Nestled politely between Barry and Wenvoe is what remains of a once stately and comely looking 18th century house. This was Wenvoe ‘castle’, a handsome and commodious house designed by Robert Adam: the actual design was executed by Thomas Roberts for Peter Birt in 1776-77. The ‘castle’ was unusual for a late 18th century house as its architecture veered more towards an earlier Gothic/Medieval tradition a good 50 years before this became fashionable when it was revived at the end of the Georgian period (1830). Wenvoe Castle was built at a time when classically inspired Greco-Roman architecture was the norm and was considered the apotheosis of taste and refinement, so the house, in an architectural sense, was slightly unusual for the 18th century. The Georgian house at Wenvoe replaced an earlier 16th century house which was once owned by one Edmund Thomas who himself acquired the earlier house and manor from the Earl of Pembroke. The house part burned down in 1910 and the rest was subsequently demolished in the 1930’s – a great shame.
(Wenvoe Castle - late Victorian period)
Like all great houses of this period, including the contiguous Duffryn House and now the sadly demolished (ironically also now a golf club) Cottrell House, Wenvoe had an extensive, landscaped garden.
Gardens were considered an important appendage to the house itself, therefore it was usual with houses of this status to have magnificent gardens and Wenvoe was no exception. It is a fact that the third baronet, Sir Edward Thomas bankrupted himself to create the landscaped gardens at Wenvoe between 1733-1767. The remnants of this magnificent landscape are still extant if one looks carefully, but the most interesting element to this artificial landscape is the serpentine canal and folly hidden away from public gaze in nearby Bears Wood. Upon surveying this a number of years ago Mark and I were at a loss as to what the structure could be; as keen modern antiquarians, it didn't seem to conform to any known architectural style yet looked ancient. Upon further investigation we discovered it to be a folly, albeit in a very poor state of neglect.
(A part of the landscaped garden hidden in Bear Wood just outside Barry)
These follies were very fashionable in landscaped gardens in the 18th century and correspond to the growing antiquarian interest in Britain’s mysterious past. It was a time when people were beginning to take an interest in the lumps and bumps in Britain’s ancient landscape (such as barrows) and even at the less distant past of the Medieval period. From the Renaissance period it was thought that Britain could not culturally hope to match the high civilization and culture that emulated from Rome and Greece in antiquity but, here it is; the evidence that Britons were starting to take an interest and reverence in their own past at a time when even the true age of ancient monuments from prehistory was shrouded in ignorance. It is fascinating to see this physical projection of the ‘new’ interest in Britain’s heritage as this folly and others like it throughout Britain are essentially just that. It has been thought that this serpentine canal, folly and landscape were the product of the omnipresent Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, but it seems more likely that this was based on a misunderstanding from a diary extract of James Grimston who stayed at Wenvoe in 1769 and noted that “the grounds were laid out in the modern taste” which implied that the “modern taste” was in the style of Brown. Brown was though involved with the landscaping of nearby Cardiff Castle in 1776.
(Remains of the serpentine canal)
Barry itself is a large Victorian boom-town which swallowed up the villages of Cadoxton, Merthyr Dyfan and Old Barry Village and is notable (apart from these areas) for the conspicuous absence of architecture and history predating the late Victorian period, but if one looks around the peripheries and into Glamorgan there is a wealth of history both ‘modern’ and ancient waiting to be explored.