Erddig’s story is all about relationships – those of the family, the servants and the wider community. It is unpretentious, unconventional and unexpected, always offering a friendly welcome.Heritage On the day before the EU referendum or "let's not be Werner Herzog's penguin" I decided to visit a nearby country and so hello Wales, hello Wrexham and hello Erddig, the next National Trust property on my trail.
It was home to a family that took an almost curatorial attitude to their possessions. Many are recorded in verse, as are generations of servants whose portraits were commissioned by the family. With their working areas almost unchanged, Erddig is a place where servants and their lives are not forgotten.
Some necessary route talk first. Train to Chester from Lime Street, train to Wrexham General from Chester, the Cardiff train in fact. Short walk across town to the bus station, to Stand One where the number 2 bus leaves from as directed by the National Trust website. Twenty minutes early, I wander around town and buy a chicken salad sandwich from the Co-op. Eventually the bus leaves with the driver promising to shout when we reach the road to the house. On reaching here, I ask him for times of the bus back assuming it would be the 2 again which runs hourly. "Every ten minutes" he tells me, "All the buses come this way." Ok.
A brown sign points towards Erddig. One mile it says, and I follow. A little way in I reach a cross roads with another couple of signs. One points towards the house and garden, the other towards "Felin Puleston" whatever that is. So I quite logically follow the house and garden sign. I walk, I walk, and I walk some more. I walk past this view:
I walk past this sassy sign:
But there's no real indication I'm going in the right direction other than the cars I'm persistently dodging. At one point I panic and try to phone the house but there's just answering machines at the end of the line. Eventually I reach another Erddig sign. I follow this. Which leads to more walking.
About half an hour later I reached Erddig. My first reaction is to explain my troubles to the volunteers in reception. They know, oh, they know. Also it turns out that I'd gone the long way around. I should have walked the other way towards "Felin Puleston" which would have halved the journey and they drew over a site map to point me in the correct direction out.
I didn't need it in the end. After my visit, just as I was starting to follow the directions (after first walking the wrong way due to having the map upside down), one of the volunteers from inside the house pulled up in her car and offered me a lift and took my all the way back to the outskirts of Chester where she lived. Which meant I got to do some bonus charity shopping in Chester at the end of the day (the BBC series How We Build Britain with David Dimbleby on dvd and a t-shirt for a Malaysian Four Seasons Resort are now mine) and I was home much earlier than I would have been.
Erddig then. The quick version. The house was originally built in the 1680s for Joshua Edisbury the High Sheriff of Denbighshire. It was so expensive it bankrupted him, but as a volunteer explained during a tour of the gardens which began my visit, not before he asked his brother who was in government to pull money from the general exchequer to help clear his debts. They both ended up in jail.
Erddig was then bought in 1716 by the London lawyer John Mellor for reasons which have never been explained since he'd never even been to Wales. In any case with the help of his nephew Simon Yorke, he extended the house on either side, filled it with all mod cons including a chapel and then unfortunately died in 1733 before he'd really had a chance to make use of it.
Simon picked it up in the will and so began just under two hundred and fifty years of ownership by the Yorke family which eventually ended in 1973 when it became too much of responsibility for the final owner Philip Yorke III thanks to general decrepitude and the local colliery having mined underneath the house creating subsidence. He gave the house to the National Trust who thanks to a public appeal and compensation from the coal industry were able to renovate the place and buttress the foundations and opened it to the public in 1977.
As they indicate in the leaflet, what it lacks for in architectural distinctiveness, it makes up for in possessions and social history. The current cataloguing and recording project indicates that when Philip III passed the house on (with the understanding that nothing be added or removed) there were over 30,000 objects in the collection.
But the key point of interest is how across the centuries, the various owners of the house kept records of all the servants they employed with paintings and photographed portraits, each commemorated by lengthy rhyming verse biographies, endless stanzas extolling the virtues of cooks, stable lads, gardeners and footmen. They all still on display in rooms and corridors just as they were when the house was passed on in the 70s and they really are a curiosity, notably a painting of the coach boy who stands out by being a person of colour.
It's for this reason that visitors enter the house through the servants areas in reverse to as usually occurs in stately homes. In renovating the house, the chosen period was early in the 20th century when Philip II became a father and Erddig became a family home.
None of the family were really art collectors. Although the house is filled with paintings, they're mainly portraits by minor artists and reproductions of other works lots of "after" designations and "British School". To bury the headline, their two star items are this portrait of Philip Yorke I MP (1743–1804) by Gainsborough and of John Mellor the second owner of the house in which Gainsborough overpainted everything but the face in an attempt to improve on original artist Charles Jervas's work. Both are a cut above anything else on display. The collection is available to view on the ArtUK website. Plenty of them are attempts by members of the family including this rather nice image of a kingfisher in the frost.
My favourite room in the house is undoubtedly "the state bedroom" which was latterly joked as being so named because of the state it was in due to rain water damage, messing up the bed and walls. A photo in the guide book shows it to have indeed been in a horrendous state, certainly worse than most of the rest of the house.
The key item is the bed, which was purchased by John Mellor in the 1720s from a London furniture maker and then travelled up country to the house. After the damage it incurred in the 60s, the V&A, who judged it to be one of the most important examples of that type of furniture in the county agreed to restore it on the understanding that when it turned the room would be protected by a glass walk through rather like a quarantine room in a research facility.
This gorgeous room, decorated with 18th century hand painted wallpaper, containing a coromandel lacquer screen is only viewable through this protective glass which just adds to the feeling of standing in some kind of time capsule viewing a moment in the past. You could image Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey shuffling in wandering of the monolith has changed the breakfast order.
The house is in a constant state of renovation. Some rooms are barely accessible, the Tapesty and Chinese Rooms require a volunteer to unlock a rope for entry and they stand watching as you look around although there's more than enough time to gawp at the orientalist fixtures, tapestries illustrating aspects of the empire actually produced in the Soho Factories for Mellor in the 1920s. The Music Room is mostly under wraps and other locations, such as the library, are being used for storage, all of which is necessary but breaks the illusion a bit for visitors.
But for all that it's probably at least worth a visit for the gardens, which after being left to overgrow for years have recently been redesigned by the Trust's head gardener to resemble an earlier period and now resemble something you might find in a French chateau. To look out of the window is to imagine yourself in Versaille or Marienbad. How do you grow topiary like that?