INTRODUCTION TO GRAND DECLINES

16th January 2009
IN SEARCH OF THE DERELICT MANSIONS:

In 1989, at the age of seventeen and becoming ever increasingly aware of the landscape around me, I moved to the former mansion estate of Hafod.

At around the same time I purchased my first camera and began to explore Hafod, the abandoned mining buildings at Cwmystwyth and the surrounding Cambrian Mountains.

I spent a good amount of time seeking careful compositions within the mass of rubble at the old mansion site; fragments of dressed stone work amongst the bricks, stone and mortar.

A few years later I moved to Carmarthen to study photography and became acquainted with the ruins of Aberglasney mansion. The house captured my imagination and I began to research its history, which in turn led me to Thomas Lloyd’s book ‘Lost Houses of Wales’. The fascination of this collection of lost, ruined and forgotten houses stayed with me and the following year, late 1996, I wrote to Thomas Lloyd to see if he could recommended a selection of the houses worthy of photographing.

He kindly, and quickly, responded with a list of around fifteen photogenic houses with location and contact details.

I soon began to purchase maps and research the houses I intended to photograph. At the time I was living and studying photography at Nottingham Trent University – I do not think they considered my traditional project particularly worthy of their modern approach to photography but I knew, beyond the documentation of the houses, that I would also find other finer and more beautiful aspects to photograph such as dirty windows, doorways, gloomy interiors and overgrown gardens.

Decay has, after all, fascinated writers and artists (and photographers) for centuries. I also felt that there will always be a place in the photographic world for the way I like to photograph, without gimmick or tricks and as little darkroom interference as possible, to allow the subject to speak for itself.

In late November 1996 I drove into the courtyard of Tegfynydd. The farm house stood adjacent to the high roofless walls of the old mansion house. My heart was pounding. Aberglasney had had such an emotional effect on me that I’d never really considered other houses would too. I knew as I parked and stepped out of the car that Tegfynydd also held a special atmosphere. The owner of the farm greeted me, with slight suspicion, but also with friendliness and when I asked if I would wander around his ruined house he sparkled with excitement. This came with some relief to me. He gave me a short tour and history and said he has had many artists asking to draw the house. He left me to explore and photograph the ruins. This was the introduction I needed.

Not all owners are happy that strangers take an interest in their properties. Some have been defensive and have all but chased me from their land. It is a difficult position to be in, to respect a person’s privacy and property but also to document a house before it is either demolished or falls down at nature’s will. I later sent the owner of Tegfynydd some of the photographs as a ‘Thank you’.

The next few days I also visited Iscoed, Neuadd Fawr, Bronwydd, Pembrey Cwrt, Mount Gernos (Llangynllo), Maesgwynne (Llanboidy) and a few others. Each and every owner seemed open and eager to answer any questions. Although I had covered a fair few miles and had visited and photographed some wonderful ruins the project still seemed an overwhelming one.

I continued my research and found more dilapidated houses, some in ruins, some houses uncertain of their state. It wasn’t until September the following year that I was able to find the time and resources to continue my project. This time things didn’t run quite so smoothly and almost every site I visited had been either demolished or new buildings built on old sites.

Llwynywormwood broke the decline and although little remains of the house, its location, overlooking wild parkland re-captured what I was quickly losing and that was a sense of awe and fascination. Drumau House, Aberpergwm, Blaen Baglan, Bertholey, Pencoed were all photographed, sometimes successfully other times not so.

After a long day of driving around and photographing I can clearly remember parking the car and walking up the long road to Sker House. I could see its tall gables and chimneys far on the horizon and although some half a mile away, Sker immediately filled my heart with excitement. The photographs here do not do Sker justice but I am content with the memory and the photographs I took will at least serve to remind me of these memories.

The week I had set aside was over but the following month I drove up to North Wales to visit the massive red brick stables and coach house of Lleweni. And then to Old Foxhall Newydd, standing quiet and respectful, a house never completed, in the district of Henllan. The day ended with a blustery walk up to the ruins of Gwylfa Hiraethog. This was to be the last house I photographed for a number of years. Its solitary location seemed a fitting end to the project. Of the forty sites visited about half no longer existed.

The photographs I had culminated into an exhibition ‘The Derelict Mansions of Wales’ which showed in various galleries and museums in 1998, 1999 and 2000. After many months of delivering, hanging, un-hanging and carrying around forty frames I decided to call it a day with the project.

On and off for the next few years I visited the occasional mansion site. I was always photographing during this time but had opted to return to the landscape and abstract images of peeling paint, torn signs and worn billboard posters.

It was almost by accident that I returned to the mansions. In my search for decayed walls of peeling paint I required ruined and empty buildings and whilst driving in Carmarthenshire I drove past Edwinsford Mansion (Talley).

I had visited Edwinsford some five years previous but was unable to obtain permission to enter the grounds. The house looked, from the roadside view, in a much worse state than what it did only five years ago. After a few minutes walking around its circumference, unable to find any peeling paint worth photographing, I decided to take up the ruined mansion project again.

There had been many houses I had known about but was unable to either locate or find the time to photograph the first time around. I decided to dig out all the research I had and began seeking and photographing these old mansions again.

With work commitments, and the fact I was now living in Bristol, things took, as they invariably do, a little longer than anticipated. In April and May 2005 I visited a further thirty houses. Some on my home turf, like Peterwell. Although not a large ruin, still an important country house. For those two months I lived and breathed mansions. I cycled forty miles to visit the site of Foelallt (Llandewi Briefi). The house long dismantled but it must have once been, beneath the high cliffs, a beautiful sight. The Hermitage, at the foot of the Black Mountains an inspired place, although lowly and damp. Y Siarpal, overlooking the priory at Llanthony - an unremarkable ruin in a memorable location - so little remains but the vision Walter Landor must have had cannot be, unlike his house, dismantled and demolished. Other houses, deep in urban areas, such as Hawksbury Hall (Buckley) and Malpas Court are empty and at risk from the vandals.

A special mention should also be made to Gwrych Castle and Ruperra Castle. Both important castles (though more fortified houses built for residence rather than defense from conquerors), both in terrible states of disrepair, and both a stark example of how such important, historical and architecturally, buildings can be so neglected for so long. I hope you enjoy looking at this website and if you know of any houses I may have missed please do get in touch.

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