Plas yn Rhiw

On the way from Aberdaron to Harlech we stopped to look round the gardens at Plas yn Rhiw,  a 16th century small manor house near the village of Rhiw, restored to its former glory by the three Keating sisters who bought it in 1938. The grounds, which have great views over Hell’s Mouth and Cardigan Bay, also include ornamental gardens which contain many interesting flowering trees and shrubs, with beds framed by box hedges and grass paths.

This house was continuously occupied for a thousand years and for most of that time it was in the ownership of a family that eventually took the surname Lewis. The house, which stands on the foundations of a fortified building dating back to 900AD, was originally a farmhouse, and a house of some importance, indeed it is mentioned in the court records of the 16th and 17th centuries. Over the years the house was gradually enlarged until by 1800 is assumed the structure it has today.

Sarn Rhiw by RS Thomas

So we know
she must have said something
to him–What language,
life? Oh, what language?

Thousands of years later
I inhabit a house
whose stone is the language
of its builders. Here

by the sea they said little.
But their message to the future
was: Build well. In the fire
of an evening I catch faces

staring at me. In April,
when light quickens and clouds
thin, boneless presences
flit through my room.

Will they inherit me
one day? What certainties
have I to hand on
like the punctuality

with which at the moon’s
rising, the bay breaks
into a smile as though meaning
were not the difficulty at all?

Plas yn Rhiw was bought by the Keating sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Honora, and their widowed mother Constance in 1939. They set about a comprehensive programme to save the old Welsh manor house and re-create the garden, while campaigning to protect its whole environment. They bought various smallholdings in the area to restore the estate to something of its former glory, and in 1946 in memory of their parents Constance and William Keating, the sisters donated surrounding land to the National Trust, followed by the house and further land in 1952. They continued to live there, however, until the death of the last sister Lorna in 1981.

The Keating sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Mary Honora, first came to Rhiw as children with their mother in 1904. At that time they rented a house name Pen yr Ogaf, a small cottage situated on the hillside overlooking Hell’s Mouth Bay. The house was rented from the North Wales Iron Ore and Manganese Company at the cost of £8 per year. At that time there were extensive manganese workings on Mynydd Rhiw, with tramways, overhead carriers, winding engines and jetties to carry away the ore at Porth Ysgo and Port Rhiw. Their home was in The Park, Nottingham, and their father, who had been a surveyor’s architect, had been involved in the design of Jesse Boot’s first shop in Goose Gate, Nottingham. He was unfortunately killed in a traffic accident in the 1890’s when the sisters were small children. Their mother and grandparents raised the girls. One grandfather was an accountant, the other a lace manufacturer. The sisters came regularly to Rhiw for their summer breaks, buying the house Ty Uchaf. When their mother broke her hip in 1934 whilst on holiday, they decided to live in Rhiw permanently. The frame of an old wheelchair, thought to belong to Mrs Keating has been found at Ty Uchaf by its present owners and has been preserved.

In 1939 the family were able to purchase Plas yn Rhiw which then only included 58 acres of land, and by single minded endeavour, restored the house, and repurchased much of it’s original land, to a total of over 400 acres.

Rooted in history, the garden is run along organic lines, as it was by the Keatings, and although today it’s less overgrown than it had become, many of the plants survive either in their original form, or as progeny of specimens brought in by the sisters. Large overflowing flower beds are contained by box hedges deliberately cut by the sisters in asymmetric patterns. They brought in plants from the wild such as teasles; iris pseudocrus, (which has unusual blackcurrant margins on the flowers); various poppies; myrtle; the poisonous monkshood; sheep sorrel (related to the culinary sorrel but with much smaller leaves) and foxgloves. Other ‘weeds’, such as the gardener’s nightmare, ground elder, are welcome.

Star players in the garden include the specimen Magnolia campbelli. It’s said by sources who spoke to the sisters themselves, that the tree was grown from seed Honora was given when she visited the Far East.

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