The Grotto in Pontypool Park

 

The climb to the Grotto in 1948

In my previous posting I mentioned all the fun and games we had as children in Pontypool Park, but there was one place which we visited only occasionally – the Grotto – mainly for two reasons: we had to pay to get in (though sometimes it has been free) and we had to climb a 700 foot hill in order to get there. While we sat down to regain our breath we always admired the magnificent view from the top of the hill. Of course, once there, the Folly Tower beckoned and it was only a short and not-very-steep path to get there.

The view from the Grotto in 1948

I never thought about it as a boy, but just imagine the work involved in getting all the materials, local sandstone and stone tiles, to the top of the hill by horse-drawn transport back in the eighteenth century. The Grotto was commissioned and designed by Molly Anne Meirs in 1784. She was a well-known beauty who was very wealthy and very benevolent and a keen collector of shells of all kinds. Her married name was Molly Anne Mackworth. She lived in Gnoll, near Neath where she’d built another grotto. She was widowed at the young age of 20 and it was after this that she married Capel Hanbury Leigh and became John Hanbury’s daughter-in-law. The building serves no real practical purpose except that it was sometimes used by the Hanbury family as a hunting lodge on some of their local hunting trips and for the occasional picnic. On one of the hunts in 1882 they were joined by the Prince of Wales. I think the idea that it was the home of a hermit is nothing more than a local myth though, it is rumoured, that at one time someone was employed to live there as a hermit which might account for the establishing of the myth.

Interior of Grotto with rustic chair

I remember that, on entering the Grotto, we had to wait a short while so that our eyes grew accustomed to the dim light inside, but, when we got used to it, it was amazing how much detail we could see. Part of the wall just inside the door was made of rustic timber, and there was also rustic armchairs which were not very comfortable to sit in.

Another view of the interior

The Grotto is built around six pillars leading up to a fan-vaulted roof and has been described as the finest example of its kind in Wales. Blott Kerr-Wilson, who has won awards for her designs of shell houses and shell furniture, described it as a “Shell House” which is not a bad description except that the floor is not made of shells but bones and teeth set vertically into it in intricate patterns so that only the tops of the bones show. Other materials such as coal slag, rocks, iron and glass were also used to represent local industries. The aim of the designer was to make it look as though Nature did it. In short she brought the seaside to Pontypool Park.

Pencil rendering of the Grotto

 The shells, which were used to embellish the building, probably early in the nineteenth century, are a mixture of common shells widely found in this country, such as cockles, mussels, periwinkle and limpets and also a smaller number of exotic shells from other countries, such as oyster, conch and cowrie. I remember there was one oyster shell with a pearl inside it; I don’t know whether it’s still there. The next time I saw cowrie shells was when I went to live in Nigeria. A short time earlier cowrie shells had been used as currency in that country and I was told that, while I was living there, they were often also used in their fertility rites; the design of the cowrie shell makes it obvious why this was so! 

After almost 200 years of wear and tear in a very vulnerable position with regard to the weather, and after suffering at the hands of mindless vandals, the Grotto was closed to the public in the 1970s for repairs to the collapsed roof and crumbling walls. Owing to lack of funds the repairs were limited but in the 1990s, with the help of Cadw, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Regional Development Fund, enough money was made available for the complete restoration of the whole building. The work was done by specialist restorers; it was painstaking and slow taking four months to complete. Fortunately, over the years, many people, including myself, had taken a lot of pictures of the inside of the building, and some of these were invaluable in providing details for the accurate restoration. 

Oils rendering of Grotto

Today the building is occasionally the venue for musical recitals, poetry readings and story telling events. I’m sure Molly Anne Meirs would approve.

Footnote:

In May 2009, I took my son and two grandchildren to Pontypool to see the Grotto. The trip was kindly arranged by Alex Andrews, the Park Manager, who took us up to the top in her landrover – essential as far as I was concerned. I hadn’t seen the Grotto for well over 30 years and somehow it seemed bigger than I remembered it and certainly very much brighter. I wondered whether this might be due to the excellent job of reconstruction which has been made on the building.
This time I took some more photographs; in colour on this occasion which contrasted markedly with the previous black-and-white attempts of earlier years. I print one below.

grotto chair, windown 2 pillarsGrotto interior, May 2009.

 

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2 Responses to “The Grotto in Pontypool Park”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    Living in Pengarn I also used to play in Pontypool Park, we had great fun playing cowboys and indians and trying to run up the steep hill to the Grotto, we never made it to the top without stoping. On odd accassion we also visited the grotto with it’s magical atmosphere, especially in the summer.

  2. robert miles Says:

    The two pictures above, firstly the path to the Grotto and then the view from the top reminded me of the happy days spent in Pontypool Park, were the Summers always hot and long, was the snow always deep and pristine white? I lived in Penygarn so the pond and the Grotto hill was a favoured place. The water provided endless interest, sticklebacks, frog spawn, skimmers and of course finding the best place to “dam” the stream. Drinking from that same stream when thirsty careful never to be downstream of the cow pats. In summer the hill was my Arizona or Texas panhandle – Hopalong Cassidy or Tom Mix and Geronimo behind every tree. The ferns do not seem as big now. In winter the snow covered hill became my Cresta Run , sledging until if became too dark to see. How many world records did I hold for the downhill. My thanks to whoever placed the photos on line Robert Miles.

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