Historic Landscape Characterisation

Dolgellau - Area 11 Nannau estate (PRN 19190)



Historic background

Nannau is included as a grade II* site in the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales (PGW (Gd) 34 (GWY), Cadw/ICOMOS, 1998). The area delineated as the character area replicates the area shown in the Register.

It is a site of ancient origins, situated a few kilometres to the north-east of Dolgellau, high up on the west flank of Foel Offrwm mountain. There is a record of a house being built here in the eleventh century. In the early fifteenth century it is supposed to have been the home of a cousin of Owain Glyndwr, Howel Sele. The highly romantic story of the murder of Howel Sele appealed to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tourists and was retold by many of them.

The present house is over 230 m (almost 750 ft) above sea level, being described by Thomas Pennant in 1784 as 'perhaps the highest situation of any gentleman's house in Great Britain'. It is a three-storey, late-eighteenth-century stone house, square in plan, built of dressed blocks of local dark grey stone, with a shallow-pitched slate roof. The centre part of the main front is recessed, and the windows in the recessed part have sandstone surrounds; there is also a classical portico with columns, again sandstone. All the extensions and outbuildings attached to the rear of the house have been demolished, but the cellars survive.

Whether the original house was in fact in the deer park or on the present site is uncertain, but the house was probably destroyed by Glyndwr during his revolt. A new house was built in the early seventeenth century and was rebuilt on the same site in the 1690s; some traces of this building remain in the present house. The next rebuilding was about a century later, and this house has survived intact, although the pavilion wings, designed by Joseph Broomfield and added in 1805, have been relatively recently demolished.

Nannau first became important (after Howel Sele's unfortunate end) as the seat of the Nanney family, who were politically prominent and successful; the early seventeenth-century house was built by Hugh Nanney Hen and its 1690s replacement by his descendant Col. Hugh Nanney. After this there may have been financial difficulties, as the house was mortgaged in 1736; later in the century the estate passed to a relative, Robert Hywel Vaughan. Created a baronet in 1791, he built the present house in 1794-96, and his son, Sir Richard Williams Vaughan, added the pavilion wings in 1805 and was responsible for most of the estate buildings.

The 1901 OS map shows Nannau much as it is today. The areas immediately north and east of the house are shown as gardens, the woodlands (particularly Coed y Groes and Coed y Moch) are the same, as are the expanse of the deer park and the kennels, pheasantry, fish pond, Howel-Sele lodge, and field boundaries. Foel Faner is shown, but Precipice Walk is not.

Nannau remained in the hands of the Vaughans (including a branch of the family called Pritchard who changed their name to Vaughan) until the house was sold in the 1960s. It has been sold twice more since then.

Key historic landscape characteristics

Nannau contains the remains of an extensive late-eighteenth-century landscape park, with an earlier walled deer park and scenic walk, formerly one of the largest and highest areas of designed landscape in Wales. There are surviving fragments of ancient woodland with the remains of an extensive path/ride system, two walled kitchen gardens, a small walled ornamental area and lawned grounds with ponds. It also has a range of interesting and varied built features.

The deer park is probably originally medieval. It is inextricably involved in the tale of the murder of Howel Sele, which relates to the beginning of the fifteenth century. The core of the present park is likely to have been laid out in the seventeenth century, but its enlargement into the great romantic designed landscape of which substantial remnants survive today is likely to have taken place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Nannau park is well known for its extent and height. Thomas Roscoe in 1838 stated that 'the chief attraction of the spot lies in the beauty and romantic traditions of the park'. It is situated on a ridge between the rivers Mawddach and Wnion, about 3 km north-north-east of Dolgellau. The terrain is rocky and uneven, not perhaps an obvious choice for conversion to parkland, but the dramatic setting of the house, with a rugged backdrop of mountains and forests when viewed from the south (that is, from the main approach), is striking. The house is not so much set in its park as set in the landscape, the park being fitted around both. However, it does face south-east over a small area of home park to the walled deer park. The creation of an extensive area of designed landscape out of this romantic, but unpromising, terrain was a significant achievement.

The integrity of the site has been affected by the passage of time, and it cannot now realistically all be included within the designated area. However, much of the area lying outside the boundary is still visibly parkland, and looking back from Llanfachraeth in particular it is possible to see how far up the hillsides the parkland extended, and how comprehensive was the vision of the designer.

The part of the park which falls within the designated area (the actual extent of Nannau-related land is very difficult to determine, although the distinctive vernacular architecural style extends well beyong the character area) is about half woodland and half parkland. The parkland is mostly used for grazing and the woodland is commercially managed, although the survival rate of old trees and small areas of ancient woodland in the parkland is good. The lake to the west of the house (Llyn Cynwch) is also included, as is the well-known footpath Precipice Walk.

Robert Hywel Vaughan and Sir Richard Williams Vaughan, particularly the latter, at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth, made enormous changes and spent vast amounts of money on the estate; their time is known as 'the golden age of Nannau'. Clearly the deer park and other elements of the designed landscape already existed, but the enlargement of the park, layout of the grounds, construction of the lodges, gates, arches and eyecatchers, and the planting of enormous numbers of trees, can be laid at the door of Sir Richard Williams Vaughan. Some of the work was undertaken to alleviate the problems of unemployment following the Napoleonic wars, which may provide a partial explanation for the construction of miles of paths and drives and the erection of fanciful buildings and structures, but Williams Vaughan was clearly a man of vision, with ideas both grand and idiosyncratic, and the means to realise them.

The home farm is close to the road from Dolgellau to Llanfachraeth, and the drive leading to this is now also used as the main approach to the house; the drive branches off just beyond the former kitchen garden, which adjoins the farm. The original main drive, c. 1.5 km long, approached from the south, through the wood called Coed-y-moch from the lodge of the same name. The drive is now disused and the lodge is a private house.

One of the principal features of this particular landscape is Precipice Walk, a circular walk whose start and finish point is at SH740213. The walk, which extends around the lower slopes of Foel Cynwch and offers superb views over the Mawddach valley, to the mountains and sea beyond, is now very popular with the general public.

The original park was very extensive and undefined, blending into designed estate land and then natural landscape. The whole designed area included the deer park, tracts of woodland and areas of open moorland as well as parkland in the sense of large, grazed enclosures dotted with planted specimen trees. As the park is now fragmented and not well preserved, the largest areas of the latter type of parkland fall outside the site boundary. The areas which remain within the designated area are not large, and are scattered and very variable.

The main deer park lies some way to the south of the house, south-east of Hen Ardd and Howel Sele Lodge. It is a large expanse of fairly rough grazing, with bracken and other coarse vegetation, on a rocky hillside. The deer park wall still stands and is mostly in reasonable condition. The former drive across the deer park is disused but has a hard surface under grass, and is at least partly usable by ordinary vehicles. Pennant mentions that the Nannau venison was 'very small, but very excellent'. The deer park contains two fish ponds, shown on old maps and still containing water, though they are now silting up fast and becoming overgrown.

There is a small, square, stone-built tower, known as the 'watch tower', in the deer park on the hillside just east of Hen Ardd, south of Howel Sele Lodge. This is said to have been used as a lookout point to obtain advance warning of the arrival of visitors, a signal being sent to the house when they were seen. It seems more likely to have been chiefly a folly or eyecatcher, possibly intervisible with the 'summer house' outside the park to the south.

Nannau park was once characterised by large tracts of woodland, much of it ancient natural woodland which had been little altered apart from the addition, and later felling, of fairly widely spaced conifers. Some areas even escaped this. Other areas, mainly near the house, were enhanced by the addition of different varieties of trees. Fairly extensive areas of woodland remain today, but commercial pressures have meant that some plantations have been felled and replaced with sitka spruce and other fast-growing conifers, while other areas have not been replanted at all. Some small areas of ancient woodland have, however, survived. Coed-y-moch itself is probably based on natural oak woodland, and the name (Pig Wood) is suggestive, harking back to the time when pigs would have been turned out to forage in woodland. In the nineteenth century it was mostly mixed woodland, with some remaining deciduous, and the areas near the house and alongside the drive had added varieties of trees, and underplanting. It now has blocks of commercial conifers amongst older mixed woodland, and an area alongside the road has recently been clear-felled.

The layout of the grounds is very simple for the most part, designed to fit in with the surrounding parkland and the natural landscape. There is no formal garden near the house and very little structure, apart from the kitchen garden, but the fact that this was open on the house side suggests that its function was partly ornamental; the rest is mostly lawned, with groups of trees and shrubs. Roscoe, in 1838, waxed lyrical on the subject of the kitchen garden but did not mention the pleasure grounds.

There are two former kitchen gardens, both now completely disused. One lies at an inconvenient distance from the house (almost 1 km by the shortest route) and the cottage by it is known as Hen Ardd ('old garden'), so it is probable that the other garden, which is very close to the house, is later, and it eventually seems to have superseded the older garden.

Actual dating is fairly straightforward. Thomas Roscoe, writing in 1838, describes a garden with greenhouses and hothouses 'formed and laid out at extraordinary expense'; this remark tends to suggest the garden in question had been made fairly recently, and there does not ever seem to have been any glass in the old garden (none is shown on the 1889 map, nor are there any likely remains), so it is probable that Roscoe was describing the 'new' garden, which must therefore date from fairly shortly before 1838. It is not shown on the estate map of 1818.

A pillar now against the west wall of the old garden (moved from slightly further in) marks the spot where the Derwen Ceubren yr Ellyll, or Howel Sele's Oak, once stood. On the 1889 map a sundial, now gone, is indicated near this point.


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