If you are interested in studying self-sufficient domestic life from the Georgian era right through to the 20th Century, then there surely is no finer place to visit than Llanerchaeron in Wales. Along with Victorian Lanhydrock in Cornwall, also owned by the National Trust, it offers a very rare glimpse of how domestic servants lived and worked, as many of the service outbuildings have not been demolished or renovated over the centuries. Its kitchen garden, still extremely productive and beautiful, its lake, woods and pastures are all revelatory examples of the interconnectedness of the various functions of a working estate. If you are a passionate cook and gardener you will want to spend hours here, there is so much to learn.
I would advise that you ring beforehand to make an appointment to get a tour with Tony Morgan. He is one of the many voluntary stewards the National Trust relies on to show people round the 200 historic properties in their care, and he really is an expert on the architecture and history of the estate. He makes it all come to life, with a vivid insight and knowledge that is really quite remarkable.
When you arrive at the front of the house you may well be forgiven for thinking that it does not look very grand, it in fact looks like the sort of house a child would draw, with the door in the middle, and symmetrical windows on each side and on each floor. Well this is exactly how John Nash, the Regency architect, intended the house to look. He arrived in Wales in 1783, aged only 31, bankrupt, separated from his wife and in disgrace. Llanerchaeron was Nash’s first commission and he built the house in 1795 for Colonel William Lewis. The house sits proudly in its own grounds, and the views from the front lawns are truly breathtaking. It remained within the same family for ten generations, until 1989, when John Powell Ponsonby Lewis bequeathed the whole estate to the National Trust upon his death.
At the time the house at Llanerchaeron was built the estate totalled 4000 acres, with 93 farms and scores of tenants who paid monthly rents to the Lewis family. The National Trust is the 11thgenerational organic farmer here, and Home Farm is still run as a working enterprise, albeit there are now only 600 acres under management.
Symmetry and picturesque landscape views were extremely important to landed gentry and rich grandees. The affluent owners did not want to have to see the kitchen garden, which would now be seen as the jewel in the crown of the property. Instead it was hidden behind a tall wall, and trees were planted around the property so that you could not see the service outbuildings or any of the farm’s outbuildings. The servants would be rushing through the service courtyard, probably unseen and unheard by the family, doing their daily chores. Llanerchaeron’s architecture and structure is the ergonomic embodiment of the “Upstairs Downstairs” class division between the ruling and landowning class and the working class.
The dining room may seem very dark, and quite foreboding with its stuffed animals and brown furniture, but Tony tells me that when John Nash designed houses the distant views to the horizon were very important and the shutters and net curtains are only there to prevent the bleaching of the interiors by the sun’s rays. The National Trust’s role is in preserving the house and all its contents for future generations, and this means cordoning off some of the areas and shutting out the light.
You walk through genteel parlours and comfortable bedrooms, with paintings, Axminster carpets, candlesticks and gilded mirrors and then suddenly, like entering through a totally different house, you are thrust into the cold, bare, ascetic world of domestic servitude. You climb down the stairs into another dimension, where there are no home comforts, decoration or embellishment. Welcome to the servant’s quarters.
The butler’s pantry would have been the beating heart of the house: this is where the head of the household staff would have monitored the servants, where the silver was kept and where the crystal was washed. Records show that between 1861 and 1891 five different butlers served the then inheritor, Mary Ashby Lewis. A butler was then paid £50 a year, whereas a laundrymaid only received £11 a year.
The kitchen, with its tall ceilings, flagstone floors and huge storage space was specifically designed by Nash to be well ventilated and practical. Sadly none of the original pots, pans and china remain, but the room has been accessorised with contents from the Ceredigion Museum and other private benefactors. An Esse solid fuel stove was put in in the 20th Century, but in the arched recess of the north wall you can see a replica of a stewing stove heated by charcoal.
I know that The National Trust has come under criticism by certain historians for their “Disneyfication” of properties, but I believe that the way in which they create atmosphere and human perspective in these houses is done by laying out ingredients and equipment. You can glean in a very direct way how life must have been like for the cook and it is fascinating. If the accessories were not there it would be like reading a recipe book without photographs or pictures. It would not be so exciting.
There is a very interesting list of all the domestic servants, butlers and cooks that were employed at the property, taken from the census, and they detail, in columns, their names, marital status (many are unknown!), when they arrived and when they left.
The scullery and larder are truly riveting. Here you see at close hand where all the food was prepared, where the fruit and vegetables were washed and preserved and where the water was boiled for cooking and baths. Hot water had to be carried by maidservants in enamel jugs, up the back staircase to the first floor where, in their dressing rooms, the family would wash.
After the scullery you then go through a door into a fascinating square service courtyard: this is a unique timepiece set of buildings, with a criss-crossing herringbone pebble yard. The courtyard has overhanging eaves, so that when it rained the servants would not get wet.
There is a dairy and a dairy scullery room, a cheese press room and a cheese store for maturing the cheeses. There is also a bake house, a smoking house, a brewing room and a meat salting room.
The laundry room is particularly poignant because the Trust has hung out lots of linen clothes and irons: from camisoles, to bloomers and night shirts, you can just imagine the maidservants bustling around trying to organise everyone’s clothes. The weather so far west, and so close to the sea, must be fairly wet at most times of the year, so how they managed to keep anything dry is astounding.
You go up a rickety wooden staircase and you are inside the bedroom of two of the servants. It must have been perishingly cold here, and there is not a great deal of light.
The families who lived at Llanerchaeron quite literally lived off the estate. The rents provided their income, the lake provided fish, the farms provided lamb, pork, beef and poultry, the woods provided game and the harvest provided all the grains. In the kitchen garden you can still see box hedge divided plots: albeit very ornamental and flowery, their function is still productivity.
The glasshouses were added in the 1880’s. By the 1920’s, when Captain T.P.Lewis lived here, just the kitchen garden alone provided employment for four gardeners. Now the garden is maintained by volunteers, and the produce is sold in the ticket office.
When you have finished the tour there is an excellent tea room, where you can sit and look out on a very peaceful landscape, eating cakes (I highly recommend the Bara Brith) and enjoying a hot drink. Little birds flutter in and out of the open cafe, in search of crumbs. It will be one of the most memorable days of your life, I guarantee it.
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