Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Garn Fawr & Trehilyn, with John Piper & Griff Rhys Jones

This autumn has had something of a Welsh theme. Having visited Clive Hicks-Jenkins in the Ystwyth valley and publishers Frances and Nicolas McDowall on the banks of the Wye, we headed to Strumble Head, Pembrokeshire for a half-term break. Over the years we've had odd winter weekends at one or other of the fabulous old cottages managed by Under the Thatch, but Trehilyn turned out to be grander (and warmer) than most.

Trehilyn, nr. Strumble Head - as seen on TV!
The house is divided in two. Our end had four outside doors, crog lofts for sleeping and a woodburner. Also underfloor heating, which was a surprise. In fact the place had evidently been done up with considerable care, but I would never have guessed how much skill, cash and labour had been poured into this out-of-the-way farmhouse. It turned out that Trehilyn had been bought some years earlier by Griff Rhys Jones, and subjected to a televised renovation, which we watched one evening.

Sunshine in west Wales...
I'd never much fancied the idea of buying a doer-upper, but this BBC series, 'A Pembrokeshire Farm', put me off for good. The 'before' pictures showed a farmhouse neglected almost to dereliction, hideous 70s wallpaper peeling off the saturated walls. The house had a grouted roof, a regional speciality, which had persuaded architectural historian Greg Stevenson (founder, incidentally of Under the Thatch) to enlist as a consultant to the series. But the roof was in terrible shape and had to be replaced with slates, every one of which was drilled and then pegged down.

Cottage interior, with apologies to Hammershoi
In fact the house was stripped down to its stone walls, and then rebuilt as authentically as possible. Of course, as the programme pointed out, there's nothing authentic about an 18th/19th century house with underfloor heating and a power shower, but I do see the point in using traditional building techniques - as a living record, if nothing else. So the walls were plastered on the inside and rendered on the outside with lime plaster that had to be applied by hand. It didn't look particularly fun. Griff was given the job of building a bed, which, rather bizarrely, we slept in. Is that a claim to fame?

Indigenous building: John Piper's studio, Garn Fawr.
When we arrived it was dark, but the following morning we trudged up the hill in the direction of Strumble Head. As we approached a rocky outcrop the scene began to seem familar, but it took a bit of research to jog my memory. This was Garn Fawr, John and Myfanwy Piper's Welsh retreat for many years, and the subject of innumerable paintings. In the 1960s they bought two tumbledown cottages, one to the left of this picture where they stayed, and this one, John's studio, which looks as though it sprouted from the bracken.

Cottage and rocks, Garn Fawr
There's a nice post here on Garn Fawr, with some paintings illustrated, and I could see why the quintessential Romantic Modern was attracted to the place. It was wild enough on a mild day in October. In a January storm it must seem like the end of the world. Strumble Head is about half a mile beyond the chimney above, but Garn Fawr is much more atmospheric.

The view south from Garn Fawr

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