Thursday, 28 February 2013

Wenveo's Secret Garden

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.

The folly and remnants of the landscape garden are on private grounds and not open for the public to view. The landowners’ permission was obtained before our visit.


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  2. Hello, I was wondering if there is any information about the current landowner of bears woods. My boyfriend and I are both very keen to keep the woods and surrounding areas as is, and are dreading that the landowner might sell this ancient land for profit (which will most likely happen). We have less and less natural places, with real history left anymore, I find it so disheartening that the land has changed so much in the last 300 years. That magnificent canal that is now barely even a stream, filled up with 300 years worth of natural debris. There is hardly anywhere left now, that has true standing history, even the once beautifully architectural castle is now a relatively modern looking Manor House, that is only available for golf club members. The surrounding woodlands are a testament to what once was. Showing signs of rare mushrooms and ferns that have been all but irradicated from areas, messed with by man. We used enjoy walking around this woods and would regularly come out with bags of rubbish, we'd picked up from other careless visitors, until we found out it was private. Although this is private woodlands, locals still often walk here, of which only a handful seem to care about nature. We are desperate to look after this beautiful place, and are documenting all the rare fungi we find, should this information ever be needed, if it comes to a point where the landowner wants to sell of this amazing land to the highest bidder. The nearby Pencoedtre woods was going to be almost completely built over by housing developers. Untill a few bright sparks took it up on themselves to save it. This was done by proving the existence of rare fungi, ferns and orchids in the woods. These discoveries helped stop the housing developers from chopping down the whole area, and pencoedtre woods is now a more protected place of natural scientific interest. My boyfriend and I would both love the opportunity to contact the owner of the land personally, and enlighten him/her on all the wonderful natural organisms here that desperately need protecting from further development.
    I dont know if I will get a reply, but I have my fingers crossed, as this is the only place where I've read that someone has got in contact with the landowner of Bears wood. Thank you for reading, I hope I get a reply, as this is rather important to me, to preserve our natural history.