For king Henry and country

With pointy doors, wall paintings and 16th-century graffiti, Althrey Hall in north Wales is full of insights into the life of a favoured Tudor family. But it is the exterior that wows visitors, says Mary Wilson
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The Independent Online

Black-and-white buildings are ten-a-penny in some areas of Britain, but Althrey Hall in Bangor on Dee, north Wales is something rather special. It is thought to be one of the last surviving aisle-trussed halls of Wales and because of its architectural and historical importance is listed Grade II*. For a start, the exterior timbering is of a strikingly unusual design with vertical, herringbone and chevron stripes running right across the front and the back of the house, which was built in 1508. And internally, most of the rooms are heavily beamed or fully panelled.

"It's every bit as impressive on the inside as it is from the outside," says Nick Garnell, who has lived there with his wife, Liz and two children for just under a year. The house was beautifully and carefully restored in the Nineties by the previous owners, who managed to obtain some funding from CADW, the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage. And because of this funding, it was open to the public for a while, although this is no longer the case.

"I think it took about three years to do," says Nick, who is reluctantly leaving the house after such a short time, but they have been tempted by another property, their "dream" home which has suddenly come onto the market. "The new house needs a lot of work doing to it, so we have decided, although it was a tough decision as this is a great house, that we would like to have a go restoring something ourselves," he says.

When the previous owner bought the house, it had been considerably knocked about, mainly by its Victorian owners, who had put a floor across the middle of the stunningly vaulted Great Hall, dividing it vertically in two. All the beautiful external timbers had been rendered over and many of the beams and features internally had been covered up, too. Now it is back to its original form with a central Great Hall and East Wing and West Wing either side.

Nick has done some research on the history of Althrey Hall, although he says that there must be much more to discover. He has found out that the manor house was given by Henry VII to Richard ap Howel, who was a direct descendant of Owen Glyndwr, an important Welsh family, as a reward for his services to the king at the Battle of Boswell.

On the wall of the main guest bedroom in the West Wing are some highly important original paintings, showing Richard's son, Ellis ap Richard, with his wife Jane Hanmer. They are wearing what is believed to be Elizabethan costume that would have been worn at a christening - presumably for one of their many children, because engraved into the beams around the paintings are 14 pomegranates, thought to represent the family's offspring.

These had also been covered over, only to be discovered when the renovation work was taking place, and it is probably the fact that they were protected for so long that has left the paintings in such good condition - they are around 450 years old, after all. They have no protective covering, as recommended by CADW as being the best way to preserve them, but they must have been restored at some time, with the association checking every few years or so on their condition.

"The paintings are really fantastic," says Nick Garnell, "and we have been very careful not to put any furniture over them. They are very unusual to have survived in that condition and in a private house."

In another bedroom, there is a wall covered in 16th-century graffiti. This is a red ochre colour and carved into it is a litany of names and initials of previous owners. "I don't think the last people put their names on it, but we certainly will," says Nick.

In the old private chapel, meanwhile, which is now used as a study, there is a painted ceiling of the celestial city with the sun, the moon and stars and on the end of one of the beams, sacred monograms. Over the door is a fairly well-hidden priest hole.

The former Tudor kitchen is now a sitting room, and the previous owners put in a very smart fitted kitchen with large range, exposed timbers and planked ceiling, and there is a second, more utilitarian, kitchen with two-oven Aga and space for a washing machine and tumble drier and one of those huge, American-style double fridge/freezers.

In the East Wing, there is the Minstrels' Gallery overlooking the Great Hall, the main bedroom that has three 17th-century panelled walls, two further bedrooms, a toy room (just large enough for children only) and three bathrooms. And, rather cleverly, the three bedrooms in the eaves all have wooden doors pointed top and bottom, so they fit into a diamond shape made by the beams. When open, it looks as if you have to climb through a hole in the wall and these bedrooms are just perfect for children.

"As well as being the most fantastic house, it is also a very comfortable house to live in and we took the view that although we have only been in it for a short time, it was still a privilege to do so," says Nick.

The house is close to Wrexham and borders the racecourse there. It has splendid views across the Dee Plain to the Welsh Hills. There was a Victorian wing, which the previous owner demolished, and if a future owner wished to build garaging or other outbuildings, this would make a good site.

Strutt & Parker (01244 220500) is selling Althrey Hall with five bedrooms, four reception rooms and 1.25 acres of land with a guide price of £575,000