I’m a big fan of the National Trust, as I’m sure you know. Partly because they look after wonderful old buildings, woodlands, coastal areas etc, but also because if you break open the piggy bank – or fat sheep in our house – and dig out enough florins, you can buy a membership pass. Once this little plastic card is lodged in your purse you can spend the day at any one of their gorgeous sites without passing over any cash, which is exactly what we did last week.
We’d never been to Dinefwr Parc before, even though it’s only just over an hour’s drive along the A40, and so very easy to reach. The BBC forecast wasn’t too encouraging but for once in these times of satellite imagery and computer models boasting that they can predict dewfall levels for August 2028, they were wrong. Ha! Gloriously wrong, in fact, as you can see from the pics.Driving past Bwlch on the A40
Penyfan and Corn Du, basking in the sunshine
Dinefwr Parc is just outside Llandeilo, and once we’d waved our cards under the nose of the young American (?) lady at the entrance and been issued with arm bands, we parked the car in a shady spot. This is when you know summer is winning the battle of the seasons.
There’s a small building which serves as a visitor centre and has maps and leaflets describing various trails through the park so we picked up a few and headed up to the manor, Newton House. Begun in the 17th century, there have been various additions and extensions by members of the Dynevor family, so the style is a little peculiar. It looks like a mini-Balmoral combined with the sort of turret roofs you see on a French chateau. The house had to be sold in the seventies because of unaffordable death duties, but the National Trust didn’t buy it until 1990. Since then they’ve repaired damage that had been done through nearly twenty years of neglect (as well as abuse by a troop of squatters), and restored the building beautifully.
More than that they’ve created what amounts to a hands-on museum. The volunteer in the entrance hall explained that we should touch anything we wanted – sit on furniture, open cupboards, play the grand piano – which is astonishing in a place like this where you’re usually confronted with barriers and signs forbidding you to sneeze in case you damage some precious artefact. Visiting Newton House is like walking through the set of Downton Abbey and you almost expect to see a maid appearing in the downstairs pantry, or a young man in tennis whites grabbing his racquet from the storeroom before rushing out to join Bertie on the courts. Not that there are tennis courts, I’m getting a little carried away here…but there probably were at one time! A family sitting room
The games equipment in a downstairs storeroom
A small garden room on the first floor
We joined one of the (free) tours that was on, which took us into rooms not usually open because they’re being renovated, and also up onto the roof. From here there were fantastic views across the grounds, including the paddock where the rare White Park cattle were grazing. The tour guide told us that there are actually fewer of these on the planet than there are giant pandas, which is a bit incredible. There have been White Park cattle here for over a thousand years – we know this because they are shown in the records of the Welsh king Hywel Dda, who lived from 880-950. As well as these very pretty cows, the site is home to a herd of fallow deer in one of the last remaining medieval deer parks in the country. I read somewhere that although it has long been thought that fallow deer were introduced to Britain by the Normans, actually they were a Roman import and evidence has been found that traces their existence here back to the 1st century AD. So: old cows and very old deer.The very small dots are fallow deer!
One of the rooms is furnished and dressed to show how it would have looked when the house was used for wounded 2nd World War servicemen. Mr B’s itchy fingers soon found the trays of 1940s surgical instruments but luckily he didn’t stab himself on anything. The house isn’t huge, although there’s a warren of rooms in the basement and at least down there you can’t hear yet another performance of Chopsticks being bashed out on the grand piano. The obligatory café is in the billiard room and as well as the standard NT shop there’s also a ‘pre-loved’ bookshop with an honesty box for payments. A nice touch.
House done, we plodded up the hill through lovely woods and past ancient oaks, until we reached the castle. The first castle here was not Norman but Welsh and although the ruins we see today probably date to mid 13th century, the original fortification was most likely built by Rhys ap Gruffydd (1132-1197), the ruler of the Kingdom of Deheubarth. The approach to Dinefwr Castle
The great tower from inside the castle walls
Looking across the bailey to the accommodation block – obligatory tourist on the tower
The view of the River Towi from the castle walkway
Rhys ap Gruffydd is more usually known as ‘The Lord Rhys’ and was responsible not only for the successful resistance against the Normans of this part of Wales, but also for his championing of Welsh culture, establishing the first eisteddfod at Cardigan Castle in 1176.
(By the way, those of you who are Welsh will know this but for anyone who isn’t aware of it, ‘ap’ signifies ‘son of’ and so Rhys ap Gruffydd is Rhys, son of Gruffydd. The slightly perverse custom of medieval times was to stick to the same few Christian names within a family, and in Anglo-Norman society this would lead to a William in every generation of the de Braose family for instance, or a succession of Rogers in the Mortimer line; not to mention the fact that more than one unlucky knight in the Marches rejoiced in the name of Sir Grimbald Pauncefort, as you may remember if you’ve read my previous post ‘Lady Sybil’s Hand’. But at least they used surnames; the Welsh didn’t, choosing instead to identify a man by his parentage i.e.’son of..’. Apart from the fact that there was huge scope for duplicating (and therefore confusion – how many Dafydd ap Owains, for instance, would there be in the country at any one time?), this habit occasionally became slightly ridiculous: Rhys ap Gruffydd’s father was Gruffydd ap Rhys and in 13th century Gwynedd, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was the son of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn – and there are a multitude of similar examples. I’m not sure but it’s entirely possible that somewhere, sometime, there was a Gruffydd ap Gruffydd, Rhys ap Rhys, or Llywelyn ap Llywelyn.)
And on that note I leave you. If you get the chance to visit Dinefwr Parc, take it – especially if you’ve a National Trust pass!
Ancient oak at Dinefwr