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House & Home

The last Wynne at Garthewin

Anne Spackman on a romantic north Wales estate which a family is selling after 1,000 years
Every picture on the walls of Garthewin tells a story. On the landing there is Colonel Wynne who, while serving in Arabia, climbed into a harem for a daring bet, risking a penalty of castration. Unhappily he was caught, thus creating inheritance problems for the Wynnes in the 19th century.

His father Robert, the diarist of the family, who chronicled the late 18th century at Garthewin, is in the drawing-room, captured by Gainsborough. Opposite him is Brownlow Wynn Wynne who was said to shoot one-handed from the hip - and hit his target. His wife had a boating accident in the ornamental lake and suffered a miscarriage. From then on she locked herself away in her bedroom, refusing to speak to her husband and dedicated herself to breeding white mice. Then there is Catherine, who was brought up with Queen Elizabeth I. She is said to have killed one of her four husbands by pouring molten lead into his ear while he was asleep. And there is Maria Stella, Lady Newborough, who should have been a French princess, as she explained in a book about her extraordinary life.

The reason there are so many stories to tell is not simply due to the Wynnes' eventful past. It is a result of every generation passing on the family history for 1,000 years - the length of time the family has inhabited Garthewin. Today the tales are passed on by Menna MacBain, the daughter of a Wynne and the present custodian of Garthewin.

Mrs MacBain recalls a wild childhood, which she and her sisters spent tricking maids and cooks and sending a stream of nannies and governesses away on a tide of mischief. What is astonishing is that these are not the memories of an elderly grande dame. Mrs MacBain is 52 and is talking about life in the Fifties.

Garthewin was once an estate of 15,000 acres including the village of Llanfair Talhaiarn, five miles from the coast of north Wales. Little is known of the first dwelling to occupy the site, sheltered halfway up a south-facing hill near Abergele, in a bowl of greenness. Its history will be clearer when Thomas Roberts, the archivist at Bangor University, has finished his trawl through the family's papers.

The first written records refer to the house in the 14th century. The Elizabethan house which replaced it was knocked down, as was the Jacobean house which came next. Today Garthewin is basically in its 18th-century manifestation, with a few 20th-century additions from Clough Williams- Ellis, the creator of nearby Portmeirion.

But whatever the official age of the property at the centre of the estate, this is an ancient place. It is, officially, the home of the Clan, the Eighth Noble Tribe of North Wales, founded in the 9th century by the Lord of Brynffanigl, Marchudd ap Cynon. Looking out of the windows at the front of the house it is hard to imagine the view has changed much since his lordship arrived.

When Mrs MacBain dies she would like her ashes to be scattered over the hills which surround the house, where she rode on horseback as a girl. Nearly 1,000 acres still belong to the estate, including a medieval oak wood which straddles the valley. She recalls being driven down to pick strawberries in the walled garden as a child. "I remember carrying them all the way back even more clearly," she said. "My mother used to say we had to sell punnets of strawberries to help the family funds. Even then I thought we'll need a bit more than that."

She was right. Garthewin became too expensive to keep decades ago, but Mrs MacBain persuaded her parents not to sell. She was one of the first students to go on a new Farm Institute course for women, which she hoped would train her how to run the estate. "It was hopeless," she sighs. "All they taught was needlework and cookery, which I loathed. They were teaching us how to be farmers' wives. Now I can see I should have gone to the City and made loads of money."

Her father had inherited the estate, but no money to go with it. He was a sensitive, poetic man, totally unsuited to a life on the land. He brought artists and thinkers to Garthewin and created a theatre in the large barn behind the house, which is still used for special performances.

When the family finances became desperate, they sold off parcels of land and cottages. "I was determined to dedicate myself to the house," said Mrs MacBain. "I was brought up with the idea that we must keep it. My mother saw it as a family duty and I never stopped to ask why."

The old library was also sold. It was situated a few hundred yards down the drive, away from the main house. "There were a lot of enthusiastic parties in the house, so people went down to the library for a bit of peace and quiet." Most of the old books have gone to Jesus College, Oxford, but a few leather-bound volumes remain in the house, including a Book of Common Prayer from 1694.

Although it is at the centre of a large estate, the house at Garthewin is not overwhelmingly grand. Its rooms are spacious and there are many of them, but it is not of a scale to deter seekers of large family homes. It retains many of its old features, including fireplaces and panelling. And there is Mr Wynne's dressing-room, the dove room, the yellow room, the boudoir and Bedlam, the family name for the children's nursery. Best of all is the row of servants' bells.

The estate was almost sold in 1913 by Mrs MacBain's dotty great uncle. The details describe a "fine and interesting old mansion with pleasure grounds, park, woodlands and meadows and long stretches of rivers noted for their salmon and trout fishing." The current details describe a very similar property.

Mrs MacBain is selling because she has tried every way of making the house pay and has come to the end of the road. She is no longer sad at the idea of having to leave. "In a way it will be quite a relief."

In the gardens of Garthewin that world seems very remote, though it is only a few miles away. The only noises come from the rooks in the trees by the old fruit wall. "My mother would never let anyone shoot them," Mrs MacBain recalls. "When I hear the sound of rooks I always think of Garthewin."

The Garthewin Estate is being sold by Strutt & Parker in Chester (01244 320747). The price for the whole estate is £1.25m; £500,000 for the house plus 230 acres.