An estate agent would call it ‘intimate’, but Britain’s smallest house is just one of the Welsh town of Conwy’s big drawcards, says AMY ADAMS.
If the owner of the smallest house in Britain could welcome you into her home, I’m sure she would. As it happens, Margaret Williams can only wish you well as you enter the building deemed uninhabitable in 1900, when her grandfather was living there. Together, the two (well, one and a half) rooms overlooking Conwy’s quay are only three metres high and two metres wide, meaning a guest and the host is pushing it.
Somehow, she still manages to be hospitable. When l’ve marvelled enough at ingenious use of space, I duck out into the daylight to be thrust a handful of booklets.
“Take these if you want to know more,” she says, before rummaging around her collection of boxes for other gifts to bestow. “And come back anytime.” I leave loaded down with books (including a copy of The Smallest House Cook Book), novelty magnets and a very different view of Conwy.
When you approach the Welsh town just south of Llandudno, there’s a certain ‘access denied’ feel about the place. Perched on a rock above the estuary, its medieval fortress looms from the surrounding hills, guarded by eight huge towers and an elaborate suspension bridge. It makes Snowdonia in the background look like a friendly alternative, as was doubtless Edward I’s intention.
Conwy was one of several Welsh towns to receive a defensive makeover from the British monarch during the 13th century. In an effort to subdue a rebellious population seriously annoyed by English gatecrashers, he built an ‘iron ring’ of castles around Wales – there are more per square mile here than any other country in Western Europe. Despite being a rush job (it took a mere four years to finish), most of Conwy’s fortress remains intact, though the Great Hall has lost its roof. Traipsing its length you can peer up at the stone-framed sky far above.
It’s like walking on history,” says one of our group, but among the intimidating, dark stone walls, it feels more like trespassing.
While the castle was built to contain the Welsh, the medieval walls that surround Conwy were erected to keep them out. With gritty brick work stretching over a kilometre punctuated by 21 evenly spaced watch towers, the Welsh must have had a tough time sneaking in uninvited. The passage of time has taken its toll on some sections of the wall, but it’s still possible to take an elevated march around the majority of the city.
Dodging pigeons along the narrow ramparts, we admire the scattered trawlers on the estuary one way, and Conwy’s collection of chocolate box houses the other. From this viewpoint, the town’s intimidating exterior suddenly seems more penetrable, and once down among the cobbled streets and neat Edwardian buildings, Conwy’s soft underbelly becomes fully exposed.
From grinning bakers recommending oggies (the Welsh version of a Cornish pasty) to inquisitive shopkeepers giving you a grilling, the townsfolk seem to love outsiders breaching the gates of their walled town. What’s more, many of them are willing to invite you into their homes. First, there’s Conwy’s oldest house, the medieval Aberconwy. Built for a wealthy merchant in the 14th century, today, thanks to furniture from the Museum of Wales, you can still get a fairly accurate idea of how it might once have looked. Far more interesting though is Plas Mawr (Welsh for Great Mansion), one of the first Elizabethan town houses owned by a Welsh native. As the grandest house in Conwy, there’s much to admire among the ornamental plaster work and fine wooden screens, but far more appealing are the rooms devoted to life during Tudor times, including grisly details of disease and sanitation (or lack of).
For novelty value, though, even the Teapot Museum doesn’t beat the Smallest House in Britain, something its cameo in the Guinness Book Of Records is a surely proof of. Built when an ill-conceived terrace of housing was constructed from each end and failed to match up, it sits firmly at the other end of architectural prowess from the castle. Memorabilia in hand, I walk along the quay, trying to choose between a river cruise, Butterfly Jungle and another oggie, when three 10-year-old boys from the local school approach with a questionnaire.
“Which areas of Conwy do you think could be improved?” one of them asks, his pencil poised in readiness. A few centuries ago there might have been a lot to complain about, but today the Welsh town seems a lot more willing to accommodate its guests. “The weather?” I reply lamely, as the towers of Edward’s fortress disappear into the clouds.”