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The Dynevors

Never say Dynevor

From The Sunday Review (Travel Section)
of The Sunday Telegraph, April 21 1996

A castle fit for Welsh kings has been saved for the nation - by the skin of its teeth, finds Byron Rogers

Say it had been you. Say your family had lived for 500 years in one place. And no ordinary place but a 1000-acre Eden above he river Tywi at Llandeilo, a park so beautiful it even enchanted the gruff Capability Brown. How would you feel on the day its new owners, The National Trust, opened your old family home to the public?

Do they make you pay to go in now?
No, said the 9th Lord Dynevor. But then, I am a member of the Trust

We walked through Newton House, through rooms where his paintings still hang, on loan to the Trust, four of them the sinister views of what were once his park and castle, so dark the unknown 17th-century master might have painted them in moonlight. Lord Dynevor's family had already been here for two centuries then.

Look at that. He was pointing at the ceiling. They've even managed to fix the dry rot. The work has taken two years and cost the Trust £1.4 million.

But say it had been you. Forget the English peerage; kings once ruled South Wales from Dynevor when this was the chief place in old time. That cost one of your predecessors his head, for in the time of Henry VIII a mere hint of royal ancestry could choreograph a man's own death for him.

But the estate came back, and kept coming back, despite a later family conviction for murder (Oh they were rough, very rough), and a failure in the direct male line. Then you inherited Eden with two lots of death duties in six years, and the Inland Revenue did what the King's lawyers had failed to do. How would you feel if you were the last Lord of Dynevor now, living outside the park in the smallholding which, of all your old estate, offered the best view of what you had lost?

I think I am anaesthetised against any feeling of nostalgia. All my family adored Dynevor. I cannot think of any family which loved a place more. But if you know something is inevitable, you have to harden yourself into accepting you are the last. I suppose there are times when I think it would have been nice had things worked out differently. But these come as very short pangs.

How many people filing through the rooms this summer will know what this place once meant? Not many, but there will be some, just as there were always some to remind the 9th Baron of the nature of his inheritance. A Welsh minister of religion once caught me on the step of my London flat coming back from the street market with groceries, and asked me point blank to become the Welsh Pretender. He was very polite, but I was in the first flush of extreme republican views and said I couldn't be party to any of that.

Another time, working in a Dublin theatre, he was traced by an Irish reporter. Being promoted as Pretender to the Principality of Wales, he reflected, had not been that much help to him in his career as an assistant stage manager. This was a wonderful place for a child, but then it was just somewhere my nanny and I would go on holiday from London. It was much later that I found out what it was.

Picture a hill rising out of water meadows, and on the hill the towers of a medieval castle showing above the trees, and behind the castle the rolling parkland which so startled Capability Brown that for once he did not say, "this has capabilities". The old gardener could only breathe, nature has been truly bountiful and art can do little harm. He said he wished his long journey had been of more benefit.

Through the park roamed deer and the wild white cattle believed to be a strain introduced by the Romans for Sacrificial purposes. During the war it was found that the cattle were visible from the sky at night, and it was decided they had to be camouflaged with broad green stripes. But, with the Welsh rain washing the stripes away and the cattle hell to catch, the war at Dynevor was as busy as the Russian Front.

In the centre of the park was the Gothicised house with turrets which the 27- year-old Lord Dynevor inherited in 1962. He was very shaken. The tax owing was in six figures, and that on an estate which his grandfather had run down - on the wistful premise that a rundown estate would not attract death duties.

He sold the farms first, then turned the hall into an arts centre, where operas were produced and films shown, and, as people who had curtsied to his grandparents in the street looked on in wonder, he entered into negotiations with the Government and the county council in the hope that one or the other might take it over. But time, and the Revenue, closed in.

There was black comedy then as the hall was sold first to an antique dealer, then to a Dutchman who proposed opening "a university for the mentally confused". This failed because, as it was pointed out, the existing universities already catered for the mentally confused, and the hall was up for sale again.

It was around this time I would walk the deer park, which he then still owned, with Lord Dynevor and he would wonder aloud about what might happen to his old home.

A Welsh TV production unit and a record company had it before the outcome he had longed for took place, and the National Trust bought Dynevor. The nightmare was finally over.

It is only the ground floor that has been opened so far, but in June the basement will be, with a butler's bathroom, the pantry, the wine cellars and a tea room. Some of those being recruited as stewards remember Christmases long ago when as children they called to be given mince pies.

The 9th Baron paused to admire what had been done, especially the shade of green the library walls have been painted. Most of the furniture is the Trust's, but the paintings are his, the family portraits which have been on their travels for the past 20 years, on loan to other stately homes and museums. Now the Lord Chancellor is back and the lords lieutenant in the bright uniforms of the Yeomanry.

History has run its course in this house, said Lord Dynevor.

The above article was originally published in The Sunday Review (Travel Section), of The Sunday Telegraph, on April 21 1996. It is reproduced here by kind permission of Byron Rogers.

Details of current opening hours and prices of admission to Dinefwr House and Park can be found on the website of the National Trust

Notes on Byron Rogers

Byron Rogers, a Welshman from Carmarthen who emigrated to England, has filled a good few column inches with characters and places that have passed his way as a journalist and biographer. Brought together in several collections, they make an impressive body of work. Consistently the funniest and most unusual journalist writing today, he is a historian of the quirky and forgotten, of people and places other journalists don't even know exist or ignore if they do.

He writes for the Sunday Telegraph, Guardian and Saga magazine and was once speech writer for the Prince of Wales, but in recent years has researched and written five books. The first three were: An Audience with an Elephant and other encounters on the eccentric side (2001); The Green Lane to Nowhere: The Life of an English Village (2002); and The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail: travels to the weirder reaches of Wales (2003). His biography of J. L. Carr, The Last Englishman , came out in paperback in 2003. Carr, novelist, artist and schoolmaster, is perhaps best known for his novel, A Month in the Country , which was made into a successful film in 1987. Byron Rogers' latest collection of journalism is The Last Human Cannonball and other small journeys in search of great men (2004). Just the titles of these books are pretty good clues what to expect once you start turning their pages. In 2006 his much-anticipated biography of Welsh poet and Nobel nominee R. S. Thomas, The Man who went into the West, was published to great critical acclaim.