The Park Attractions
These impressive gates at the entrance to the park are a monument to the iron industry in Pontypool. They were constructed in the 1720s, although the gate posts and side gates were reconstructed in 1835 by Thomas Deakin, a local engineer. The grape decoration on the side gates are a good example of the moulder’s art as it was practised in Blaenavon Ironworks.
The gates are known as the ‘Sally’ gates as they were commissioned and gifted to the Hanbury family by their friend Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (‘Sally’).
Beside the gates used to stand Park Lodge, the home of the park keeper, but it suffered from flooding and was demolished in 1959 having become uninhabitable.
The stable block, now housing Amgueddfa Pontypool Museum, was built c. 1822 and replaced the former stables near the park’s deer pond. The stables were built on the site of a chapel and dovecote with a central courtyard housing a circular horse trough.
Alongside the park, the stables came into the ownership of the Urban District Councils in 1920. Over the years they had a number of different uses, including a disinfectant factory, barracks for Indian soldiers during WWII, an education centre, a Chest Clinic and an OAP club before being restored and becoming the Valley Inheritance Museum in 1980.
The Ice Houses
The ice houses for Pontypool Park are of great significance. They are unique within Britain as there is no record of another double chambered ice house. The fact that they have a double chamber but are constructed as one building marks them out as being of particular interest. Ice houses were usually one chamber only and were built individually rather than as a pair. Their location so close to the Hanbury family home is also unusual (Park House now houses St Albans R C High School).
There are a number of reports that the ice houses have been subject to a landslip at the rear of the building which has covered up the access door. Investigations have shown that this is not the case and access to the ice houses was and always has been through the top opening. It is also likely that the structure had a roof which may have been thatched to ensure as much insulation as possible.
Ice to fill the houses would have been taken from the Nant-y-Gollen Ponds and the nearby Monmouth and Brecon Canal. In 1864 the Free Press noted that “ice had been very plentiful and large quantities were secured for the Park ice house”.
During this time ice was contaminated and was not used in food preparation although in later years with the advent of the railway, clean ice was able to be purchased which could be used as an ingredient in food.
The icehouses have now been fully restored with funding from Cadw, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Torfaen County Borough Council.
The Afon Lwyd Weir
The Afon Lwyd, meaning ‘grey river’ enters the park adjacent to the Italian Gardens and exits by Pontymoile. The Afon Lwyd has reputedly the second highest rise and fall of the European rivers and in periods of heavy rainfall, the river quickly reaches its maximum and within a short timescale, becomes a raging torrent.
The weir and sluice gate mechanism were installed in the river to ensure that a forceful stream of water was constantly available to turn the water wheels, which powered the forges located nearby. Early iron making forges such as these, set up in the days before steam, were always sited close to fast flowing rivers to harness this natural power source.
It can be seen that the weir was originally constructed of hardwearing cobbles which, over a period of time have been undermined and have now slipped. The original slab still remains in the river and it is anticipated that there may be an opportunity to renovate this area in future years.
The park management is continuing to work with the Keep Wales Tidy Group and other voluntary organisations to undertake a number of river clean ups throughout the year. It is hoped that with the installation of a fish leap at Pontymoile weir the river will once again be a valuable habitat for trout and other fish.
The American Gardens
In 1850s, during an economic crisis, Capel Hanbury Leigh imported a large number of foreign shrubs and employed local men to plant the American Gardens. A rustic cottage had been built in 1841, a few years before the gardens to house a gardener and woodkeeper to look after the gardens. 14 gardeners were then employed to look after the gardens and roads around it.
The Italian Gardens
Designed and planted in 1850, the Italian Gardens are planted with exotic trees and were inspired by the Isola Bella Gardens in Lake Maggiore visited by Capel Hanbury Leigh and his second wife Emma Rous on their honeymoon.
Plants from this area were brought back to Pontypool, as was the custom at that time. The gardens are noted as Italian Gardens on the 1918 ordnance survey map but they are not mentioned on the 1881 map. However, an area of similar description is marked but not named, on this earlier map.
The Italian Gardens appear to have taken on greater significance when Mrs Hanbury-Tenison, the daughter of John Hanbury, gave the gardens to the people of Pontypool to commemorate her coming of age in 1920. The white wall along Hanbury Road, which had hidden the gardens from public view, was removed and a new entrance to the Park was built which subsequently became the memorial for those who fell in the First World War.
Planting in this area focuses on specimens considered fashionable from 1900 onwards. Other features to note are the tramway tunnel and riverside walk taking in the weir towards Pontymoile.
The Shell Grotto
The Shell Grotto was built between 1830 and 1840 and is said to have been inspired by Capel Hanbury Leigh’s first wife Molly who had a similar grotto at her family home at The Gnoll in Neath. The Hanbury Family used it as a summer house and shooting lodge. It is 700 feet above sea level.
The Grotto is built in the romantic gothic tradition and was probably designed by Stephen Gunstan Tit; a bath architect. The interior has been decorated with thousands of shells, including mussels, periwinkles, cockles and limpets as well as stalagmites, minerals and animal bones in the shapes of stars, hearts and diamonds.
In 1994 the grotto was restored to its former glory after years of vandalism and the whole town celebrated with a 1930’s style picnic and torch light walk.
There is a story that Molly was travelling in France when she met a French hermit. She brought him back to Pontypool where he was given the task of constructing the grotto. The hermit lived inside the structure while completing it. No one knows if this is true.
The Folly Tower
The Folly Tower was built in 1765 on the supposed site of a Roman watch tower. It was originally octagonal in shape and positioned to take advantage of the views in a time when there was a revival in the appreciation of nature and the natural landscape. For a number of years the Folly was loved by the Hanbury family and looked after, as demonstrated by a keystone bearing the date 1831 indicating work was undertaken to keep it in good repair. Unfortunately, in later years it fell into disrepair.
In 1931 Pontypool Council asked for the Folly to be repaired and wanted to turn it into one of the chief attractions of the town. Unfortunately on 7th July 1940, it was blown up by the Army under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, in case German bombers use it as a landmark. A year later a stray German bomb fell on the ruins and would have destroyed it anyway. Luckily the 1831 keystone was salvaged from the rubble.
After the war the local people pleaded for the tower to be rebuilt. However the council surprisingly did not rebuild it. It was not until 1990 that consideration was given to it being rebuilt and a committee of local men called CROFT (Campaign to Rebuild the Old Folly Tower) raised enough money for construction to start in 1992. The rest of the finances were raised from a variety of sources and the building was completed in 1994; a testament to the power of local people’s commitment to their heritage.
The Gorsedd Stone Circle
The Gorsedd Stone Circle was erected in 1923 prior to the National Eisteddfod that was held in the Park in 1924. The Eisteddfod is a celebration of Welsh literature, art, culture and music and is rooted in the old bardic tradition. During the ceremony the Bard is appointed and prizes are given for outstanding contributions to Welsh culture.
The stone circle is known as the Circle of Sacred Refuge and the stones themselves are called sacred stones and stones of testimony. The centre stone is known as the Stone of Presidency or the Altar of Gorsedd or the Perfection Stone. The layout of the stone circle is specified within a set of rules governing the ceremony.
A number of bards are appointed throughout the celebration and each bard has a distinctive colour suitable to his own order. For example, a poet will wear a robe of sky blue colour, a druid’s robe is white, an ovate’s robe which signifies the growth and increase of learning and science is green. In addition, there are various other regalia including swords and standards which are a part of the overall ceremony.
The Nant-y-Gollen ponds were originally one large millpond which was the power source for the forge further down the stream in the Park (now the site of the rugby grandstand). The stream used to flow into the pond at the top edge and then exit at the bottom edge, but in later years a stream was created to run alongside the ponds with picnic spot and rustic bridge.
The sweet chestnuts surrounding the ponds are approximately 400 years old and were used as a source of charcoal for the forges downstream. The trees are very adaptable and sprout vigorously after being cut back thus creating more timber which can be used for charcoal.
During the 1920s Johnny Weismuller, the original Tarzan, used the ponds for a swimming event and in later years it is reputed that the ponds were the home for the local water polo team.
The ponds were re-designed in the early 1990s and two ponds were created with the intention that they should be used as model boating lakes. Unfortunately, the ponds were then known to leak which gave problems associated with lack of water and the sediment in the base. The ponds were renovated in 2010 by Torfaen CBC.
The bandstand was built in 1931, as a gift from Cllr Roderick, the local chemist from Commercial Street and town band conductor, just after the district council had purchased the land for public use.
In 1975 a play area and ski slope were built for the community in Pontypool.
The first rugby pitch was laid in 1925. It was also used for tennis at this time, and was built for the community just after the district councils had purchased the land. Today it is still used as a rugby pitch for Pontypool RFC.
The plants and nature of the Park
An old ‘map’ shows avenues of sweet chestnuts and beech following the contours of the valleys up towards the Folly Tower.
Many of the veteran sweet chestnuts are still visible, surrounding the Nant-y-Gollen ponds and close to the Gorsedd Stone Circle, and are reputedly the largest specimens this far north. They were originally planted to produce charcoal for the iron forges along the Afon Lwyd.
During the next 100 years, new plantings of chestnuts, oak, beech and yew were introduced obscuring the formal avenues and creating the wooded areas along the river and main path to Pontymoile. The Park still retained its open character and views to the beech ridge, Shell Grotto and the town itself were clearly visible.
Conifer plantations were introduced during the 1950-60s and left unmanaged and this combined with the growth of many of the original plantings, has altered the landscape to a predominantly mature wooded park with some open meadowland.
Industry in the Park
Along the edge of the Park were many industries. The site of the first forge built by Richard Hanbury is thought to be near the leisure centre.
In 1808, Pontymoile tin works were created.
The tramway was part of a wider, local system which included tinplate works and forges which produced the Pontypool Japanware. This became famous as a new technique for applying decorative panels onto a variety of everyday items including trays and teapots.
The tunnel was originally constructed around 1825 to link the Pontymoile tinworks to the Park and Osborne forges and probably supplied them with their iron.
The tram road continued to run alongside the river, now a footpath and further downstream there is evidence of a weir and sluice gates which would have been used to control water into the forges.
The tunnel is now blocked up but it is rumoured that it originally exited close to the Town Bridge.
The tunnel came back into use as an air raid shelter during World War II and there are some local residents who remember sheltering there during bombing raids.
Today the tunnel is unused but remains as a poignant reminder of the industrial past of Pontypool and its association with Japanware.