The final resting place of the Holy Grail is shrouded in mystery – or is it? Adam Edwards visits a remarkable mansion for sale in Wales, where many believe the sacred relic once resided. Was it the real thing? And is it now in a bank vault in Herefordshire?
The search for the Holy Grail has never ceased. This legendary, sacred vessel, from which Christ is thought to have drunk at the Last Supper, is the most important relic in Christendom, and has not been found. Or has it?
It is a story that has fascinated generations of Englishmen, from Malory to Monty Python. Many scholars believe that the bowl passed into the possession of Joseph of Arimathea, after he used it to gather the blood of Christ following the Crucifixion. Later, Joseph reputedly brought the olive-wood cup from the Holy Land to Glastonbury, in Somerset, where he founded an abbey in the first century.
And yet the final resting place of the Holy Grail remains shrouded in mystery. The Knights Templar were rumoured to have acquired it. Others believe it was taken to Nova Scotia in 1398. Many others, including a generation of hippies, think Joseph hid it either in the Chalice Well in Glastonbury or beneath the Tor.
And then there are those who are convinced it is lodged in a much less romantic resting place – the vault of a branch of Lloyds TSB bank somewhere in Herefordshire, taken there for safe-keeping from its last home – a grand, if fly-blown, house in west Wales.
It is a long and winding road to Nanteos Mansion. One must cross the Black Mountains and the Cambrian Mountains and negotiate the Devil Bridge Gorges before dropping down into the soft, remote countryside of lowland Ceredigion (Cardiganshire).
And then it is easy to miss the dowdy and discoloured hotel sign and to overshoot the hidden turning. Only after half a mile, when the narrow lane merges into an overgrown drive that hugs the hillside, does one finally arrive at the gravel apron outside the front door. Nanteos Mansion is, as far as anyone knows, the only Grade-I listed, 18th-century Palladian mansion that is a starless bed & breakfast.
Sadly, it has been allowed to degenerate into a run-down crash pad that is used for a few, down-at-heel Aberystwyth functions and by the occasional, penny-pinching tourist. It is a haunted shadow of its former self, a backwoodsman aristocrat of a building now on its uppers that is faded and might have been forgotten forever but for the search for the Holy Grail.
For hundreds of years, generations – in particular, the more drugged-up of the 1960s hippies – have believed that a cup housed at Nanteos was the Grail. The “Nanteos Cup”, as it became known, arrived there after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when a group of Glastonbury monks, attempting to escape the ravages of Henry VIII’s commissioners, ran first to Strata Florida Abbey, in South Wales, and then over the hills to nearby Nanteos House, the old country home of the Powell family.
The former Prior of Glastonbury became chaplain to the family and the other monks became servants around the estate. Only when the last monk was on his deathbed did he reveal that the Holy Grail had not been left behind in Glastonbury but that his group had brought it with them. He entrusted it to the Powells “until the church shall claim her own”.
Nanteos, the Welsh name for Nightingale Brook, was rebuilt in 1739 by Thomas Powell, the MP for Cardiganshire, who was married to the wealthy sister of the then Lord Mayor of London. It was a square house of enormous grandeur, three miles from Aberystwyth, that drew elements of its design from Sir John Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard. It was similar in height and length and divided into three bays. Built of local stone with decorative stonework, it was set in broad, landscaped parkland. And in an upstairs room was housed the five-inch wide, three-inch deep Nanteos Cup.
For the next two centuries the cup stood behind glass, apparently performing miracles and attracting pilgrims by the hundred. Richard Wagner – who wrote the Grail opera Parsifal – made a visit to see it at the invitation of the then heir to the house, George Powell, a masochistic homosexual with a fondness for the birch and the works of the Marquis de Sade. Powell, who was friends with the poet Algernon Swinburne and fed roast monkey flesh to Guy de Maupassant, believed that the cup possessed miraculous healing powers. Water poured into it was sent around the world to those afflicted with various diseases and ailments.
Others mocked the idea that it was the Holy Grail and thought it more likely to be a 12th-century artefact that had been brought back from the Crusades. But, whether real or fake, it turned into little more than a sliver of chewed wood over the years, due to pilgrims biting large chunks out of it. And when the last of the Powells died in 1952, the house (and the cup) were sold to a Major Merrilees, who later moved to Herefordshire, taking the Nanteos Cup with him, and later depositing it in a bank vault somewhere in the county.
The current owners, apparently, neither want the publicity nor any more bites taken out of the cup. It did, however, make an appearance in a television documentary in 1997, although its whereabouts remained a tightly guarded secret.
Carys Hedd is the caretaker and, currently, the only resident of Nanteos. She is a slight, ethereal figure dressed in battle fatigue trousers and clogs. When I arrived, she was sitting at her computer in a spartan room that was cheered up by a few crystals dangling in the window and a cheap, portable hi-fi churning out New World music. The sound spilled into the barren grand hall, which was redolent of incense and the wood-burning fire of the previous night. It is where Carys plays her guitar at night… the last hippie at the last home of the Holy Grail.
We walked through the house and grounds, admiring the old gamekeeper’s cottage and the stables rebuilt in the 1830s with a neo-classical entrance. There is a dog cemetery outside the derelict, two-acre walled garden where Gin and Roman and the bones of other faithful old friends lie.
The main hall, with its fine, stone fireplace and moulded plaster wall panels, leads into a stone-flagged hall with a pair of massive Tuscan plaster columns and an elegant dog-leg staircase constructed from oaks from the estate. On the walls are a few portraits of forgotten Powell worthies.
Upstairs there is a magnificent music room, with elaborate cornices and plasterwork, and the main bedrooms (one of which is now a dowdy bridal suite labelled “boudoir suite” in brass on the door). Finally, I saw the room where the Nanteos Cup once lived. It is now an en-suite bathroom.
As we climbed up to the third floor, used some years ago as quarters for students from Aberystwyth University and since left to moulder, Carys apologised for not having the keys to give us access to the roof. It was not, as I imagined, because she wanted me to admire the fine view but because, as she told me breathlessly, the Incredible String Band had once played there.
Next week, Nanteos goes on the market for the third time in four decades. FPDSavills is asking for offers in excess of £1.25 million for the house that was, until the 1950s, a shrine to the “small shard of crumbling wood in its glass case”. The cup, wherever it is, cannot be bought – what price the Holy Grail? – but the Palladian mansion that became famous as its home can.
“It is the most important house to go on sale in Wales for years,” according to John Vaughan, of FPDSavills. The building is sound and structurally solid, although Mr Vaughan admits it is a little weary. “It is very unusual to find such a wonderful building in less than perfect repair,” he says. “They have nearly always been kept in reasonably habitable condition, passed on by the family and cared for. Nanteos is like a lost, Georgian house in Ireland or Scotland. It is a chance for somebody with real imagination to restore it to its former glory without huge expense.”
The odds are that it will become a boutique hotel. But Carys and I would prefer it to go to a sympathetic hippie.
It may be too late for the cup to do for Nanteos what the Shroud did for Turin, but pilgrimages by old hippies could still be on the cards as they come to worship where the Incredible String Band once played.