Argoed Memories 1

Major Ynyr Probert’s Argoed Memories

Besides the other inhabitants of the Argoed we have written about, our 92 year old Major Ynyr Probert [who has written with great scholarly research the history of the parish] has given his memories of his own early days and difficulties when he acquired the family home.

The last owner of Probert descent was Col Morgan Clifford, M P, who leased out the Argoed as a farm. Only part of the house was in use and this eventually fell into a sorry state of disrepair, the south wing becoming completely ruinous. In 1865 the property was sold to Mr R Potter, chairman of the Great Western Railway, who restored it into a comfortable Victorian home. He rebuilt the south wing in the excellent local stone and added a new stable block and cottage for the coachman, whose daughter, our dearly-loved Mrs Jones, is still happily with us.

There is a splendid letter from Bernard Shaw, who was a frequent visitor, to Ellen Terry describing the view from the terrace:

‘If you have never been here it is of no use describing this country to you. Dorking and Surrey are to it what Tottenham Court Road is to the 15th century. You have not only all the ordinary naturalism and freshness of nature but a deliberate poetic beauty. The God who made this country was an artist. He moulded the hills so that lines run down into the valleys quite magically, and trimmed them with tufted woods so that not an acre glares however warm the sun is. The fellow who turned out Dorking was a Bank Holiday tradesman in comparison. It is a lovely morning and from this lawn 800ft above the Wye I can see across it over the Forest of Dean. There is not a cloud in the sky except a few stray ones, and yet it is thundering away like mad, pal after peal eastward. And now they are just dropping a gauze over the horizon, and the tree under which I am sitting has shivered and sighed as if it was catching cold. So perhaps we shall have some Rheingold effects presently…’

Writing some 90 years afterwards it is pleasant to relate that there has been very little deterioration. Scarcely any new buildings spoil the view and in spite of the tendency of the small farmer to fell the hedgerow trees the country remains remarkably well-timbered. It is indeed an oasis in a world suffering from over-crowding. In the spring the ground is covered in a sheet of Lent lilies and cowslips.

After the death of Mr Potter the estate was sold to Mr Chatfield. My parents had visited the Argoed in the early years of the century whilst touring the West Country with HRH the Princess Louise (my father was Comptroller of the Household) and later they visited the Argoed again whilst staying with the Pelhams at Moorcroft. I think it must have been about 1921 when I first saw the Argoed and I returned with my first wife, Patience, in 1946. Sadly its condition had seriously deteriorated but we were enchanted with its magnificent views; needless to say, we bought it.

One of our first acts was to re-open the original entrance consisting of a double avenue of six rows of sycamores planted by Sir George Probert in 1660. At some time an entrance had been opened at Croes Vane. We put in cattle grids, which were a novelty in those days, and kept a herd of four-horned Jacob sheep in the park. We were pleased to find within the curtilage two magnificent Scots pines, reputedly representing the Old and Young Pretenders. Pines had been planted at intervals straight across the country to Pant Glas and several of the original ones are still standing.

The Great Stable is one of only two examples of an early 17th century stable in Gwent, the other being at Llanfihangel Crucorney. The turned oak pillars which support the hay loft above the stalls have chains on them to fasten the horses’ bridles when turned round ready for mounting. My wife Patience converted the enclosed stable yard into a rose garden with delightful patterned box-edged plots. There is a well which is fed from the lake and a pretty stone mask to feed it, carved by Patience.

The garden had been sadly neglected and the fore-court ‘Victorianised’ and planted with a spate of rhododendrons, but among which was a Rhodoendron ‘Nobleanum’ at least 100 years old and a truly splendid sight in the snow. I must say there was also a vast collection of bottles under the shrubs, quite a problem to dispose of before the days of refuse collection! Many 17th century thick green glass bottles (jeroboams) had been packed into the walls of the fore-court; there was also a hand-made stone quern – possibly Neolithic; an interesting stone with curved grooves for sharpening weapons, such as you sometimes see outside Spanish church walls; and various pieces of carved stone from the old house.

At the north end of the field called Lane Vawr we found an old quarry, the stone from which, Miss England informed me, had, according to tradition, been used to build Sir William ap Thomas’s tower at Raglan Castle about 1450. I planted about twenty park trees there but after we left they were cut down to make way for the suddenly profitable blackcurrants. (Whilst walking through the blackcurrant bushes we found several 17th century glass bottles with the Probert crest – a Cornish chough in fetterlock), we had been growing currants for about 7 to 8 years at £60 a ton, and alas, in those days there were no sprays against big bud, which they gradually developed. Ironically after I had sold the Argoed the price of blackcurrants rose to £600 a ton, and with the aid of mechanical harvesting and sprays, they became profitable.

When we took over the house there was very little guttering left; the slate roof with its massive oak beams was fairly sound and the drains simple. Mr Potter had put in a splendid heating system – an enormous Robin Hood boiler in the cellar using about a ton of coke a week – very expensive to run and requiring constant attention, which meant the stoker plied it hourly but when he left and we had the minimum of labour the water would boil at 9pm yet remain cold all day! Eventually we had to resort to an oil-fired and very inadequate space-heater in the hall. Mrs Chatfield had put into the middle of the main bedroom an enormous hot water tank from which protruded an alarming set of what can only be described as arms – a Heath Robinson contraption which had been produced by a local garage owner. On returning from Suffolk in the middle of a very cold snap, we foolishly let the water, which had been drained, back into the system. The next morning it was frozen solid. In the end the only way of disposing of ice and tank was through the window and only achieved with the assistance of labourers and a builder.

There were only three lavatories in the house, one for the main bedroom, one for the servants and one for the gents – which had to be approached from the outside – and all of incredible antiquity.

The telephone was already installed but the engineers had placed their poles plumb down the centre of the open space of the avenue of trees, spoiling the vista effect according to the 17th century plan. However there was no difficulty in having them moved to one side.

The whole house had to be completely re-wired and thankfully the mains came to the village in 1955/6 after guarantees of use. Unfortunately for the Electricity Board, it had underestimated its popularity. On Christmas morning, when the ovens were full of appetising expectations, the transformer blew and everyone in the neighbourhood was without electricity! However the authorities came to our rescue only to be bogged down in the snow and mud, and eventually had to be pulled out by tractor. Happily but after a few altercations, a large enough transformer was supplied to serve our multifarious purposes. Likewise, and with modern plastic piping, the supply of water has been adequately maintained. The Argoed well had been deepened to 30ft by Mr Potter – rather dangerous – so we had it covered.

Having acquired the basic modern amenities, we were able to turn our attention to the house. The Argoed was built as a hall house, with one side a solar, approached originally by a stone staircase, but probably replaced by Richard Morgan. I replaced the poor handrail to the main staircase with a decorative yew rail and balusters. The main fluted oak beam in the solar is now supported by two splendid turned yew pillars cut from the garden. Lord Raglan, who was the local expert on Monmouthshire houses, thought that the kitchens in the 17th century were outside the house – possibly in the buildings on the south side which were demolished and one of which was probably the malting. When we came there was no means of getting from one end of the house to the other on the upper floor. I cleared the two smaller solar bedrooms away and left the solar as it was meant to be with a clear view to each end.

It is a formidable task to give life to an old house, but one is constantly fired with new enthusiasms, until old age with its accompanying infirmities reduces the possibilities, and although we were fortunate to have with us for the last eight years an excellent Spanish couple, our children had left home and the place became unmanageable for us alone. As I had been ill it was also necessary to seek a warmer climate. Patience wept bitter tears but at least we had breathed new life and resuscitated a very beautiful part of Penallt.

We set about repairing the Bowles, which was part of the estate – and is mentioned in Henry Probert’s will of 1719: ‘…and he set conygar on it…’ and have happily made it our home for the summer months of the year. Added to our pleasure is the welcoming warmth and friendliness of the people of Penallt.

[from: Penallt – A Village Miscellany]