Wynford Vaughan Thomas’s words, written in 1976, still ring true – Penrice Castle and the surrounding Estate has survived an era of change in this country relatively untouched and provides a beautiful and peaceful haven away from modern life.
The Estate came into the family’s ownership after the Norman conquest of the Gower peninsular in the twelfth century. One of the Norman knights was given the land around what is now Penrice village for his part in the conquest and took the name of de Penrice. Although the Estate has passed by marriage several times and suffered a partial break up in the 1950s, the core of the land around Penrice Castle and the village has remained in the family ever since and we have now lived here for twenty nine generations.
After the Norman Conquest, an earthwork castle was built near present day Penrice village, behind the cottage of Sea View. With developments in castle building, this structure became redundant by the early thirteenth century and was replaced by the stone built castle which still stands today overlooking the family’s Georgian mansion. The male line of the de Penrice family died out in 1410, with the marriage of Isabel de Penrice to Sir Hugh Mansel; the Mansels were also of Norman descent and continued to live at Penrice until the mid fifteenth century when they built themselves Oxwich Castle, a semi-fortified manor house nearer the sea. The Mansels rose to prominence at court and became the most powerful family in Glamorgan, to the extent that on the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s they were able to buy the vast monastic lands of Margam Abbey, near what is now Port Talbot. The Mansels built themselves a mansion around the former abbey buildings and established Margam as their main seat in South Wales.
Throughout the ensuing centuries, the land around Penrice and the rest of the Gower Estate was rented out; Penrice Old Castle was effectively abandoned and a farmhouse was built to its south west by the tenants that rented the surrounding land.
In the mid eighteenth century, however, the male line of the Mansel line failed and the Margam and Penrice Estates passed by marriage to the Talbot family of Laycock Abbey in Wiltshire. By the 1770s the Estates belonged to the young Thomas Mansel Talbot, newly returned from
the Grand Tour, on which he had spent a great deal
of time in Italy where he developed a love of
classical architecture and the fine arts. He was
also taken with the growing contemporary
taste for wild and picturesque scenery; this
in itself drew him away from Margam to
Penrice which he described as “the most
romantic spot in all the county.” As a result
he decided to build himself a neo-classical villa
at Penrice and this was completed in the mid 1770s to the design of the architect Anthony Keck. Keck built several houses in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire and was noted for his restrained and sophisticated style. Nicholas Kingsley, the architectural historian, has suggested that Keck may have been the original architect of Highgrove.
As the house was finished, Thomas Talbot set about landscaping and laying out a park around it, to improve the romantic scenery that had first attracted him to the place. For this he chose the landscape designer William Emes, who had studied under Capability Brown. Emes designed the lakes, paths, walks, kitchen gardens and tree planting that can be seen today. The pleasure gardens and orangery, as well as the folly gatehouse known as the Towers, were added in the 1790s. The terrace around the house was built by Thomas Talbot’s granddaughter, Emily Charlotte Talbot, in the 1890s.
The house was extended twice in the nineteenth century and remained the family’s main seat until the 1830s, when C.R.M. Talbot, Thomas Talbot’s son, built a larger neo-Gothic house at Margam. Margam then became the family’s main home again, with Penrice only being used for occasional visits and for shooting parties.
In 1918 Emily Talbot, the last member of the family to live at and own both Margam and Penrice, died. A spinster, she left the Margam Estate to her nephew and Penrice to her niece, Lady Blythswood, who was my great-grandmother. Much of the Estate’s land was sold off in the early 1950s to pay death duties and by the time of Lady Blythswood’s death in 1958 the house and park had fallen into some disrepair. In the following decades, restoration work was carried out by Christopher Methuen-Campbell, my father and Lady Blythswood’s grandson. He cleared large overgrown areas on the terrace and in the pleasure gardens and planted them up with trees, shrubs and spring bulbs, many of which have thrived. The late Georgian and Victorian sections of the house were demolished in the 1960s to be replaced by a paved rose garden. In the past twenty five years, many of the traditional cottages and houses owned by the family have been converted into holiday homes.
Cottage visitors are welcome to walk around the park and gardens at Penrice and also have free access to nearby Oxwich Bay car park owned by the Estate.
We hope that our visitors will enjoy and appreciate Penrice and Gower as my family has done for generations.