I WAS following a winding path through a vaporous mist with only the vaguest knowledge as to where it might lead.
Suddenly, from the murk, a walker appeared at my shoulder.
Did I know Newton House? he asked.
I had heard of it, I said, and knew it to be out this way somewhere, albeit that I was following the path more in hope than expectation.
It would be worth me calling there, he said… if I had the time. How was I travelling? he enquired.
On foot, obviously, for this part, I responded, and then homeward, later, by train or bus.
The house would be a good place to stop, he said – and, if I wanted them, I would find refreshments there.
He began guiding me through woodland of the tangled kind, the two of us keeping a watchful eye on our footing as we trod a moist, earthen path. Our way led inward, so it seemed.
Eventually my companion set me on a track, advising that if I climbed it I would meet the long drive to the mansion. He then made off into the wet trees.
After walking alone for a while – beside a bank overhung by roots – I reached an empty, metalled road.
Beyond it lay a great acreage of open parkland in which small copses clustered on ridges and mounds. Mist shrouded the land that lay further, fingering its way into the park – attractive, I can believe, on a fine summer’s day, but now dank and rather desolate, to my eyes at least.
The light, if anything, was more leaden than when I had entered the wood, and, now that I was out in the open, a steady drizzle received me.
Standing on the road, I realised I didn’t know whether to turn right or left. I chose left, thinking it, for some reason, the way that would carry me deeper, away from the rest of Wales.
After a short while of walking Newton House came into sight.
It’s a curious-looking property. Centuries of tampering have left it with a boxy, symmetrical appearance. Ugly would be too harsh a word, but it is, I think, not pretty (in terms of what pretty usually means).
I walked on, at times passing the carcass-like forms of large trees whose fleshy, orange-hued wood stood exposed after various accidents or acts of surgery; branches and trunks contorted in strange twists and spears.
Under a heavy, stone porch, I pushed open Newton’s wooden door and let myself in.
The first thing that struck me was the dimness – the reception hall (and those rooms that lay off it) enfolded in that gloaming-like light that seems the hallmark of all truly ancient houses – though allowance must be made for the genuine drabness of that day; also, perhaps, the excessive way in which so many locations nowadays are lit – supermarkets, classrooms, filling stations, shopping malls, even some libraries – all scrambling our sense of what is natural (in the way that songbirds sing by streetlamps at night).
Newton House is nothing if not ancient. Neolithic and Roman remains have been found in its park. Nearby stand the ruins of Dinefwr Castle, once home of the powerful Lord Rhys.
The castle and house were once occupied by a succession of notable Welsh families. The parkland – laid out by Capability Brown – is home to a herd of rare White Park cattle, a breed associated with several legends. According to one, a Welsh noblewoman abused by her husband led her herd away from him and into the waters of a lake.
Hauntings in a place of such antiquity seem entirely logical. The present guardians of the property – the National Trust – make some ‘play’ of its phantoms. These allegedly include a butler – signalled by the aroma of his pipe tobacco – who is said to haunt the servants’ basement (on Sundays). Meanwhile, the tragedy of Lady Eleanor Cavendish, strangled by a jealous lover, is said to be the source of other paranormal activity. A sensation of choking is said to have been reported by some visitors while climbing a staircase.
Less sensationally, one can certainly imagine other past occupants of the house still going about their business: maids cleaning fireplaces… valets placing suits on hangers.
Newton was once a hospital for war-wounded servicemen – an upstairs room contains two grey-blanketed beds. To see soldiers still rising from them would, I think, be perfectly natural.
(Cont. next column)