Underneath the modern carpets and above the plaster ceilings of Bryndraenog lies the evidence that this farmhouse started life as a medieval hall of lordship status. Tree rings reveal that the house was built from timber felled in 1436, and an inscription records that the gallery that runs around the hall at fi rst-fl oor level was inserted exactly two centuries later, in 1636.
The hall was probably built by the rhingyll, or reeve responsible for administration in the lordship of Maelienydd. An early poem by Ieuan ap Hywel Swrdwal of Newtown in praise of Llywelyn Fychan ab Ieuan of Bryndraenog is testament to the former strength of the Welsh language in this now Anglicised area, and he describes the house as ‘a proud maiden of lime and timber’.
The house at that time followed a U-shaped plan formed from a three-bay hall with outer wings at each end. These would have contained a parlour, privy and first-floor solar at the upper end, and kitchen and service-rooms at the lower end. Adding to the architectural symbols of status is the exceptional storeyed porch, which contained a first-floor room of significance, possibly a chapel or oratory.
There has been rebuilding, alteration and extension of the wings since that fi rst phase, and today the decorative roof with its cusped windbraces and trefoiled ogee tracery is hidden in the loft space. But the replacement windows and subdivided wings do not detract from the overall signifi cance of Bryndraenog as one of the best-preserved medieval homes in Wales.
Houses and History in the March of Wales, figs 34-50.
Medieval open halls began to fall from fashion in the later sixteenth century in Wales for social and practical reasons, and by the seventeenth century many were modifi ed to make them more like modern storeyed houses with chimney-fi replaces. Typically, a floor would be inserted over the hall and a fi replace would be added along one of the side walls. This ‘Great Rebuilding’, as it has become known, took place across Britain, though it appears that more halls retained their original form for a longer time in Wales than across the border (indeed, open halls seem to have been built later in Wales as well).
Egryn is a good example of a modified hall. Built around 1510, the modifi cations of a century later involving inserting a fl oor and adding dormered windows and a lateral fi replace have done little to damage the original structure. Even the addition of a substantial Victorian wing has left the hall largely unscathed, though the later addition does replace the original rooms below the cross-passage partition.
The modifications at Egryn are interesting as they show changing attitudes to space across the centuries – in the early sixteenth century people wanted an impressive and decorative open hall space that refl ected their status. In the early seventeenth century the house was modifi ed to create more private space for the family, and also to make it more practical with its chimney-fireplace. Around 1850 a new wing was added which contrasts strongly with the proportions and design of the original.
The name Egryn Abbey is curious, since there is no record of any ecclesiastical building here, though some believe a fourteenth-century hospital may have been at this location. Interestingly, treering dating has established that a substantial second house was built close to the original around 1618, possibly at the same time that the original hall was being modifi ed. This new building was some form of secondary domestic unit, possibly a dower-house.
The great advantage to the modern viewer of the inserted fl oor is to bring you close to the decorative cusped roof structure – a delight that would have been impossible when the roof was seen only from the ground fl oor of the hall.
Houses of the Welsh Countryside, figs. 53, 56b, 64a.
Buried within substantial Victorian additions at St David’s College, Llandudno, is a hall assumed to date from the early sixteenth century (possibly earlier) with a cross-wing addition dating from around 1700. This was the ancestral home of the Mostyns, one of the most signifi cant landowning dynasties in Wales, and the family (in the nineteenth century) responsible for the development of Llandudno into the resort it is today.
It is easy to understand why Peter Smith appreciated Gloddaeth, as the early decorative detail is lavish and in excellent condition. Decoration is the chief delight here: the moulded roof timbers are supported by hammer-beams; the Tudor fi replace sports moulded jambs, a heraldic shield and inscriptions; the dais partition has a superb painted canopy; painting and other decorative work are found in the later wing.
Although there was some embellishment during the Victorian restoration, the hall retains its original feel. Although the later additions by E. W. Nesfi eld and John Douglas continue the Tudor decorative themes, it is easy to tell the phases apart, and the main hall has survived largely unscathed from the attention of Victorian ‘improvers’.
Houses of the Welsh Countryside, figs. 71-2, 179g.
from Llangynhafal, Denbighshire (now at St Fagans)
The long, low form of Hendre’rywydd-uchaf doesn’t immediately suggest a hallhouse, but this is what the building is – a ‘peasant hall’ with an attached byre that gives it its elongated appearance. The term ‘peasant’ hall is slightly misleading as this home is typical of the better class of Welsh farmhouse in the Middle Ages, but it is also a long way down the social scale from such gentry halls as Gloddaeth or Cochwillan.
Peasant dwellings can be as small as two bays, but here there are five, with the lower two in use for cattle (keeping valuable assets close to hand). Although we understand buildings today through our own classification system (hallhouse/longhouse, and so on) such definitions are of recent making, and in 1508 when Hendre’rywydd-uchaf was built the owners would not have been concerned with fitting it into any such category.
The roof is supported on four substantial oak crucks, and the walls are timber-framed and lime-washed, as was the common practice. It was not until later in the sixteenth century that there was a concerted effort to combine structural framing as external decoration. As in larger halls the fire was an open hearth on the floor in the centre of the room, smoke either filtering through the thatched roof or escaping via the unglazed windows. Lesser halls like this have survived in fewer numbers than their highstatus counterparts, and Hendre’rywydd-uchaf is probably the best surviving example at this social level.
This house was one of the first complete buildings re-erected at the Welsh Folk Museum in St Fagans. When the National Museum Council decided to support the idea of an openair museum in 1943 it was intended to create ‘a Wales in miniature where … the visitor will be able to wander through time and space’.
By the mid-seventeenth century hallhouses had fallen from fashion and most were either being modified into more modern homes or, as in this case, were abandoned in favour of a handsome new storeyed house in the same location. At Rhydycarw, the original cruck-framed hall of about 1525, like many in Wales, was converted to agricultural use. The large uncluttered spaces provided by halls made them ideal for either crop storage or keeping stock, and the absence
of domestic development has saved many of our most signifi cant early buildings. In this case the hall escaped the fashion for rebuilding walls in stone and additions like internal fl oors, fi replaces and stairs. The elements that have been lost are the cross-passage and the position of the original central hearth, though smoke-blackening of the roof timbers indicates a likely location.
It was not until the twenty-fi rst century that Tony and Junko Burton came along with the vision and energy to revive this delicate structure as a family home. The conversion at Rhydycarw is a bold, contemporary and honest design. Although it respects all of the sixteenth-century structure as well as the layout of the original dwelling, the aesthetics are of clean, simple modernism with some infl uence from Japan, the country of Junko’s birth.
It is pleasing that the building works again in its original form to provide a house suited to modern living. The sixteenth-century structure of a two-bay hall fl anked by inner and outer rooms works well as a lounge fl anked by kitchen and study. The fi ne cruck trusses (one decorated) look magnificent rising through a contemporary interior. What was deemed unsuitable for ‘modern’ living in the seventeenth century makes for an ideal floorplan in the twenty-fi rst century. Sustainability has been at the heart of the redevelopment and the latest technology has been applied to what must be one of the earliest buildings in the area. The walls are insulated with blown cellulose from recycled newspapers, the house uses a heat recovery ventilation system, a ground-source heat pump and rain-water harvesting, and windows have been opened within the original box framing to maximise solar gain. Happily, Rhydycarw has found itself back in fashion some half a millennium after it was originally designed.
Houses of the Welsh Countryside, figs. 20a, 37c.
Castle Caereinion, Montgomeryshire
The Grade I listing of Tŷ-mawr, Castle Caereinion, is remarkable considering that in the early 1990s it appeared externally to be no more exciting than a collapsing barn. Recognised as highly signifi cant by Peter Smith in 1971, and restored in 1998, it is reconstructed to its probable appearance when built in 1460. Following the restoration (and partial reconstruction) it is possible once again to understand the building as a timber-framed aisled hall, and probably the best surviving example of its type.
Tree-ring dating of the structural oak timbers of the hall has revealed a typical history of adaptation, which included having a fi rst fl oor inserted in 1594, and a smoke-hood added by 1631. The timberframed internal chimney hood has been retained in a restoration that otherwise takes the building back to its original form - essentially a rectangular hallhouse of three-unit plan with storeyed units at either end of the open, aisled hall.
The scale and quality of the craftsmanship in oak reflect the high status of the original occupants. Some of the decorative bracing is reproduction, but the new oak is all lined up with original mortises and the new quatrefoils are a reasonable conjecture. Particularly attractive are the oak aisle-posts (part of a long aisle on each side of the main hall space) at the entrance to the hall, which are decorated with capitals reminiscent of the crenellations of a fortifi ed house. Few properties in Wales so readily evoke the life of the Welsh gentry in medieval times.
Houses of the Welsh Countryside, figs. 46-7, 55d, 62b, 67b, 68b.