Great Britain is composed of three nations: England, Wales, and Scotland. The United Kingdom adds Northern Ireland to the mix, and hence the official name of the country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The point of mentioning this terminology is that both Scotland and Northern Ireland are parts of the UK that are some distance from where I live in England, at least based on British measurements of time and space. This colours my perception of Wales: while it feels like it should also be an epic journey away, in reality it is simply a matter of turning left on the M4 and driving for 40 minutes. I think this is the only reason that MrElaineous and I had never visited the red-brick grandeur of Tredegar House, a National Trust property just a stone’s throw away from Newport.
Tredegar was built in the late 17th century by the Morgan family, one of the richest and most powerful families in southern Wales (for members of my own Morgan family who may be reading this: no, I don’t think we’re related to them). By the late 18th century, the Morgans owned over 40,000 acres of land across three counties and were later granted an assortment of aristocratic titles.
The early 20th century, however, saw the fortune squandered by the spendthrift—if colourful—Evan Morgan. His biography involves two Popes, a boxing kangaroo, a Russian princess, and a smattering of dark magic. He was also responsible for looking after carrier pigeons during World War II, at which time he blabbed state secrets to girl guides (American readers: equivalent to girl scouts), and was court-martialled as a result … but this is practically dull in comparison to some of the things he got up to.
For example, after converting to Catholicism, Evan held the title of Chamberlain of the Sword and Cape to Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI, but this did not stop his interest in the occult—he also had a “magick room” built somewhere within Tredegar to practice the dark arts. His dabbling in black magic caught the attention of Aleister Crowley—occultist, magician, and possible spy—who was so impressed by Evan’s esoteric knowledge that he nicknamed him Adept of Adepts.
A kangaroo named Somerset—and a whole host of wild animals—were another of Evan’s eccentricities, with the menagerie living both in and around Tredegar House itself. They were often the star attraction at Evan’s lavish house parties, where his best known parlour trick was to have one of his parrots climb up the inside of his trouser leg and stick its head out his fly. As someone who has both lived with a parrot and felt the full force of their beak, I can attest that this was either the very height of bravery or stupidity. I still haven’t decided which.
And the princess? That would be Princess Olga Sergeivna Dolgorouky, his second wife, who fled Russia with her family during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Despite the title, she was described as down-to-earth, throwing herself into the war effort during WWII and training as a nurse so she could work in the local hospital. The marriage, however, was an unhappy one and annulled after only four years. When Evan died unexpectedly in 1949 without leaving an heir, the house passed briefly into the hands of his cousin but was sold to a convent and turned into a school before eventually being acquired by the National Trust.
Today, through the efforts of the Trust it is possible to see Tredegar as it looked through the ages. This includes the 17th century Gilt Room and Brown Room—the former covered in paintings and golden gilding, the latter with oak panels engraved with lions, griffins, and fantastic faces—and bedrooms recreated to invoke the spirit of Evan Morgan’s 1930s lifestyle. While the magick room is long gone, the Best Chamber—a room that provides views over the entire estate—was recently re-opened and showcases the modern history of Tredegar. Perhaps more importantly, the grounds now serve as a public park and there are plans afoot to develop a community garden, continuing Tredegar’s connection with Newport well into the 21st century.
As lovely as it was to explore Tredegar House and its grounds, it wasn’t the main reason MrElaineous and I were in Wales. Instead, I thought it was a good time for another digital detox: a chance to unplug and get away from emails, social media, and a never-ending stream of news.* So after leaving Tredegar, we headed north, venturing into the hills around the village of Llangovan. Our accommodation was in a beautifully converted farm building down an isolated country lane: it was an ideal location for escaping from the world … for a day or two at least.
The next morning, however, we ran into a slight problem. The original plan was to go walking in Brecon Beacons National Park, but a combination of fog and rain meant that there would be none of the far-reaching views—or any views—that this area of the world is known for. However, based on my inordinate fondness for dinosaurs, MrElaineous pointed out a brochure for the National Showcaves Centre for Wales: not only did they have over 200 life-size dinosaur sculptures, we could beat the weather by going underground.
And that’s exactly what we did. The caves were initially discovered in 1912 by the Morgan brothers—no relation to my family or the Morgans of Tredegar that I’m aware of—and they were formed over many millennia by the Llynfell River. The river carved out an extensive network of passageways in the carboniferous limestone, with the Dan-yr-Ogof cave system home to beautiful stone formations. They have been given descriptive names such as The Angel, The Alabaster Pillar, and the Rasher of Bacon, and I found them quite awe-inspiring, if somewhat difficult to photograph.
Further up the mountainside is the Cathedral Cave, so named because it was thought to bear a resemblance to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Unlike that landmark, however, visitors can walk between two powerful waterfalls to admire the space. It’s also much easier to arrange a wedding here! While St. Paul’s requires an application to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cathedral Cave is open for business: just be prepared to give your vows over the sound of rushing water.
The final underground attraction is the Bone Cave, a chamber where 42 Bronze Age skeletons were discovered. Assorted artefacts from other time periods have also been found, including evidence of a Roman legion in the area—for whatever reason, this cave on a Welsh hillside has attracted people and animals for centuries … even without life-size models of dinosaurs.
However, these are what brought MrElaineous and I to the area, and they were certainly as grand (and numerous) as the brochure had led us to believe. I am still trying to figure out how they got the largest of the sculptures to the site: in pieces on a lorry to be assembled in place? Or perhaps dropped off by helicopter? If the latter, I really hope there are pictures somewhere! I think my favourite section was the recreation of Duria Antiquior, a more ancient Dorset by Henry De la Beche. Painted in 1830, this was the very first illustration ever made of a prehistoric scene, and it was based on fossils found by Mary Anning at Lyme Regis. It has almost become cliché of paleoart, but seeing it in three dimensions was a real treat.
As we slowly headed back towards reality and WiFi the next day, we made one more stop just inside the Welsh border. Today it’s just a short drive to the Severn Crossing from Tintern, but in the 12th century this is where a group of Cistercian monks chose to start a religious settlement in what must have been an incredibly remote location along the River Wye. Over the next four centuries, this developed into one of the greatest religious buildings in south Wales, but Henry VIII’s roving eye and his subsequent break with the Catholic Church saw Tintern Abbey sold off in 1536 during the dissolution of the monasteries.
The lead roof was removed and the abbey itself turned into a quarry to construct local buildings, beginning a period of ruin and decay. This could have been the end of it but the late 18th century saw the rise of the Romantic movement; in England, poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth championed the use of the imagination, the importance of emotions, and being in touch with nature. For the next fifty years, Romanticism was to have an impact on arts, music, and literature, and the ruins of Tintern Abbey in the picturesque Wye Valley fell squarely into the category of Romantic. Instead of being wiped off the map, a steady trickle of visitors began to venture into this corner of Wales.
The Romantic movement was thought, in part, to be a reaction against the Industrial Revolution, yet it was one of the technologies of the revolution—the railway—that was used to bring tourists into the valley from the latter half of the 19th century, making Tintern more accessible than ever before. While the line itself is long gone, the station at Tintern has been given a new lease of life: it now serves as a café and park, with two refurbished train carriages used as a museum and gift shop.
For MrElaineous and I, this was an unexpected discovery, and the perfect place to sit with a cup of tea and cake to reflect on our time away. We agreed that ditching digital devices and the always-on connectivity was something we should do more often because the very devices that can bring the world into the palm of your hands can also prevent you from fully experiencing it. We also thought we should visit Wales more often—after all, where else can you travel from the depths of prehistory to medieval political machinations to the inter-war lifestyles of the rich, famous, and downright eccentric without needing a ferry, airplane, or time machine?
Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting Notre Dame to burn down while we were away, so that came as somewhat of a surprise upon the return of WiFi.
Explore related posts to see more of wild and wonderful Wales:
- Making the Past Present: Who says you need a TARDIS to travel through time? A camper van can also do the trick!
- There’s Something About Wales: A look at Kate Humble’s fantastic Thinking on my Feet about the power of walking to soothe and inspire.
- All Roads Lead to Machynlleth: Getting away from it all to explore the beautiful scenery of mid-Wales.
- 11 Lessons After a Digital Detox: Stressed from too much technology? These were the key things I discovered after my first Welsh escape.