Pentwyn Farm

(Gwent Wildlife Trust)

The Trust has been active for more than forty years. Seeking to establish and maintain sanctuaries for plants and animals once common throughout Gwent. Today it owns thirty reserves, of which one of the largest at 30 acres is Pentwyn Farm, Penallt. Here is one of the largest areas of unimproved grassland remaining in Gwent and a major restoration programme covering farm buildings, hedgerows and stone walls and archaeological exploration. The Trust has in fact realised its original vision of becoming stewards of a thriving medieval farm complex. In addition, the reserve achieved recognition as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1993, underlining the importance of its four hay meadows and species-rich hedgerows.

The following edited extracts are taken from a progress report by Bob Trett in 2005. It is a mine of information about Pentwyn Farm (often referred to as “the reserve”) and the village of Penallt. We are fortunate to be able to bring them to our readers helping us the better to understand the past and anticipate the future of this valuable component of our village

“Penallt is on the Trellech Ridge, and the farm lies on the Old Red Sandstone, as can be seen in the disused quarry on the reserve. Some of the building stone, particularly the in dry stonewalls and gate posts, is local quartz conglomerate.

Prehistoric flints have been found in surrounding fields. These include a Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowhead, 5.7 cms long, found at Whitehouse Farm.

Previous ownership

The earliest list of owners and occupiers of Pentwyn Farm is found among the awards for tithe payments in 1844 for Penallt. They include land owned by Henry Burrell and occupied by Richard Jones; land owned by William Clifford and occupied by William Gunter; land owned and occupied by Ann James; land owned by Robert Evan Rannells and occupied by Thomas Williams and land owned and occupied by Edward Jones. The only authenticated evidence prior to 1844 relates to two fields owned in 1844 by Ann James . In 1772 they were occupied by George Catchmaid and were part of the Beaufort estates. At that time both fields were described as orchards. Catchmaid also had a separate field to the west, not part of the reserve, and a tiny ‘encroachment’ on the road next to Pentwyn Farm Cottage. However there is a reference in the Badminton papers in 1732 to Cae Pentoyn otherwise known as Cae Bach held by William Pritchard and his wife Jane.

The Catchmaids or Catchmays were a large and influential family. The Catchmays had their chief seat at Bigsweir and were living in Llandogo parish from at least the 14th century. There was also a branch of the family in Monmouth and there are many references to them. There was a George Matchmayd of Monmouth, baptised in 1712 and who died in 1779. He was described as a gentleman so would not have been a small tenant farmer.

In 1810 much of the common land was enclosed and the enclosure map produced at that time shows field No.392, less the plot later owned by Ann James, as being Lot X, awarded to Paul Davis. None of the other Pentwyn Farm reserve land is covered or mentioned, although there is mention in the 1810 enclosure of an award to Josiah and Elizabeth Davis, cot holders of Pentyne with a sheep cot and cider mill.

Because of the many separate past owners of the land covered by the reserve it is complicated to trace the full later history of Pentwyn Farm. But the property deeds do include interesting information.

By a conveyance dated 29th September 1924 Mrs Beatrix Mary Thomas of Princes Square, London, sold Pentwyn Farm to Martin Roberts, a farmer in Redbrook, for the sum of three hundred and forty pounds. The property was “formerly in the occupation of Jones, afterwards of Mr Llewellyn and now of Mr Harry Morgan”. On 2nd February 1926 Martin John Roberts purchased two more pieces of land from Oliver Arthur Burgham of Redbrook. They were described as ‘arable land’ and consisted of what is now the main hay meadow and also part of the Pentwyn Farm complex (presumably the barn and the area in front of it).

In 1945 Martin Roberts died and his daughter Elizabeth Davison and son Edwards Thomas Roberts inherited the property. The Trust purchased Pentwyn Farm in 1991 following a public appeal. Bush Meadows were acquired in 1996.

Pentwyn Farm Cottage

In 1991 the Pentwyn Farm Cottage and Barn were inspected by Mr Tony Parkinson of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

He described the cottage as “a small cottage, probably of 18th century date, with a symmetrical façade. The ground floor has two rooms, a main living room with a deep-chamfered main beam and a lath-and- plaster ceiling and partition. The gable fireplace contains a range; there is a recess to the left, a winding stone stair to the right. The windows have square reveals. The inner room has a stone salting-slab. There is an added lean-to against the rear.

The cottage has now been restored and is lived in. Two pig sties have been rebuilt at the rear, facing the lane to the barn. The wall near the sties has an unusual tapered stone, which acts as a buttress within the centre of the wall to take the weight of the wall on either side. A low garden wall near the door of the cottage has stone capping, one piece being part of a probably 18th century tombstone inscribed with the name of ‘John Jones’. By the garden wall are stacked a number of stone roofing tiles, of irregular shape with pierced securing holes.

The stone salting-slab mentioned by Tony Parkinson has now been removed and set in the floor of the barn. These large rectangular stone slabs were used for salting pigs. They are commonly found in country cottages, usually supported on bricks in the kitchen, dairy or outhouse. There is a grooved channel near the edge of all sides on the top. A similar slab in Newport Museum was found in a canal cottage near Risca and may date to about 1790.

Pentwyn Farm Barn

Tony Parkinson described the barn as follows: “The adjacent barn and stable has walls of two or more periods. The earlier is of coursed rubble with large dressed quoins, and splayed slits with dressed surrounds. The roof is 19th century. There is a 19th century lean-to across the rear and at one end is an added stable of 18th-19th century date; the second-phase walling of the barn at this end is of random rubble with small dressed quoins, of poorer quality than at the other end. The central threshing bay is flanked by dwarf walls. The building cannot be dated accurately: it is possible that the earlier barn walling is of medieval date, with extension of the 18th century and later dates.”

The major problem was that the front wall of the Barn had been built over an underground stream which had caused the wall to be undermined. This was obviously not a new problem since the 19th century buttresses had been built to stop the front wall (the south east elevation) from falling over. The restoration programme involved removal and replacement of the roof, using oak timber from Priory Wood, Bettws Newydd.

Pentwyn Farm Stepped Well

The Pentwyn Farm well is situated on the eastern boundary of the ‘farmyard’, at the lowest point within the former northern enclosure. There is some question about its purpose. It does not appear to be a sheep dip. It is fed by a spring and is likely to have been used for immersion as well as for drinking water.

The stone work was mainly coursed rubble with some dressed stone, in particular the later steps. It is therefore relatively crude compared for example with the Virtuous Well at Trellech.

There is a strong tradition of healing wells and holy wells but it is impossible to prove whether the Pentwyn well was one. There is evidence to suggest that Penallt was on a medieval pilgrims’ way. Penallt Old Church has a fine churchyard cross and a wayside cross stood at Cross Vane, not far from Pentwyn, and another lay at nearby Pen-y-garn. Recent excavations at Trellech have revealed a large building which may have been a pilgrims’ hospice and a pilgrim’s lead ampulla was found there. Trellech is thought to have been on a pilgrims’ route from London to St. David’s and Penallt may have been on a pilgrims’ route followings the Wye Valley to Tintern Abbey and even on to Chepstow or Bristol to travel to Compostela in Spain.

According to tradition there were originally nine healing or holy wells in the Trellech area. All were fed by different springs and each was supposed to cure a different disease. Apart from the Virtuous Well (St. Anne’s Well) there was a bathing well at Hygga, and another cold bath at Ninewells, all with steps leading down into them.

This raises the question of the relationship of the Barn to the well. Pilgrims would frequently travel great distances, along a system of wayside crosses to show they were taking the right way. Hospitality would be offered en route by monastic houses, but these could often not cope with the demand. As a result pilgrims often had to find accommodation elsewhere, both in inns and hospices. Pilgrimage could be very profitable to those providing the shrines and the accommodation and this may help to explain the large number of pilgrim related facilities. If the Pentwyn well is a holy well it could be that the Barn was once a hospice or a wayside chapel. There is evidence for ‘lost’ chapels in the area.”

The Farmyard

The yard is “the best walled area at Pentwyn Farm, with walls continuing along the lane to the farm. On the reserve there are three stone stiles each with a vertical stone slab and steps, of a common Monmouthshire type. Some of the gates still retain stone side posts with iron supports for gate hinges. The north wall of the farmyard has a curious curve for no obvious reason. The area by the stable was walled with gates to provide a paddock. All the fields have hedges, often with raised banks, and in some cases (e.g. next to the quarry) they have dry stone walls.

The Small Barn

The small stone barn, or more accurately stables, next to the Bush Inn is the only building of interest in that part of the reserve. A cottage would have existed where the modern storage sheds are. The 1884 tithe award refers to a house and garden but does not show the barn. The 1921 Ordnance Survey shows the stables but not the cottage. This gives a close date for the stable with two doors and curious stone mullions in the horizontal ventilation gaps in the walls.”

The report’s conclusions point to further exploratory and renovating work. They say that “it is not possible to do justice to Pentwyn Farm” without more excavation and recording in the Barn area.” They comment also that “It is particularly annoying to have so little dating evidence when the site has been occupied for centuries. The programme of improvements, including the rebuilding of walls, should add to the visitor attraction. However it is important that modern rebuilding should be noted and photographically recorded so that in the future it will be possible to identify recent work from earlier structures.”

Pentwyn Farm is not the only site of Trust activity in Penallt. Prisk Wood down Lone Lane is owned and managed by the Trust and there are other small woodland holdings. There are other Trust reserves near Penallt open to the public notably at the Wern, Craig-y-Dorth, Margaret’s Wood above the Crown Inn at Whitebrook and New Grove Meadows, north of Trellech.

[from: Penallt Revisited]