‘Beatrix loved this house with its carved oak panelling, its fine antique furniture and its romantic, untidy garden where she had so often sketched.’
Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter. The extraordinary life of a Victorian Genius. p.204
Gwaenynog Hall was a home of the Myddleton Family for some 500 years, until finally they gave it up in 1870, selling the estate to Oliver Burton, whose brother Fred and sister-in-law Harriet inherited the property upon his death . The Hall today is largely 19th century, though alterations were made well into the 20th century. There are substantial parts of the Hall which date to the 16th century, an inscription of 1571 attesting to its early origins - an origin that can be pushed back in fact, to the early 15th century, when Ririd ap David ap Poddan married Cecelia, the daughter of Alexander Middleton of Bishops Castle. Their children took their mother’s surname, becoming then the Myddletons, whose presence can be felt throughout North East Wales.
Gwaenynog - An 'untidy romantic garden'.
It was at Gwaenynog that Dr. Johnson, the famous grand old man of English letters, and Hestar Thrale, his friend and native of Denbighshire, stayed in the summer of 1774, receiving such warmth and hospitality from Colonel John Myddleton, that even the curmudgeonly Johnson was taken to praise, faint though it was. Still it must be said that faint praise was as high praise as any praise that Johnson awarded during his tour of North Wales.
'I dined at Mr Middleton's of Gwaynynog. The house was a gentleman's house below the second rate, perhaps below the third...The table was well supplied, except the fruit was bad. Middleton is the only man who in Wales has talked to me of literature.'
S. Johnson, A Diary of a Journey into North Wales in the Year 1774, p.79
Myddleton was as close to a friend that Johnson made upon that tour, and certainly the Colonel seems to have considered himself as such. Reading between the lines of Johnson’s diary - the lines of reluctance and unwilling wanders - there can be seen a warmth directed towards Myddleton, that not even the erection of a ‘memorial’ urn on the banks of the Afon Ystrad to the still living Johnson could entirely diminish.
The two toll bar posts from the nearby Pentrefoelas Road - now a garden feature
But, as fascinating as the Hall and its history undoubtedly is, it is the gardens which continue to be the focus of interest, especially to those whose early years were taken with reading or being read the tales of the famous author Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Harriet and Fred were the aunt and uncle of Beatrix Potter and she visited many times, finding inspiration in the country about the Hall and especially within the walled garden. The sketches she made of the garden and of the potting shed attached served as the setting of ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’ written in 1909. While Mr Macgregor’s Potting Shed was something of an amalgam of the many garden’s Beatrix had visited in her childhood, it would seem to have been especially influenced by, ‘her Aunt Burton’s garden at Gwanynog.’
‘The garden is very large, two thirds surrounded by a red-brick wall with many apricots, and an inner circle of old grey apple trees on wooden espaliers. It is very productive but not tidy, the prettiest kind of garden, where bright old fashioned flowers grow amongst the current bushes.’
The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881-1897, p.378
Fred Burton's Potting Shed at Gwaenynog - the main influence for Macgregor's own in the Potter tales.
Gwaenynog was also the place where Potter came to not long after the death of her fiance and publisher, Norman Warne in 1905, where her uncle who had recently lost his wife and Beatrix’s aunt, Harriet was also in the throes of a melancholic weight. While Beatrix Potter is most associated with the Lake District, it would be fair to say that Gwaenynog was very close to her heart. From her first visit to her last, it served to inspire her. It featured heavily in her works, most obviously in, ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’, but Gwaenynog can be felt in others.
‘Unlike the earlier bunny books, the more formal Gwaynog garden with its archways, beds and long vistas gave her simple plot a floral and horticultural abundance that captures the readers attention quite as much as the sleepy bunnies suffering the ‘soporific’ effects of too much lettuce.’
Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter. The extraordinary life of a Victorian genius, p.225-226
'Old grey trees on wooden espaliers.'
Two unfinished tales by Beatrix were also based on Gwaenynog - Llewelyn’s Well and Flittermouse and Fluttermouse. The former describes a garden that anyone who visits today would most certainly recognise, especially the ‘long straight grass alleys and apple trained espaliers’.
Gwaenynog Hall became a boarding school for girls during the Second World War and the gardens were cared for and tended by the students there. On its closure in the mid 1950s, the gardens were left to prosper as they wished, with little design. The house was given by Oliver Burton to his daughter Janie in 1968. After a six month sojourn tending the gardens at Chatsworth and a course in horticulture, Frances, the daughter of Janie returned to Gwaenynog and began the long process of returning the garden to the image of its appearance during its days of an inspired Potter. In this she was guided by David Lewis, who had once worked the garden and Beatrix Potter’s own drawings, of course. To look at some of the original sketches that Beatrix created for her stories is to look at images of the walled garden at Gwaenynog House, so impressively has the property been restored.
Potter nooks and cranies everywhere.
Gwaenynog House is open during the summer months, and by appointment only. Contact 01745 812066 for details. It is usually open as part of CADW's open doors initiative in September every year. The owners are active in charitable enterprises and local good causes. All donations are gratefully accepted.
The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881-1897, F.Warne, London (1966)
E. Hubbard, The Buildings of Wales Clwyd, Penguin, London (1986)
S. Johnson, A Diary of a Journey into North Wales in the year 1774, ed. R. Duppa, Jennings, London (1816)
M. Lane, The Tale of Beatrix Potter: A Biography, Penguin, London (1986)
L. Lear, Beatrix Potter. The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Genius, Penguin, London (2008)
B. Potter, The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, EBook