owner, from whose deep pockets the money has come, the building has been given potentially another sixty years of life.
When I started work at Nanteos it was in worrying condition, with fungal rot in the abandoned top storey and in the cellars, and a mains water supply serving the entire house, that was just a 25mm agricultural pipe running mostly overground from the nearby track, and froze in winter. The system was leaking five cubic metres of water a day, no-one could find where. The kitchens and storage facilities had been condemned by successive Environmental Health inspectors; the electricians refused to certify the wiring. Thick bundles of cables capable of generating enough heat to auto-combust ran through heaps of carpenters’ wood shavings that had been swept under the floors, in four-foot-high voids that would have conducted a fire from one end of the house to the other in a matter of seconds. No-one knew where any of the much-patched plumbing services went, except whenever frozen pipes thawed and the mismatched joints sprang apart… there was no internal stopcock to turn the water off.
But until the hot summer of 2006, when the Environment Agency slapped a closure order on us because of sewage pollution from the C17th century culverts under the house, into which a previous owner had simply decanted the untreated waste from eleven new toilets he had had installed, and the house was running with rats, I was unable to convince the owner – who lived abroad – that there was anything wrong with his longed-for dream home; not even when the Fire Station chief condemned it as ‘a deathtrap’. Sixty thousand pounds had to be rapidly found to spend on updating the arrangements, including two huge septic tanks sunk under the front lawn.
To the owner’s credit, although he never forgave me, he did eventually man-up to the horrifically expensive list of repairs and refurbishments I had been outlining were desperately needed, in a steady stream of emails I am not sure he ever read. He was convinced first by his relatives who came to stay one summer and complained of the showers not working; then by a ‘consultant’, of the unlikely (in my view) certainty that he would make a shedload of money from owning a largely empty hotel; while all his competitors at the upper end of the tourism market locally had gone bust at least twice in the time I had been working there. But who was I, only the old caretaker? The experts I brought in – and the even-more experts they brought in – confirmed and indeed exceeded my own evaluation of the extent of the dilapidations: by 2009 there was no argument. The money had to be found, or the project abandoned.
Kim Davies can fairly be accused of having Philistine tastes, and of boorishly adapting Llanwenarth to his own ghastly designs without consulting anyone who actually knew what they were doing. But it’s his house! Clearly, he has created a headache for future owners and restorers, since they will be faced with the same dilemma as the owner of Nanteos: just what constitutes a proper balance between the needs of modern users and the desire of preservationists and purists to maintain a continuous connection with the past? But would the government, the community provide the necessary funding to maintain Llanwenarth as it was?
And where do you draw the lines, historically? Even before the 20th century, Nanteos like all great houses had been subjected to continual additions and ‘improvements’. It’s only since the campaigns by John Betjeman and others in the 1950s to rescue old Victorian and Georgian buildings from developers that we’ve been much exercised by what happens to them after they have outlived their time, and have sought to preserve them in aspic.
Too many of these once-great houses have been lost altogether, owing to confusing and costly restrictions on what can fairly be done to maintain their usefulness. Yet what are you supposed to do, if you find yourself owning one? We can’t simply ban all ‘plebs’ who make a bit of money from aggrandising themselves by buying-up historic country houses they can’t afford to maintain and making ‘inappropriate’ alterations. Most of the ‘aristocrats’ who built them in the first place came up through the ranks – usually by trading in slaves, or worse (the Powells owned unregulated lead mines). ‘Rococo’ is fashionable now, but was in fact the tasteless architectural and decorative vandalism – the red-tiled jacuzzi – of its day.
I wince when anyone tells me what a wonderful old house Nanteos is (naturally, as The Unforgiven I was ‘let go’ when the hotel opened, the incoming manager needed my apartment, so I’m a tad biased), and how if they won the Lottery they would love to buy it… I tell them, yes, but you’d have to win another ten Lotteries if you wanted to keep it! They don’t know the half of it.
I recall also, what it was like living alone in that grim, grey, gaunt old building, reputedly haunted, after it closed – through two freezing winters with no heating or water, or even in many places floorboards. (Luckily, I had been sent to private boarding schools in the 1950s and ’60s and so was inured to such privations!)
Old houses can be good to visit for a few hours, but there is something to be said for our cosseted modern way of life, truth to tell.