The Parish of Penallt forms the northern part of the Trellech plateau, above the west bank of the River Wye. The parish does not appear to have attracted much attention from field archaeologists, possibly because it forms a topographical backwater unlikely ever to have seen any concentration of building in one place similar, say, to Trellech. (Indeed, Penallt has remained a widely scattered settlement, the concentration of dwelling near Cross Vane being a very recent development.) Nevertheless, the fields have been walked, usually behind the plough, and flints and flint flakes found, the most notable being on Common Farm in 1982 – a ‘superb leaf-shaped flint arrowhead about two and a half inches long and of Neolithic origin’ (Monmouth Archaeological Society Newsletter, no. 11, May 1983).
It is possible to speculate that the northern point of the plateau by the Old Church afforded a refuge for early man, the scrubland to the south giving some concealment and the steep escarpments east and west making attack from those directions hazardous. But in the absence so far of evidence of anything approaching permanent settlement so early in the village’s history, it seems likely that any pre-historic finds will indicate only random visits to the area.
When we come to ‘historical times’, it is only after the Dark Ages, so called, that human activity can be traced with anything approaching certainty which, even then, must rely heavily on the evidence of maps and documents of later date. (One interesting exception is the stone walling of apparently very early date mentioned later.) This is because the parish is everywhere rich in loose boulder stones, in quarry rubbish, broken boundary walls and the remains of barns and smaller stone shelters, so that it is not easy to tell the difference between man-made remains and nature’s debris. In general, it may be thought that few firm conclusions can be reached, even with careful excavation, unless there is evidence other than the stones themselves.
But this difficulty need not inhibit us from asking questions and looking for answers. For example, there is good documentary evidence about the very early Chapel of St Denys. It stood in what is still known as Chapel Meadow on the west bank of the Wye near the old ferry to Redbrook. Was it of wattle and daub, or of wood, or of less insubstantial construction? Are there traces waiting to be uncovered?
Then there is the strong local tradition that there existed in mediaeval times a concentration of dwellings in what are now the Argoed grounds. It is referred to as the hamlet of Pen-y-gelli (or Pen-ar-gelli) – the head or top of the small wood’ – a name limited today to a modern single dwelling on the south-western edge of the site. Numerous stone footings have been found in the south and east of the Argoed estate and their approximate location plotted, together with four extensive field terraces or ‘cultivation banks’. There were also traces of a road running from the stone remains north-west to the point where the lane from Tregagle meets the road from Croes Faen. What happened that the area should be so completely deserted?
There were two calamities which, taken singly or together, could have seen the end of the settlement. The second wave of the Black Death in 1361 is believed almost to have wiped out the inhabitants – the plague being brought by refugees fleeing northward from Somerset (see Wm H McNeill, in Plagues and People). The second was persistent raiding from the west in the early fifteenth century which drove away the inhabitants of the parish so that the land was left ‘in the lord’s hands for lack of tenants’ (see K Kissack in his Mediaeval Monmouth, 1974).
The idea of a hamlet called Pen-ar-Gelli on a well-wooded and well-watered site with a barn-chapel (still standing as part of the Argoed stabling?) is highly attractive and offers scope for a systematic dig by experts, but at present local enthusiasts are pulled chiefly to Monmouth where known remains are threatened with early destruction.
Fortunately, there are many more immediately recongnisable relics of penallt’s past around us – the roads and paths (with their crosses, stone stiles, packing stones and mounting blocks), the field walls and hedges, the woods, the abandoned quarries, the deserted mills, the streams and gullies, the barns and farmhouses, and the names of both families and properties. Major Probert’s survey of 1958 has located for us some of the quarries, and the crosses and packing stones.
The quarries, chiefly for mill-stone manufacture for which Penallt was known even in mediaeval times, have been described in detail by Professor D G Tucker in Industrial Archaeology, Vol 8, no 3 (David & Charles) August, 1971; his findings are summarized in the article on “Penallt’s Industrial Past”. Sandstone was also cut for building – notably in the Argoed quarry and at the north end of the Graig Wood quarry.
In many places in Penallt very old and well-built stone walls mark field limits. In some places near the parish boundaries they appear also to serve to prevent the fields from sliding downhill! These walls in particular are so well worked that they recall those of Roman defence works elsewhere and it is difficult to resist the view that they are as old or older thank the Roman era in Britain. Such walls may best be seen in the east of the parish in lanes dropping down to the Wye.
As to stone crosses, the most obvious remnant is in the yard of the Old Church and the most obvious loss is at Cross Vane where remnants were used at the end of the last century to repair a nearby wall. And as to names, Lime Kiln Farm tells its own story with its attendant spoil tumps on the tiny surviving remnant of the limestone which once overlaid the red sandstone in this district; but Washing’s Lane keeps us guessing. What was washed there on the steep slope – sheep, wool, cloth, ores or just laundry? Whatever the activity was, it has a long history, for reference to ‘the washing place on the Wye under Penallt Church’ appears in a survey of the Manor of Trellech of 1677. It is now considered that ‘Washings’ most likely means ‘the land with streams that wash down to the river’.
It readily appears that there is enough still to be done on Penallt’s past, both on the ground and among maps and records, to keep us busy for a long time yet – and this in spite of so much good work already done up to and including this book.
[from: Penallt – A Village Miscellany]