Novelist George Orwell, actor Cary Grant and the writer and journalist Arthur Koestler have all left their mark on the picturesque white-washed cottage near Portmeirion that is now owned by Christine and Neville Brown.
Their Grade II-listed Welsh longhouse, with its quirky minstrels’ gallery, barrelled ceiling and reclaimed wooden prison door, harbours an extraordinary and varied history that makes it unique.
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‘It was built in the 17th century as a farmhouse that included a dairy, cow shed and pigsty,’ says Neville. ‘It was the last farm in the country to use a dog wheel for churning butter.’
In the 1940s the Welsh longhouse was bought by a manager of the Portmeirion estate, Jim Wylie, who was working alongside architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, designer and builder of the famous Italian-style village.
Wylie often invited film stars – including Cary Grant – to visit the cottage while they were staying at the Portmeirion Hotel. It is believed that Williams-Ellis’ influences extended into the cottage, where he sourced a very substantial front door believed to have come from a castle, fitted an internal door from Liverpool jail and painted the barrel ceiling bright blue with a scattering of stars.
The property was later occupied by Hungarian philosopher Arthur Koestler, whose guests included George Orwell.
By the time Christine and Neville bought the property in 1994, however, it was looking rather sorry for itself. It had been left to a dogs’ home and no-one had lived in it for some time. ‘It was very dank and gloomy,’ recalls Neville. ‘Whoever lived there last had a very odd taste in decor – including wrapping paper pasted round the sides of the bath.’
At that time Christine and Neville were working flat out, running a number of shops and restaurants they owned in Harlech. They spent a month having the house put to rights – rewiring, replumbing and decorating – so a friend could live there until they were finally able to move to the cottage themselves in 2003.
‘We moved when we sold our business and retired,’ says Neville. ‘We love the location. It’s such a peaceful place to live and such a contrast to the hectic nature of our working lives.’
Their lifelong friend Ken also moved with them into the five-bedroom cottage. ‘We often joke that he came to dinner 44 years ago and never left,’ says Neville. ‘We have lots of space – including two bathrooms, two shower rooms and two kitchens – and it works well for the three of us. We wanted to retain all the original features so we didn’t make any major structural changes, but we did update the décor to make the rooms lighter and warmer.’
Original features include the wonky old ceiling trusses, stone flagged and slate floors, low uneven doors, wood panelling and heavy oak beams over the fireplaces.‘We treated the beams for woodworm as a precautionary measure,’ says Neville.
They also gained permission to build a conservatory, converted an outbuilding into a guest suite and whitewashed the exterior stone walls before painting all the window frames.
Although they brought furniture from their previous home, Christine and Neville have also acquired many more antiques to create the informal, layered look of the cottage. Large, colourful rugs brighten most rooms, along with ceramics and paintings that they have collected over the years.
The cottage has double-height rooms on either side of the hall, which is used as a sitting area, creating plenty of wall space for tapestries and pictures. There is also a large dining kitchen where the barrel ceiling generates a sense of space over the Aga.
‘We have to think quite large scale in this house because some of the rooms are very spacious,’ says Neville. ‘That’s why we bought the lovely Welsh dresser for the kitchen – although we had to virtually take it apart to get it through the doors.’
They are fortunate to have an ideal go-to place for many of their treasured items of furniture. ‘Our daughter runs a shop in Harlech called Llew Glas Interiors and we buy quite a bit from there, but we also go to auctions and salerooms,’ says Neville. ‘It’s quite an eclectic mix. We’ve had some of the sofas for decades and every so often we have them re-covered. We tend to buy furniture that will last and that has character and provenance.’
Christine is a keen gardener and has been instrumental in transforming the large garden into a series of outdoor ‘rooms’, including a rectangular pond flanked by seating and evergreen borders, a sheltered place for eating alfresco and sitting areas in the full sun to the front of the house.
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‘The house and garden are constantly evolving in small, subtle ways,’ says Neville. ‘It’s a very comfortable place – cosy in winter around a roaring fire but beautiful outside when we are soaking up the sun in the middle of summer. It’s wonderful here, but we are very aware that we’re just passing through so we feel it’s our duty to look after it.’