Hidden gems of the Llŷn Peninsula – Plas yn Rhiw and Pernarth Fawr

You have to be a bit determined to get here. Tucked away on the southern coast of the Llyn Peninsula and after a couple of miles on narrow lanes, you reach one of Wales’ prettiest manor houses – Plas yn Rhiw. The 17th century Tudor/Georgian style manor house and terraced garden overlook the beach of Porth Neigwl, Cardigan Bay and Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynned, northwestern Wales. The history of the estate goes back even further to neolithic times and today is under the care of the National Trust .

Now, when you hear manor house you might think of stately homes with columns at the front, lion flanked stairs leading up to an impressive entrance and big windows through which you can see rich paintings and chandeliers. A Welsh manor house in a location like this is somewhat smaller and more solid build but what it might lack in size and grandeur it sure gains in atmosphere and charm. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take any photographs inside but let me show you around the grounds.

The 17th century house was built for a descended from a ninth-century King of Powys and from there passed through the family until 1874, when it was bought and occupied by a series of tenants.
After being abandoned it was finally acquired by the Keating Sisters in 1939 who restored the building and recreated the garden. Big supporters of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, they donated the surrounding land of the estate to the National Trust in 1946 and Yn the rest of the property in 1952.

After indulging in a cream tea we headed back home (I was travelling with my parents) when my dad said: “Oh, what’s this with a star on the map, shall we stop there?” (See, that’s one of the perks about travelling old-style with a map instead of a naviagation system, you notice things you otherwise wouldn’t.) It was Penarth Fawr, a medivial hall house with thick stone walls, high ceiling and beautiful timberwork. Today it is under the care of Cadw and was definitely worth our little detour.

 

Of views and greens in London

I think there are two ways of really getting a feel for a city: walking its streets and public parks and viewing it from above. But being my parents’ daughter I am not one to spend a lot of money on these things if I can get them for free instead (so sorry, no pictures of a helicopter ride). Fortunately, walking is free but then only half the fun in the rain on a cold January day.

So instead I headed inside for some luscious greens at one of London’s best kept secrets – the Conservatory at the Barbican. This hidden tropical gem actually the second biggest Conservatory in the city and features over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees and even some exotic fish. The conservatory was built as an “add on” to disguise the theatre’s fly tower (where sets are stored) and manages to incorporate the structure in clever ways. There are bridges and balconies to explore and some of the plants you might even recognise from your own home, though they are enormous in here. Who would have thought there is such a fine green oasis hiding amidst this brutalist concrete structures. Entry is free but the conservatory is only open on certain dates so check their website in advance.

 

One of my other favourite indoor green spaces is the Sky Garden at the top of 20 Fenchurch Street (locally also known as the “Walkie-Talkie“). And best of all, it combines a garden with spectacular views (depending on the weather obviously). The Sky Garden features three storeys of exquisite public gardens including an open air terrace. 155 meters up, the Sky Garden begins at level 35 and gives you a 360-degree view of London. Entry is free but spaces are limited and you have to book in advance!

Last but not least on my list of best views has to be one of its latest additions – the new Switch House at the Tate Modern. The top floor features an open viewing terrace and though it might “only” be 10 levels up, it certainly gives you good 360-degree views of the London skyline. Access is free but you might have to queue for the lift during busy times.

And I even managed to fit in a short walk along the banks of the River Thames.

A medieval castle, a chestnut tree and Hercules

Chirk Castle is a magnificent medieval castle not far from where I live and I like to go there for a stroll around the garden and park. With its rounded towers it has a very distinct shape which reminds of Beaumaris Castle, another of the famous castles of Edward I along the north Wales coastline.

Chirk Castle was built by Robert Mortimer de Chirk between 1295 and 1310 to guard the Dee and Ceiriog valleys and as the local administrative centre. It has changed hands many times in the beginning with some of its owners being very important men of their age and recognised for their services to the crown. Even a future king – Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) – once owned it. But there is also another side to it. During the medieval period five of its owners were executed for treason, their estates seized by the Crown – caught up in wars that rumbled on for centuries.

Chirk Castle is the only Edward I marcher fortress that is still inhabited today and has been in the hands of the Myddleton family since 1595.

The gardens offer just the right mix of formality and lush flower borders with stunning views across the valley and the surrounding area. Actually the Hercules statue has probably the best view and he got here in a very ‘posh’ way – he was flown in by helicopter from his previous place in the lower woods. You will see a picture with a lonely plinth further down which used to be where he was positioned.

But it is worth to look beyond this and have a walk around the adjoining parkland. Various trails offer an insight into some interesting facts about the castle and the area and you might even see some wildlife and (almost) wild ponies.

And don’t miss the magnificent chestnut which has supposedly been here since the time of Henry VIII.

Even though I visit the house every time I’m there, I didn’t take any photographs as it is quite dark and my camera often struggles with these conditions. Best thing is to go there and explore it yourself. Chirk Castle is managed by the National Trust.

Erddig Park and its castle

It’s funny how you tend to write about places you travel to but hardly about the ones right at your front door. While visiting Erddig Hall and the adjoining park for the annual apple festival this weekend I realised, I had never written anything about this beautiful place just outside of Wrexham even though I visit it several times a year.

Erddig Hall is one of the country’s finest stately homes and, as well as the park, managed by the National Trust. In Erddig Park you can find the ingenious Cup and Saucer and the lesser known Motte & Bailey Castle. This old castle mound seems to be one part of the park which is often overlooked and not so well known. Even on beautiful sunny days when the park is enjoyed by many, you can have the old motte-and-bailey castle all to yourself. One of my neighbours, who lived in this area for more than 30 years, didn’t even know it existed.

When visiting Erddig Hall I like to include a little stroll through the country park so why don’t you join me. And yes, the park is much bigger than what you will see right now.

Even though the park might look like it was created by nature, it is actually the work of landscape designer William Emes who worked at Erddig from 1768-1780. He planted many trees and manipulated the flow of water across the park. His most famous feature is the Cup and Saucer waterfall.

One of the lesser know features of the park is the Motte and Bailey Castle that was incorporated into Emes’ design. Built by the Normans in the 11th century, the Motte and Bailey Castle’s purpose was to enforce their control over the local area. All that is left today are some earthen mounds hiding between the trees but once the castle would have dominated the skyline. When Emes started his work 700 years after the castle’s originial construction he planted an avenue of trees on its summit named Cathedral Isle. Back then the avenue was leading to a spectacular view over the surrounding landscape but nowadays the trees are just too high to see much.

The park surrounds the hall and offers, apart from the beautiful woods, many meadows and a lake – Llyn Erddig. Also included in the park is a section of Wat’s Dyke, a 40 mile long defensive earthen dam built in the 8th century.

I will do a proper post on Erddig Hall soon but as I had mentioned I was going there, I have included some pictures of the house and garden. It was nice seeing it so busy for the apple festival and I’m sure I’ll be back around Christmas for some Victorian Christmas inspiration.

Wide awake in the ‘City that Never Sleeps’

After fulfilling a life long dream last year and visiting New York City for the first time, I was back this summer – and how much more relaxed I was this time. As I had seen most of the major sights already, I didn’t have the permanent feeling of not being able to linger somewhere and constantly thinking “Got to go, there’s so much more to see”. I still managed to make my feet hurt by the end of each day; I do prefer exploring places on foot, if possible, which means I could end up walking from the upper end of midtown to downtown, on to Brooklyn and back again, crisscrossing the island of Manhattan. This time I also got to explore parts of the other boroughs and even spent a day at the beach, enjoying a refreshing swim in the Atlantic during the heat wave.

Back home while looking through hundreds of photographs I was wondering what exactly to show you. So I’ve decided to go for the places where there weren’t that many tourists around. It doesn’t mean these are less interesting or less beautiful places but sometimes just that extra bit further away. I will try not to bore you with too many details, you can always look things up.

The Cathedral of St John the Divine (nicknamed St John the Unfinished) is located at the north western end of Central Park in the Morningside Heights neighbourhood. Building began in 1892 and, as the nickname suggests, it remains unfinished to this day. But my main reason for visiting: it’s MASSIVE!! There is a dispute whether St John or Liverpool Cathedral is the world’s largest Anglican cathedral and church but it definitely is the fourth largest Christian church in the world. Entry is free, however they ask for a donation. Please give some, so they might be able to finish it one day. DON’T MISS: the Keith Haring tryptich, his last work before he died!

The northern part of Central Park is far less crowded and much hillier than its southern part but doesn’t lack attractions. You can come across several foundations of old forts, Harlem Meer is a nice spot and the Conservatory Garden is one of the hidden wonders of Central Park. It’s the only formal garden in Central Park and is divided into three separate gardens: the French Garden, the Italian Garden and the English Garden.

The Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens is probably best known for its unisphere and the water towers which have featured in many films and movies. Created for the 1939/1940 New York World’s Fair and also hosting the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair it is the largest park in Queens. The nearby zoo and science museum make a nice addition for a day out and in summer they offer open air screenings of movies. DON’T MISS: the mosaics when you enter the park from the subway station. Where else can you step on a Salvador Dali?!

The Staten Island Ferry offers some spectacular views of Manhattan’s skyline, and it’s completely free! It’s not really a secret anymore and tourists are flocking to the ferry  but it’s not as crowded as on the boats to the Statue of Liberty. Make sure you have enough time for a wander around Staten Island and taking in some of the sights. DON’T MISS: the Battery Maritime Building next door to the ferry terminal. It is being redeveloped now but you can still imagine the old splendour. The Governor’s Island Ferry departs from here.

South Street Seaport and Pier 15 East River Esplanade are a good option if you want to chill out. Pier 15 offers a bi-level recreational space on the water with sun lounges and a nice view over Brooklyn. Next to it you can see the The Peking, a steel hulled 4-masted barque. South Street Seaport is a designated historic district and features some of the oldest architecture in downtown Manhattan. It offers some nice boutique shops and bars. DON’T MISS: the Brooklyn Bridge mural and Fishbridge Park Garden (corner Water St & Dover St), probably the smallest garden open to the public I have ever been to. (Oh, and there is a water taxi IKEA Express Shuttle departing from Wall Street Pier 11 in case you’re in need of some Swedish furniture.)

When you walk amidst all those skyscrapers in Manhattan you easily forget that this is actually an island. Whereas the stretch from  North Cove Yacht Harbour to South Cove Park is less touristy it’s still worthwhile to continue through Battery Park. It’s beautifully planted and offers some interesting monuments too. DON’T MISS: The Sphere that once stood in the middle of Austin J. Tobin Plaza, the area between the World Trade Center. 

If you fancy a day at the beach I’d recommend Rockaway Beach in Queens but the most famous beach resort is still Coney Island. Very colourful, a bit commercial and tacky but the beach is nice and the Atlantic Ocean wonderfully refreshing. DON’T MISS: Eat a hot dog at Nathan’s, the most famous hot dog in the world. It’s celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and the first Coney Island store is still there, though I preferred to eat mine on the promenade.

Obviously architecture and the ‘weird and the wonderful’ are a big part of New York City as well, so here is just a small selection of some other things I came across.

 

There is plenty more to see and do. I can’t recommend the American Museum of Natural History enough; make sure to catch a movie at one of the movies in the park events, (the one in Brooklyn Bridge Park has the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop!), but be sure to protect yourself from those mosquitos; try some food from the original The Halal Guys, there’s usually a queue in front of the carts but worth the wait; The Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum is great, based on an old aircraft carrier you can see lots of planes, a Concorde and even the space shuttle Enterprise; catch a sunset at Brooklyn Bridge Park and roam the streets of Manhattan at night with all those colourful lights; and get on top of one of the skyscrapers (I like Top of the Rock) for some stunning views (DON’T MISS: look up the elevator shaft when going up and down at Top of the Rock).

The lesser known castles of Wales

Having almost too many castles in one country can pose a bit of a dilemma: which ones do you promote for tourists to visit? What are the criteria? Was it once a real castle or just the architectural vision of a rich family in later centuries?

Considering it was once a proper castle, I suppose you could say there are three main criteria for fame:

  1. Does it look good – obviously if it is almost complete with rooms and gardens etc  (like Chirk Castle or Powys Castle) it is a definite must. And if the walls still stand in the shape of a castle that allow visitors to go around it, climb towers and explore the castle grounds, that’s good too. The visitor needs to be impressed by the craftmanship of the time.
  2. Location, location, location – if the location is right then some walls, gates and towers are more than enough. Spectacular views, strategic position and easy to reach by car ensures it to be an attraction for young and old. Put it on the top of a hill with spectacular views across the Dee valley (Castle Dinas Bran – though you have to climb a hill) or on top of a former cliff (Harlech Castle) and a mention in various leaflets is guaranteed.
  3. Historic importance – if the castle played an important part in the history of Wales or British monarchs, a lack in substance and prime location can be forgiven. But it needs to have some big names or events attached to it. A mention in a Shakespeare play doesn’t hurt either.

If you look at all the castles that fit into at least one of these categories you’ve got a lot covered, especially along the north Wales coast line. But there are the odd ones out – barely there ruins in a not very scenic, easy to reach location where nothing truly important ever happened. These are usually ruins popular with locals who like to go there for a Sunday family stroll. One thing I noticed, while visiting these places, is that they seem to be mostly typical Welsh castles whereas their famous counterparts are usually built by the English to keep the Welsh in check. This might be a result of the Welsh being defeated in many battles over the centuries and the Welsh castles being neglected, abandoned or even torn down afterwards.

But I think it’s time to take a closer look at some of these.

Located in Wrepre Park in a corner of the woods is Ewloe Castle of which you can find a more detailed post here. The castle, which was one of the last fortifications to be built by the sovereign Princes of Wales, was abandoned at the beginning of the invasion of Wales by Edward I in 1277 and given little military value, allowed to fall into ruin.

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Ewloe Castle is tucked away in the corner of the woods

Tucked away on the top of a hill in Caergwrle is Caergwrle Castle which I have visited several times before. Built by Dafydd ap Gruffydd, it was the final castle to be built by Welsh rulers before the loss of independence. But when Dafydd’s forces rebelled against Edward I, the king sent forces to take the castle andDafydd retreated and sabotaged the structure. It was rebuilt and Edward gave it to his wife but abandoned after a fire broke out. Never being reubilt again it was then just passed down the royal line until nothing much was left.

Caergwrle Castle

Caergwrle Castle is set on top of a hill with stunning views but unfortunately not in a tourist attracting area

And then there is Holt Castle. This is probably the one castle that left myself the least impressed so far. It looks more like someone forgot a couple of stairs, windows and buttresses on top of a rock. Shows you how spoiled I am already when it comes to castles.

Holt Castle was a medieval castle built on the Welsh-English border on the banks of the river Dee in the town of Holt. The castle, which was constructed between 1277 and 1311, was shaped like a pentagon and had towers at each corner. It was built from local sandstone on top of a 12 metres high promontory but today only the base remains.

This is just the beginning really, there are many more “forgotten” castles, not only in north Wales but even along the Welsh-English border. After all somebody had to keep the Welsh in check….

But that’s something for another time.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Curve

I like both of these images for very different reason.

In the first one you might wonder where the curve will lead you to and it just shouts “British” to me with the red double-decker bus and the, for me, typical London architecture.

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Selfridges in Birmingham on the other hand presents a steep contrast to the very straight and pointed spire of the church with its smooth curves and rounded surface.

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