Period Property of the Month - January 2010
Mysterious as a fairytale castle, Plas Teg is not what you expect of a Jacobean house in the north Wales countryside. Vivien Bellamy enjoys a tour with its indomitable chatelaine, Cornelia Bayley.
A saving grace
It's hard to believe you're not seeing things as, bowling along the main road, you catch sight of the grey stone walls and turrets of Plas Teg.
The mansion was built by Sir John Trevor, a descendant of ancient Welsh gentry. More to the point, he was Secretary to the powerful Lord Howard of Effingham at the court of the ageing Queen Elizabeth. His rise was rapid: an MP in 1597, he was Surveyor to the Navy by the following year and knighted in 1603. Further honours followed.
However, as the first decade of that century drew to a close, clouds were gathering for Sir John. He was accused of lining his pockets at the new King James's expense. In 1611, he had to resign his naval post. But, since work at Plas Teg had started earlier, he already had a bolt-hole far from London.
The mansion's square plan with corner turrets was advanced for the time, and reflects court interest in Italian Renaissance designs. Cheaper to execute than the enormous courtyard houses of great aristocrats, the compact plan was favoured by salaried officials without landowning wealth, who nevertheless needed to impress.
Plan of Plas Teg
Plas Teg's troubles began as early as the lifetime of Sir John's son. He did not care for the place and chose to live elsewhere, which may have been why, despite his staunch support for Cromwell during the Civil War, Plas Teg was looted by Parliamentarian soldiers.
Since then, occupation of the house has been sporadic, often by neglectful tenants. When the fourth Sir John inherited Glynde Place in Sussex, this became the family's favoured residence. In 1744, ownership of Plas Teg passed to the Trevor-Roper family. They occupied the house intermittently during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, undertaking some restoration. During WWII, the house was requisitioned for American troops, later there were break-ins and vandalism. It changed hands many times, and narrowly avoided the breaker's hammer on more than one occasion.
By the 1980s, it was on the market again. Few were prepared to take on such a huge structure, with holes in the roof and dry rot, not to mention the tree growing up through the floor of the Great Hall. Mrs Cornelia Bayley was made of sterner stuff. A Londoner, she had moved away and successfully restored a property in Lincolnshire. With a temperament combining profound romanticism with practical aptitude, she is inspired by a vision too demanding for most of us.
She bought the house twenty years ago for £75,000, but restoration has cost more than five times that sum. Although CADW, the Welsh historic buildings agency, provided a grant, Cornelia has done a huge amount of the work herself. A particular achievement is the revelation of the tawny oak of the Jacobean staircase. She spent hours with a penknife, scraping off the black bitumen-like paint to reveal the rich colour of the multi-faceted carved surfaces.
A skilled needlewoman with a flair for theatrical effects, she has sourced vast acreages of silk from little-known dealers and hand-sewn them to create sumptuous wallhangings. A background in antique dealing has undoubtedly helped her to put the life back into Plas Teg.
But before any of these niceties, she had to deal with the basic matters of non-existent windows, doors and floors. To reinstate the original grandeur of the Great Hall, she removed the partitions that had divided it into smaller rooms. She re-floored it with reclaimed flagstones and restored its high, mullioned and transomed windows. She salvaged fireplaces, doors and timber from other properties and reclamation yards.
The front door leads directly into the Great Hall. Here Sir John Trevor would have entertained tenants and the hordes of hangers-on that surrounded an influential court official.
Cornelia has furnished the room with a sofa from Hatfield House, and other seventeenth-century furniture, supplemented by Indian pieces that she felt were in sympathy with the period.
The seating in this great space is predominantly upholstered in a cool cobalt blue that imparts a serenity it can't always have had. To cover the vast walls, she decided to commission copies of great paintings of the period: to the left as you enter hangs a huge Veronese. Most of these are so well known that few would imagine them originals, but they are impressive nonetheless.
Cornelia's preferred period is actually the end of the eighteenth century. Using Empire furniture, she has decorated the mansion's larger rooms in this supremely dignified style. In the private Great Chamber, directly above the Great Hall, visitors see the silk-lined walls in their full splendour, as a backdrop for furniture and fittings.
On the second floor, the traditional Long Gallery gives access to most of the bedrooms. It provides display space for some of Cornelia's furniture and classical sculpture.
Each one of Plas Teg's eleven bedrooms boasts a four-poster bed, in an eclectic variety of styles. For example, Georgian yellow silk and Art Deco bronze statuette suggest faintly decadent luxury for what is affectionately known as the Sun Dance room.
Cornelia remains an avid collector and is just as happy sauntering round a local car boot sale as negotiating with Bond Street dealers. Her collections are not restricted to high value items and she is equally fond of her domestic 'bygones', housed in the basement.
Almost unbelievably, she has managed the restoration of this vast property single-handed, shifting stone and wood that would daunt many a weightlifter. However, she has the capacity to inspire others with her vision and has been generously supported by local friends. Many give their services voluntarily, often at considerable personal cost.
Cornelia Bayley faces the daily concerns of continuing repairs and the costs of maintenance and conservation of Plas Teg's contents. Nevertheless, she has secured the mansion's future. All of us owe a huge debt to her, and others like her, who dedicate themselves to preserving these treasures of history.