The secrets of the house of Harlech
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
To reach Glyn Cywarch, an imposing Jacobean house in the county of Gwynedd, one can either drive – it’s around a five-hour trip by car from London – or take a more perambulatory route by train. The journey requires multiple changes but, in return, passengers are treated to a fierce and ancient landscape, offering views that are, on one side, mountainous and craggy and, on the other, pristine strand.
This part of North Wales, where it is common to hear Welsh spoken as a first language, conjures a bygone era; a world of tea trolleys and ticket inspectors and pretty stations in which families are disgorged at timely intervals towards the beach. At Harlech, one can visit Harlech Castle, built by Edward I in the late 13th century and eventually the last mainland royal fortress to surrender to the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. Its ruins are now owned by Cadw (the Welsh environmental service) and the place is rich in legend: “Men of Harlech”, about the seven-year siege of the 1460s, is considered the unofficial Welsh anthem.
The track continues along yet more bucolic coastline: the famous Italianate village of Portmeirion sits close to a later stop. Before alighting at Tygwyn, a stop marked by a tiny carriage-length of platform, one must alert the driver so that they can halt the train.
Waiting on the platform stands Amanda Harlech, creative consultant, stylist, writer and curator. The daughter of the Jerwood Foundation chairman Alan Grieve and his first wife, Anne Dulake, she is best known for being the confidante, collaborator and muse to Karl Lagerfeld, with whom she worked at Chanel from 1997 until the designer’s death in 2019. Previously, she fulfilled a similar role at John Galliano, where she was instrumental in shaping the designer’s early shows. She currently works closely with Kim Jones and Silvia Venturini Fendi at Fendi, where she worked also with Lagerfeld. Now 65, with raven hair and wolfish eyes, she cuts a striking figure on the platform. In a navy cotton dress by Jean Muir, and wearing no make-up, she radiates a chic froideur.
“You made it, you must be exhausted,” she exclaims, as though I’ve undertaken a tremendous voyage. She has that no-nonsense bravura one associates with English country dames. She walks me to the car to make the five-minute journey to Glyn Cywarch, barrelling up a bumpy driveway to arrive at the back entrance of the house.
Harlech has invited me on an inaugural visit to the house that she and her daughter Tallulah have been renovating, a project that has taken the best part of the past six years. The place is now available to rent for groups, or families, or people looking to immerse themselves in the North Welsh landscape and its lore.
Glyn Cywarch means the Valley of Hemp in Welsh: the area produced rope for the ships that came into Porthmadog, once a major trading port. The 5,000-acre estate originally belonged to a branch of the Wynn family, and the present house was built for William and Kathryn Wynn in 1616. Coflein, the database for the National Monuments Record of Wales, describes it as “an ambitious gentry house of renaissance character”. Its walls are as thick as an arm, its wooden beams colossal and its fireplaces huge.
It sits in one of the oldest unspoilt panoramas in Britain, in a microclimate that is unusually warm. Glyn Cywarch is wholly located within the national park of Snowdonia: you can see the peaks of the mountain in the distance, while lush ancient woodland shrouds the lower hills. When I visit, the country is enjoying a long heatwave and North Wales has seen two weeks of constant sun. Amanda is fretting that the lack of rain will imperil her newly planted fern garden, but the scents of rose and lavender are made more pungent by the humid currents in the air.
The house has 11 bedrooms and sleeps 18 people, as well as having spacious living rooms, a massive kitchen and a Jacobean dining hall. One of several properties owned by Francis Orsmby Gore, the 6th Baron Harlech and Amanda’s former husband, Glyn was part of the inheritance that went to their son Jasset following the baron’s death in 2016. Prior to their divorce in the late ’90s, Amanda had spent “the Christmas and Easter holidays at Glyn and the whole of the summer – so roughly six months every year”. The family would migrate from their home in Shropshire with a menagerie of animals and friends. Tallulah, 35, remembers holidays romping around the woodlands. “We weren’t allowed to go abroad when we were children. So every summer we would arrive en masse at Glyn. We’d come down for the whole summer and it was a massive undertaking. Mum would drive down with the horses, the dogs and tons of food.” It all sounds very Arthur Ransome, except their holidays sometimes included other people, such as famous photographers and supermodels like Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, who would turn up and do a shoot. Says Amanda: “Friends would bring their children and we would picnic at the waterfalls or ride our horses down to the estuary at low tide to gallop on the beach.”
In later decades the house became a mausoleum. Tallulah describes her late father as an alcoholic whose depression turned him into a recluse. When the family revisited Glyn following Francis’s death in 2016, they discovered a house piled up with troves of family ephemera, hoards of furniture and cupboards still hung with Amanda’s clothes. The inheritance came with an urgent need for renovation: Francis was the third generation of the family to have died in quick succession, and the Harlech children were liable for a huge and unforgiving tax. “We were ambushed by inheritance issues,” says Tallulah. They were offered little choice. As Amanda puts it: “Do you sell the chattels, or do you sell the house?”
The family had an estate sale with Bonhams, which included Elizabethan furniture, archive jewellery and some Old Masters, to raise funds to start the hall’s restoration – a legal requirement as it is a listed building that had fallen into total disrepair. It was an urgent and overwhelming undertaking. “We inherited a shipwreck,” says Tallulah, “and we had to make it watertight.”
Mother and daughter are sitting in the kitchen, recounting their experience. They share an uncanny likeness, with the same lithe, bird-like proportions and high-boned, patrician looks. No surprise their personalities have informed the interiors. The house they have now completed, while comfortable, is splendidly austere.
The house was last decorated in the ’70s, overseen by David, 5th Baron Harlech and the print-loving Pamela. In their endeavour to return Glyn to its bare-boned beauty, the pair have expunged any evidence of chintz. Amanda describes the decorative scheme as “Jacobean but with 21st-century materials”: the walls are pale, the kitchen joinery is lacquered black. The same scheme runs through the downstairs, which is similarly monochromatic and flagged with big slate tiles. “We wanted to replicate the colours of chalk, parchment and wood smoke,” says Amanda. “The colours [by Keim mineral paint] were chosen very specifically for each room.”
Upstairs, the bedrooms are furnished simply, but each features a sumptuous, linen-covered bed. And while an Elizabethan Room (so named partly “because Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip slept there on their honeymoon tour”) and a yellow “Coronet Room” feature rare breakaways of colour, the tones in general are elegant and cool. Mostly, they used local and master builders to meet the building’s listed, planning and ecological needs. Iddon Davies, a master joiner, worked on the carpentry, and Matthew Baynham, of Gwent Lime Plastering, was tasked with recreating the traditional finish on the walls. Says Amanda: “We loved the colour and tone so much that we left the lime plasterwork unpainted but sealed in the attic bedrooms and the yoga room.” The hemp insulation has been sculpted into smooth contours. Says Amanda: “There were no sharp edges in the 17th century.”
Otherwise, the aesthetic choices are very much Amanda and Tallulah’s. “We would have loved to have got Rose Uniacke to oversee things,” says Tallulah, “but, on our budget, there really wasn’t any choice but to do everything ourselves.” Much of the furniture was re-purposed from what they found in the outbuildings or sourced by Tallulah on Etsy and Vinterior – she recalls hours spent scrolling for wall sconces and the occasional horror of ordering something that turned up completely the wrong size. Amanda helped mastermind the wood panelling in the main hall, which was “cobbled together” from bits of oak they salvaged from the stables. In the Long Room, a plaster overmantel has been cleaned of smoke dirt to reveal the flanking figures of Adam and Eve, her fig leaf dated 1638.
Whispers of past inhabitants are found in the upstairs bedrooms. In the Elizabethan Room, a further overmantel depicts heraldic crests. In the “Poets’ Room”, an inscription – “Let me doe noe things Lord but what may tend to thy… glory and my end” – is believed to be the work of Ellis Wynn, the clergyman and author of the Welsh-prose classic “The Visions of the Sleeping Bard”. No one can attribute it with 100 per cent assurance, but he was certainly a relation, and the story has a persuasive charm. Up in the attic is a nest of little bedrooms. One is reminded of E Nesbit stories or perhaps CS Lewis’s Narnia adventures: this is the land of dragons, after all.
As evening approaches, we go on a quick tramp around the grounds: the rose garden is in full flower, and the fernery, planted under the supervision of the landscape designer Sarah Husband, is starting to take hold. To the right of the property, a sunken walled garden is lined with espaliered lime trees – the 17th-century symmetry lends a rigour to a landscape that is otherwise quite wild. The rest of the walk is thick with bracken, rhododendrons and woodland. At the top of a hill, a somewhat neglected folly looks over the boundary of the land.
If I had time, Amanda would take me on her favourite adventure. “The walk to the string of lakes about an hour and a half up through the park and the ffridds into the foothills,” she tells me in typically Romantic style. “You walk into the wilderness of rock laced by brackish streams – a bogland carpeted with wetland flora and butterflies. The lakes lie like circles of moonlight below the tidal rise of the mountains. The water is the softest I have ever swum in and completely crystal clear.”
Over dinner, talk switches between the property, Tallulah’s childhood and the things that have shaped Amanda’s career. She recounts stories about Chanel and of holidaying with Karl Lagerfeld and his entourage in Biarritz, where the designer kept a summer home. Lagerfeld was always intrigued by Amanda’s life as a country lady but, despite threatening to visit, he never made it to her Shropshire home. The pair were very close but he was private: his refusal to discuss his cancer meant that his death in 2019 came as a shocking blow.
Glyn has offered Amanda some distance to think about her new move, and grieve her mentor. She has also spent more time with her children. Jasset, 37, now the 7th Baron Harlech, was voted into the House of Lords in July 2021, via a hereditary peers’ by-election, becoming at the time the youngest member of the House. He has also served as a Lord in Waiting since September 2022. Amanda shows me a picture of him at the King’s Coronation: smart in his blood-red uniform, he sits in prime position just beside the choir. Tallulah studied acting at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute before working as a stylist; diagnosed with psoriasis when she was nine, she is now working on a range of clothing that can be worn on even the most sensitive of skin.
Amanda’s relationship with Chanel, never easy to articulate, is now more opaque than when Lagerfeld was at the helm. But she played a role in the recent Lagerfeld show at The Metropolitan Museum in New York, where she installed a replica of his overflowing desk. With Glyn now ready for new visitors, Amanda is thinking about what she might do next. Having always done creative writing, she is hoping to write something, fictional or otherwise, about her extraordinary career.
That night, I retreat into the Elizabethan bedroom and sink into a gigantic bed. Through the curtainless window, lightning illuminates the valley, while great big roils of thunder roll across the bay. It feels marvellously gothic and very appropriate for Glyn. Lying in this stately room, with its overmantel and fancy carvings, I can easily imagine myself as a Jacobean châtelaine, albeit one with electric bed lights, high-speed WiFi and a bath.
Amanda hopes that people will discover Glyn just as she did with her family. She wants the house to pulse with occupation, and for people to embrace the “outdoorsy” charm of the estate. The next morning, over breakfast, she becomes a little lachrymose. Tallulah has spotted a tiny Mexican diorama on the windowsill – Amanda was rooting around the gatehouse and couldn’t help but liberate the small decorative detail. “Mum,” she growls, as she immediately bans such personal accessories. “You mustn’t become too emotionally attached.” Amanda promises that she is more than ready to share their former home with newcomers, but it’s touchingly apparent she still feels a deep connection to the house.
A last trip to the gatehouse offers a glimpse of the next phase of renovations. The walls still boast Pamela Harlech’s floral wallpapers, the “billiard room” is stacked with various bits of dusty furniture and there are alarming patches of damp. Even so, the rooms have a melancholy beauty, and when Amanda discovers a tiny, dead swallow on the windowsill, the bird is still so perfectly preserved that one might imagine it a prop. We bury it in the garden, and I make plans to catch the train.
More than anything, Amanda and Tallulah hope that Glyn will hum with people. “This was always a house that needed people,” says Amanda. “And it gives me a huge sense of happiness to think that people will stay here again.” She takes a deep breath of that sweet Welsh air and smiles: “Each time the house is filled with people it doesn’t want to let us go.”