These handsome gates standing proud in Pontypool Park are a fitting monument to the industry that made this area famous – iron manufacturing. They represent the culmination of almost 600 years of iron making in the area.
The gates date to the 1720s and were a gift from the Duchess of Marlborough to the local Hanbury family. We’ll learn more about the Hanburys as we continue. The Duchess's nickname meanwhile was Sally, so these gates are known locally as the 'Sally Gates'.
As we pass through the gates, look at them in more detail. Can you see a delicate pattern of grapes and vine leaves? They are a good example of the skilled iron moulding practised at the ironworks in nearby Blaenavon.
By going through the ‘Sally Gates’ we’re entering the park as the Hanburys once did. The scene before us is more characteristic of the grounds of a country estate. That’s because it once was. Long before rows of houses filled the valley, the hillsides were green and sparsely wooded - a perfect place for a wealthy family to build their estate.
This wide, winding driveway brought visitors on a pleasant carriage ride up to the big house (now a school). This landscaping was for the owners’ benefit as much as their visitors. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, highly formal gardens were the height of fashion. What better way to impress your guests as they travelled through them to reach your house?
Look carefully at the driveway. Can you make out lines of trees that flanked each side? It’s not that easy - and we’ll discover why later on.
Continue along the driveway until you reach a junction in the path and a signpost pointing you to ponds and a ski slope.
2 Active Living Centre
To our left is the Active Living Centre. Although this is a modern building, this spot marks the real beginning of the story of this landscape.
Iron making is recorded in in this area as early as 1425, but 150 years later it was the arrival of Richard Hanbury that really kicked sparked the flames of industry. Hanbury was a goldsmith or banker from London who saw business potential in this little valley.
This spot is thought to be the site of his first iron forge, built in 1577. Without it the landscape around us would not exist.
Although he never lived here himself, Richard Hanbury's business venture also started a family connection with the area that continues to this day. But why this particular valley? Keep an eye (and maybe an ear) out for clues as we continue…
Turn right at the signpost and take the path to the ponds, passing the grounds of Pontypool Rugby Football Club on your left. Continue over the rise and stop once you reach two large ponds.
3 Nant-y-Gollen Ponds
These ponds are an excellent example of how Richard Hanbury and other early iron workers were able to exploit this landscape to their industrial advantage. The Torfaen valley is criss-crossed by streams and rivers - did you hear the distant roar of the Afon Llwyd as you made your way here?
The ponds in front of us demonstrate the Hanburys were quick to recognise this free source of energy. They dug out what was originally one large mill-pond and used the water to power the iron forge further downstream. Water was also used to extract the iron ore from the ground.
One reason this valley was so popular for iron production is that the ore lies close to the surface. Therefore workmen could simply loosen the soil and use water from the streams and rivers to wash away the waste, leaving behind the iron ore. The river is said to get its distinctive colour from this process, hence its name - Afon Llwyd or ‘Grey River’.
Now take a look around. Can you spot any other sources of power?
The answer is in the trees. The ponds are surrounded by Sweet Chestnut trees which are now, like the ponds, purely decorative. They were originally planted, however, as a source of charcoal to fuel the iron forges. Sweet Chestnuts are an ideal source of charcoal as they are very adaptable and grow vigorously after being cut back, which quickly provided more timber.
Continue past the ponds towards the wooden chalet hut. On your right notice the dry ski slope, another example of how the steep terrain of this valley has been put to use. Just beyond the chalet hut, the path becomes grass. Follow the grass path along the line of the valley until you see a small wooden bridge to your right. Head towards it and stop once you reach the bridge.
4 Into the Woods
Beneath the bridge flows one of the valley’s many streams. It marks a boundary between the open grassy valley and the wilder, wooded area. But appearances can be deceptive. As wild and natural as the woods look, they are just as carefully crafted as the park’s formal gardens.
In the eighteenth century formal layouts of lines and driveways fell out of favour. Like so many wealthy landowners at the time, the Hanburys employed the services of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to make their landscape look more natural.
Do you think he was successful?
Cross over the bridge and head up into the woods. Here the route becomes steep and narrow. Continue uphill until you reach a grassy clearing. On your left you will pass a signpost to a ‘grotto’. Stay to the left of the clearing and continue uphill. A little further, the landscape opens out even more and the grassy path should meet another one coming up from the right. Stop here.
5 Pontypool Park Meadows
Turn around so that you are facing down the slope and look out across the valley. This is where the impact of the Hanburys is most apparent. Can you see the mountains in the distance? They mark the start of the Brecon Beacons and offer a glimpse of what the Pontypool Valley might once have looked like.
When Richard Hanbury was first drawn to the area, he found a steep sparsely wooded valley with a scatter of houses at the bottom. Compare that to the view in front of us now. The success of the Hanbury forges grew the tiny settlement into a thriving town. At one time Pontypool was larger than nearby Newport - and even larger the capital city of Cardiff!
With forges across the valley and teams of experienced workers, the Hanburys took this area’s natural resources and turned them into high quality iron goods. Pontypool became synonymous with superior quality iron. Many new techniques, such as tin-plating, were pioneered here.
Pontypool became famous for the ‘japanning’ process, where a layer of oil varnish was baked onto iron items like plates and bowls. This produced a highly-polished and hard-wearing black layer that was then decorated in an oriental style.
Pontypool iron, in particular wrought iron gates and railings, was exported all over the world. As well as products, knowledge of the trade also spread. The first iron forge in America was reportedly built by two brothers from Pontypool.
Turn back uphill. Ahead of you in a small clearing you will see a small stone hut. Head towards it and soon you will reach a fork in the path. Take the left fork up a gentle slope. As you near the top, follow the path round to the right and onto the hilltop.
6 Shell Grotto
Our reward for scaling the steep hill is the stunning view out across the Usk Valley, with the Severn Estuary in the distance the. Take a moment to enjoy the view. Also see if you can spot three famous river crossings.
On a clear day we should be able to see from left to right: the Severn Bridge, the Second Severn Crossing and the Newport Transporter Bridge. These views are the reason for the little stone hut just behind us.
Rustic and ancient-looking, the grotto is actually another example of the Hanburys crafting beauty from the landscape around them. Built from local sandstone in the late eighteenth century, the grotto is typical of the romantic garden features that were the height of fashion at the time.
Grottos were built to look old and were often cave-like inside. This one is no exception – hidden inside is an elaborate fanned ceiling covered with intricate patterns of sea shells and coral. The walls are set with glistening minerals and real stalactites from local caves.
Even the floor is decorated, although more gruesomely using bones and teeth from animals that once roamed the estate.
Follow the small path down the slope and through a small group of trees. Pass through the kissing gate (the first of many) and continue down until the path meets a larger path. Turn left and follow this path along the hillside. Be aware of livestock as the path passes through working farmland.
7 Along the crest of the hill
As we continue following the hilltop path we’ll see plenty of evidence of human intervention in the landscape, much of it by the wealthy Hanbury family. Everything in our immediate surroundings fuelled a specific purpose. Acres of farmland supplied fresh produce to the estate, while the tree plantations provided charcoal to power the hungry furnaces of the iron forges.
As we walk along the path, keep an eye out for views of the wider landscape to the right. In the distance a glittering body of water will appear, nestled among the rolling hills. Although very picturesque, this too is a not natural feature.
In the 1960s, the valley was flooded to create Llandegfedd Reservoir, swallowing up several farms and a village in the process. Local folklore says that on low water days the top of the old church steeple can be seen poking above the surface.
Continue ahead as the path steepens. Soon you will reach the final kissing gate. Pass through the gate and continue up the path as it opens onto the wild grassy hilltop. For the final breath-taking stop, head towards the grey tower.
8 Folly Tower
“Here where the hill holds heaven in her hands; high above Monmouthshire the grey tower stands” - so wrote local poet Myfanwy Haycock in 1937. The Folly Tower has inspired generations of locals to make the trek to the top of the hill. But this viewpoint is over 2,000 years old!
As we enjoy the full panorama, it’s easy to see why the Romans are supposed to have chosen this site for a watchtower. The function of this scenery has changed repeatedly since the Roman era. With the arrival of the Hanburys, the focus turned from a useful defensive site to a landscape of leisure.
In the late eighteenth century it became fashionable among the wealthy to build follies (buildings with no functional purpose) on their estates. The Hanburys were no exception. The original tower was constructed in the late 1760s and used as a summerhouse and lookout point for hunting deer.
During the Second World War though the folly’s conspicuous location became a problem. Concerns grew that enemy pilots could use it as a landmark to direct them to the nearby munitions factory in Glascoed. So the tower was demolished and the hill stood empty for many decades.
The local community never forgot it though and in 1994, after years of campaigning and fundraising, the grey tower began to rise once more from the hillside. It was opened in 1995 by Prince Charles and remains an important local feature.
The folly is an ideal place to conclude our walk. From here we can see the natural features that made this area home to the Welsh iron industry. This steep valley was the perfect place for iron working. It had an abundance of iron ore, a plentiful supply of water for extracting it, and trees to provide charcoal for the furnaces.
The Hanbury family were quick to recognise Pontypool’s potential and grew rich from the iron industry here. The folly tower was one way the Hanburys used their wealth to transform the landscape into their vision of the perfect country estate. The rebuilt tower shows how today their estate has become a landscape of leisure, enjoyed by all.
You have now completed the trail. When you are ready, return to the Shell Grotto and make your back down through the park. If you have time, visit some of the other landscape features the Hanburys built, such as the beautiful Italian Gardens and the Gorsedd Stone Circle.