A castle-borough church: St Nicholas, Grosmont, Monmouthshire
Eddie Butler, Professor Ralph Griffiths, Richard Suggett, and Rev. Jean Prosser discuss the significance of Grosmont and the Norman conquest of upper Gwent. Three key sites are visited: the castle, the market hall, and the church. The Royal Commission has recently shown through tree-ring dating that Grosmont Church preserves the oldest roof in Wales dating back to the reconstruction of the castle in the C13th.
The castles of Grosmont, White Castle and Skenfrith defended the territory seized by the Normans in Upper Gwent, and the present castle at Grosmont belongs to the 13th century consolidation of the lordship of Three Castles by Hubert de Burgh. A new borough was founded at Grosmont in the C13th and the main elements of this still survive: castle, church and market-hall. The market-hall was rebuilt in the 19th century but still retains the base of the medieval market-cross. The castle is a popular tourist attraction, but the church is full of interest and less well known.
St Nicholas, Grosmont, is a large church with a strong thirteenth-century character and more or less contemporary with the castle which was the centre of the lordship. The church served both the castle garrison and the new borough. The church has an ambitious cruciform plan with a central tower. Much of the church was rebuilt in the 19th century, but the long, aisled nave was spared reconstruction and is a shock to the modern visitor who encounters an uncluttered medieval interior dominated by the arcades and roof.
The roof has an archaic character quite unlike any other surviving medieval roof in Wales although there are comparable examples in southern England. The bays are defined by very plain trusses of heavy scantling. Posts rise from tie-beam to lap-jointed collar and from collar to ridge; the trusses are impressively braced to a collar-purlin to prevent racking. This type of king-strut roof is rare and difficult to date with precision. While impressive, they belong to the period before the appreciation of the decorative possibilities of the heavily-bayed roof. Could it be that this roof dates back to the foundation of the church in the 13th century? If so, it would be the earliest surviving church roofs in Wales and one of the earliest in the United Kingdom. Tree-ring dating was commissioned to date the roof scientifically.
Sampling provided good independent dating evidence and gave a likely felling-date range of 1214-1244. This felling-date range is gratifyingly early. It is consistent with the thirteenth-century character of the nave and shows that the roof has survived from the first phase of building, probably when Hubert de Burgh was lord of Grosmont in 1219–32. In 1227 the Close Rolls record that Henry III granted de Burgh fifty oaks from the forest of Trevill for his new buildings at Grosmont. It seems very likely that these were used for the church roof as well as for the castle. Not only has Grosmont Church the earliest scientifically dated roof in Wales, it appears to be the only surviving pre-1400 church roof in Wales, attributable to the substantial nature of the roof and the later medieval decay of the borough.
Pantyrhwch, Llanwnnen, Ceredigion
‘Cottage’ is rather a catch-all term for a number of different types of dwelling which it is useful to distinguish. These included permitted cottages on common land; squatters’ cottages erected without permission, often as ‘one-night’ houses; summer dairies (hafod, lluest) attached to farms; industrial cottages, ‘home-made homes’ built by craftsmen and small-holders (like Wig-wen-fach), and estate-built cottages and small farmhouses. These are all discussed in Eurwyn Wiliam’s book on The Welsh Cottage (RCAHMW, 2010).
Pantyrhwch, Llanwnnen, Ceredigion, is a good example of a purpose-built cottage-farmhouse. The plan is unusual but characteristic of the older type of cottage. The house is entered from the gable end in the manner of a longhouse although the ‘outer room’ is an added back kitchen rather than a cowhouse. The main room (kitchen) is dominated by a huge fireplace hood made of plaster, timber and wattle. The inner room was probably a parlour bedroom. The house is fully storeyed but the stairs are designed not to take up much space and there are two half-steps to each riser. Going upstairs to the first-floor chambers without thinking about the steps required some practise.
Pantyrhwch has been restored rather than modernised. The old features have been preserved because of the quality of the materials and the workmanship. The owners respect the craftsmanship and planning of the old house and this happily coexists with a contemporary lifestyle.
Nelson Handball Court, Glamorgan
Handball is played using a hard, leather-cased ball with the hand against the side of a house, church or, from the 18th century, in an open-backed court usually near a public house. It was played in front of crowds for money prizes and betting. It is clear that the more aristocratic ‘Eton fives’ played at grammar schools in Wales was a world away from the working-class, often professional, game of handball that was played, mainly throughout Glamorgan.
Played using the palm of the hand, the ball was hit against the front wall before or after it had struck the floor once. Similar to squash without rackets, the object was to keep the ball out of the opponent's reach but inside the bounds of the court. Play continued until a competitor failed to return a ball. Scores were marked on the front wall.
At Nelson, Glamorgan, the game was first played against a flat wall of the Nelson Inn (now The Village Inn). In c.1860 the landlord of the nearby Royal Oak then constructed a purpose-built court to entice customers from the Nelson. Irish immigrants who were working on the construction of the Great Western (Pontypool Road to Neath line), and Taff Vale Railways which both passed through the village, may have had a hand in the design of this court (handball in Ireland was, and is, a working-class sport played in ‘big alleys’ measuring 60’x30’).
The Nelson court was most famous from 1880 until the Second World War with an annual tournament lasting from May - August, accompanied by much betting. Wire netting was erected in 1913 after the building of nearby Police Station in 1910. Handball is still played there today.
150 year celebrations of the building of the court are expected to be held in 2010, when a new seating area is to be built.
New views of Bardsey Island
Bardsey Island lies just off the western tip of the Llyn Peninsula. While small, it has a remarkable history and even today retains an air of mystery. Long a focal point for pilgrimage, it was claimed that three pilgrimages to Bardsey were equal to one to Rome, but to this day it remains a destination that is difficult to access. Developed primarily for the new People’s Collection Wales website *www.peoplescollectionwales.com*, the Royal Commission has been working with 3D artist Iwan Peverett to develop a series of computer-generated reconstruction animations which allow everyone to see how the “island of twenty-thousand saints” has changed over time. These short videos provide a glimpse of how the homes and lives of those living on the island have developed from the Iron Age to the late 19th century.
The earliest archaeological remains on Bardsey are the circular, rectangular and sub-rectangular foundations of several hut groups, visible on the uncultivated slopes of Mynydd Enlli. There is little dating evidence for these remains, but similar sites on the mainland are conclusively dated to the Iron Age (700 B.C. – 43 A.D.), and these have provided the basis for a reconstruction of an Iron Age settlement on the island.
The history of Christianity on Bardsey started with the monastic community founded by St Cadfan in the sixth century, and the island soon became a favoured burial place for the devout. It is likely that this early monastery was located in a similar position to the later abbey as not only is it relatively sheltered, with good views of the island and sea, it is also located near to one of the most dependable springs on the island.
While more evidence exists for the abbey during the later medieval period, it is difficult to be sure of the design and layout of the buildings as so little physical evidence remains. It was recorded at the time of dissolution that the abbey comprised a priory, church house, steeple, rooms, barns, stables, orchards, 8 gardens, 4 pastures, a church, abbots house, and a long arched chapel with insulated altar at one end, an infirmary, stores, necessarium, cemetery and library, all stone built. Knowledge of these buildings was combined with research on other Augustinian abbeys, including Penmon Priory, to provide architectural style and details for the reconstruction.
By the time Thomas Pennant visited the island in 1770, the island was given over to croft style farming, and he describes “a fertile plain... well cultivated... productive of everything the mainland offers”. Evidence for the island in this period comes mainly from written accounts, including Pennant’s, and a contemporary map illustrating the layout of farms and field boundaries. Chris Arnold’s recording of the field boundaries on the island, including the different materials and construction techniques used across the island, also proved invaluable. One prominent structure of this date which survives is the limekiln which stands alongside the road from Ty Pellaf.
In the 1870's a series of major 'improvements' were made to the buildings on the island by the Third Baron Newborough. Earlier crog-loft cottages were replaced with a number of specially designed farm houses and outbuildings. The lighthouse with its 99ft tower, the tallest square tower of any lighthouse in the British Isles, became operational in 1821. Although today it is painted in red and white bands, it was originally just white. Another important addition for the inhabitants of the island was the new chapel, with its chapel house, Ty Capel, next door.