In the last of this month’s tour of Prime Writers’ inspiring locations, Martine Bailey takes us to the atmospheric Plas Teg, near Mold in Wales.
Though I set parts of The Penny Heart on the very wild shores of 18th century New Zealand and Australia, the novel’s heart is dilapidated Delafosse Hall in the north of England. I first became aware of its inspiration, PlasTeg, a dilapidated Jacobean mansion, while watching the BBC’s Country House Rescue. No-nonsense Ruth Watson was overwhelmed by the scale of dereliction at a Welsh mansion stuffed to the rafters with junk, kitsch and vintage costumes. Cornelia Bayley, a former antiques dealer, had purchased the Hall for £75,000 in 1986 and single-handedly battled to restore a vast shell without a roof and trees growing through its centre. My husband looked up at the TV and told me his family used to get phone calls for the ex-directory owner because they were the nearest Baileys in the area. It was a disturbing experience to visit, he said – opulent, falling to pieces and full of parrots.
I did visit Plas Teg and remembered it later when living in New Zealand. By then I was writing The Penny Heart, a dark struggle between a mistress and her servant set on the cusp of the Industrial and French revolutions. An early reader told me the layout of Delafosse Hall was too vague. I dug out photos of PlasTeg and drew imaginary room plans for each storey. I added bits of other houses, too, but the fabulous facade is recognisably Plas Teg, as is the carved Jacobean staircase and the low-ceilinged underground kitchen. When the first edition was published, cover designer David Wardle looked at the Pinterest Board I use to research images and picked out the extraordinary frontage as the heart of his design.
In my view, the Gothic house should have a sense of trauma, of being stuck in time, as a trap for lost souls and retributive violence. I wanted the layout of my house to be both authentic and psychological. The kitchen servants are largely confined ‘below stairs’ adjoining deep underground cellars, pantries and larders. Meanwhile, the Hall’s lonely mistress, Grace, pursues her artwork in the attics and inside a tumbledown summerhouse (that unluckily connects back to the cellar tunnel). The house becomes a crux for class tensions between cook and mistress, an oppressive patriarchal marriage, as well as the setting for a woman’s worst fears…
PlasTeg is still struggling to stay open and regular tours and paranormal nights provide some funds for improvements. If you would like to read more about The Penny Heart there is a short feature on my website, MartineBailey.com