Sunday, 3 December 2017

Hay History Group Day Out - The Thomas Shop and Abbey-Cwm-Hir Hall

It was a small group that set off for the Thomas shop on Wednesday morning - but we had a brilliant time!
The Thomas Shop is at Penybont, near Llandrindod Wells. It was a shop owned for many years by the Thomas family, and it sold all sorts of things. The shop museum has recreated an impression of what it must have looked like.
The owner gave us a talk about the shop while we were sitting in the café (the Victoria sponge was delicious, and made by his son, who also does the laser cut keyrings and so on that were for sale). He said that they're not actually sure what the original shop, set up by Edward Price in 1730, sold - or why it was set up in that particular location. There was no village then, though they may have been selling goods and cider to the drovers. His son John Price built up the business, and did so well that he built Penybont Hall (and a pub called the Fleece), and became a member of the local gentry. He was also one of the first bankers in Wales.
Later the Thomas family took over the shop, and took advantage of the growth of nearby Llandrindod Wells by opening another shop there, the Central Wales Emporium, and a steam laundry in 1905. The Central Wales Emporium was the largest department store in Wales, and William Thomas had 8 tailors working for him at the Thomas shop. Twenty people worked in the laundry. Where we were sitting, in the café, had been the main room of the laundry, with a trap door in the ceiling where the clothes were sent upstairs to the pressing room. The entrance, where the counter is, originally held the steam engine which powered the machines in the laundry.
The pressing room is now the Wool Emporium, with all sorts of knitted and fabric goods for sale.
We were allowed to wander wherever we liked in the shop, and inspect all the things on display - many of which have been donated. We were also shown the Meeting House, which is now used for self-catering holidays. The main house, at the other end of the range of buildings, is a B&B. There's also the drying room of the laundry, now divided up into workshops.
Entrance to the Thomas shop is free, and it really is worth a visit. You have to be quite sharp eyed to spot the signs, though - there's a narrow alleyway to a car park at the back of the buildings. We shot past and had to turn round at the edge of the village.

It's only a short drive from Penybont to Abbey-Cwm-Hir Hall, which was built just up the hillside from the medieval abbey - you can see the ruins as you turn up the drive.
There was a coach there when we arrived, and another party which came round with us. They do guided tours of the entire house, and the cost is £16, or £14 for parties of more than eight. Children under 12 are charged £5, and it's also £5 to see the gardens only.
The main attraction at this time of year is the Christmas decorations. The house has 52 rooms, and each one is decorated in a different style - and they allow visitors to go everywhere, even though it's also a family home. The Hall is carpeted throughout, apart from the Victorian tiles in the entrance hall - and the first thing they ask you to do when you arrive is to take off your shoes. BRING SLIPPERS! We had not been warned about this, so went round in our socks. Shoes and coats are kept in the Garden Room, a modern addition to the house round the back, which is also full of things that the family have collected, and is also a café.
They have tried to restore the house to its original Victorian glory as much as possible, and I found it interesting that previous owners included a Victorian cotton manufacturer from Manchester, and a Mrs Chamberlain from Birmingham (related to the 1930s Prime Minister). From one window, the original local school can be seen - but the owner at the time didn't like the noise the children made, so built a new school further away from the house!
They have collected a lot of interesting things - old advertising signs, tobacco tins, dolls' houses, interesting furniture - and china. Lots and lots of beautiful china - the owner used to work for Royal Doulton. They have also done most of the work on the Hall with local craftsmen - the lady taking us round said she came to make curtains for them, and never left!
There are also 12 pictures of the Hall through the ages around the walls, by a local artist who mainly does pen and ink drawings of wildlife, some of which were also on view. More pictures, upstairs, were of ocean liners and Second World War aircraft - the owners saw one for sale when they stopped at a café and bought the artist's entire collection!
I think my favourite room was the snooker room, with an enormous snooker table in the middle, and an Arthurian theme around the walls, with two suits of armour (though one is pierced with holes to put a light inside) and various taxidermy animals. There's also an impressive collection of vintage children's books with pictorial bindings in the study, quite a few of which came from Hay. In fact, they said they visit Hay quite a bit, and in the cellars (also carpeted) was a life size ceramic standard poodle in bright pink which I recognised from one of the antique shops in Hay.

Although the owners have saved a lot of things that would otherwise have been thrown away, some of their choices shocked members of our group. For instance, they painted a mahogany table white!, and in the master bedroom, they cut the front posts off a four poster bed because they couldn't see the telly! (They kept the posts, just in case they wanted to put them back, and the top of the bed is now attached to the wall with chains).

The house is set in 12 acres of grounds, in the narrow and steep sided valley - though we didn't get to see them while we were there - the gardens are only open from March to the end of September. They also close for the whole month of October - it takes them that long to decorate all the rooms for Christmas! And they close from 7th January to the end of February - to take the decorations down again (though that doesn't take as long as putting them up!).

So we had a fantastic day out - and drove home with the most amazing vivid orange sunset over the hills.

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