Visitors to Newport's Tredegar House have been getting a taste of the mansion's decadent party past, as JEN MILLS discovered.
TREDEGAR House: the champagne is flowing, jitterbug music is playing and women in strings of pearls and flapper dresses dance across the floor into the arms of their partners.
It’s a scene that was once the standard in the decadent stately home owned by the notoriously decadent Evan Morgan, the second Viscount Tredegar, who held lavish all-weekend parties when he urged guests to skinny dip and take on his boxing kangaroo.
Except this scene didn’t take place at one of his 1930s get-togethers, but just last Friday, when a group of dancers put on their glad rags and took the house back in time.
On the last Friday of every month in summer, the house is taken over by dancers who do the Charleston, lindyhop and twist, while decked out in fabulous vintage outfits they sourced mainly from vintage shops or eBay.
Last Friday (May 30) was the first of this year’s dances, and the house looked beautiful.
The Trust is mixing the old and new together, putting on the dance just for the joy of it but also because the stately home was once a party-place and holding a dance does as much to preserve its memory as trying to find the original material the curtains were made from.
Chris Edmunds, from St Julians, one of the guides at the house with a special interest in the 1930s, was offering guided tours to visitors or any dancers who wanted a time-out. “You can be in no doubt we’re having a party here,”, he said. “Why? Evan Morgan. He was famous for his extravagant and often outrageous country house weekends here throughout the 1930s. Evan got to know all the rich and famous in London, went to parties with them and invited them here, such as Ivor Novello, Prince Paul of Greece and the actress Tallulah Bankhead.”
One of the dancers on Friday’s guest list was John Powell, 64, from Chepstow, who came along with his wife Claire for the dance. “I have been dancing for about eight years,”, he said. “It’s a good social event. We have a lesson or two a week and we have a dance a week.”
He came along with the other members from his dance ground, the Lydney Lindyhoppers. With so many of the group from Gwent, it’s a testament to their love for dancing that they’re willing to travel so far to get their dancing fix.
Their dedication is also shown by the clothes they wear, really putting in the effort. “We usually dress up in 40s or 50s clothes”, John said. “I get mine in vintage shops but the men have a job to find stuff.”
In his musical note patterned braces he was concerned he hadn’t quite nailed the fashion of the time, but cut a dapper figure nonetheless.
Although he has danced in many different venues, Tredegar House was something special he said. “We wanted to come to see this house - we were going to come this afternoon and we’ll definitely come again. It’s a good stress relief. I wish we started earlier.”
His wife Claire Powell agreed, saying: “Most of us started dancing around eight and a half years ago and it’s just taken over. We absolutely love it.”
Fellow dancer Christine Holliday, from Monmouth, has been donning her dancing shoes for slightly longer, saying: “I have done it about 14 years. It has been fantastic. It makes you feel happy. Sometimes I could be really tired but as soon as I get up there and I hear the music, it’s like a whole new energy comes through. You just feel the music. It keeps your mind active although sometimes you have a great dance and the next day you get out of bed and feel very stiff.”
She added that dancing could have benefits for many people: “It would be nice for more youngsters to come. You see youngsters on the street and they don’t know what to do with themselves.”
It’s not just 1940s music that they enjoy dancing too; in fact any kind of music can do, as long as the beat is right.
Merv Morris, 63, from the Forest of Dean, said: “You can dance to modern stuff. As long as the beat is right, it can be anything. Imelda May, Tom Jones…”
His friend Nigel Price, 63, from Llandenny in Usk, goes a step further towards modern pop, adding: “We had Aleesha Dixon at our wedding. It’s a really good beat.”
Friday’s party at Tredegar House was a stylish affair, but the National Trust weren’t able to recreate all of the original party atmosphere of the Morgan household, no doubt partly because of health and safety laws.
Our guide Chris outlined some of what guests might expect at one of Evan’s shindigs: “Parties like this didn’t come cheap. He had a boxing kangaroo called Somerset. Young men were invited to take on the kangaroo - and of course, it always won. He also had a honey bear called Alice. She was extremely tame and was allowed to wander the grounds quite freely. Then there was Bimbo the baboon. If he got bored, Evan thought nothing of letting Bimbo around the bedrooms. Imagine you have had a long evening partying and you come back and there’s Bimbo the Baboon in your bed.
“There was also skinny dipping in the lake. He would encourage the men in particular to strip. Princess Olga used to put the blinds down when that started.
The parties started on a Friday and finished somewhere the following Monday.
It was a really wonderful time. The people of Newport had no idea what was happening in the house.”
Many may not be aware of the Trust’s new parties either, or of the thriving dancing scene.
Nigel’s wife Bev, 54, said she started dancing in Usk and was hooked ever since. “I thought it’s something with my husband we can share,” she said. “We love it. We have built up a large circle of friends. We all go to dances, we dress up. We still do lessons and demonstrations.
“We started having lessons in Usk, but there was poor attendance. Lydney is a 40 minute drive for us, but every week on a Wednesday we have driven there for five or six years.”
The activity has become more and more a part of life. “In Abergavenny they do vintage festivals and we were once asked to do a flash mob”, she said. “We came out from the audience and suddenly started dancing.”
She has even started teaching, at a Dance Blast class in Abergavenny.
Although there were no excesses to the level of Gatsby or Viscount Tredegar immediately obviously at Friday’s affair, she said the social side of the dancing scene was excellent, with everyone friendly and welcoming.
After the party was over, she said, the group planned to go to the Greyhound in Llantrisant.
In her white dress with black detailing at the sleeves and flapper headress, Bev certainly looked the part. “I got my dress from Coast,” she said, “and the headband is from Accessorise. I do look up genuine 40s or 50s clothes on eBay.”
Her husband kept the standards up with a dicky bow and matching yellow pocket square, sourced from Extons of Raglan, he said.
The powerhouse teacher of the group, 60-year-old Lyn Crossman, was exhausting just to watch as she hopped and jived around the floor. “They just dance now. They don’t need teaching,”, she said. “This is my first time at Tredegar House so we were excited. We don’t usually get dressed up quite as elaborately. I’d like to come back.”
She said anyone should come along and try - but especially the men, as “there’s always a shortage of blokes at dances.”
The event is held on the last Friday of each month from May to September, with the house and grounds open until 9pm. Anyone can come along for no additional fee and there is no need to book.
Guests don’t have to join in the dancing, but could simply sit out in the grounds enjoying the summer sunlight and imaging the scene that once went on as the party goes on in the background.