Sunday, 1 May 2016

Pontypool Park

Boot up!
   Whoever coined the phrase "a walk in the park" to mean something easy had never been here, to this 64 hectare area, aka the People's Park, of grassland, slopes, woodland and scattered relics of the past. There are smooth paths on the lower parts but you can have a strenuous hike higher up and that is without going as far as the 3-storey Folly Tower. I chickened out of this on my last cold, windy visit, telling myself I had seen its proud profile on the ridge as I looked through the bus window. That is the very reason it was demolished in 1940 as being too visible a guidance point (274 metres above sea level) for enemy aircraft, though it was rebuilt by public subscription in 1994 and opened by the Prince of Wales.
   The whole area, laid out in the latter years of the 17th century, was formerly the grounds of Park House, the residence of Major John Hanbury, a local iron master. It was bought by the local authority in 1920.

The Pontymoile Gates
   The bus driver kindly dropped me off on the eastern edge of the park so that I could enter through these Grade II* listed beautiful gates, at present painted apple green (the colour being the subject of some controversy I gather) and known locally as the Sally Gates. Sally was Duchess of Marlborough and the legend has it that she gave them to the Hanbury family in gratitude for their help with her Will. The originals, dating from the mid 19th century, were classical, with bunches of grapes and vines on the pillars added later and possibly painted gold..

The Shell Grotto - not forgetting the bones!
   This unusual little building is only open on certain days of the year but is worth a climb up the steep incline to its situation at 220 metres above sea level to savour the superb views of the Severn Estuary. It was constructed around 1830 as a summer house for the Hanbury family and is the most important surviving example in Wales, also Grade II* listed. I can only assume they had servants to carry their picnic!
   Inside, the ceiling is fan vaulted, with artificial stalactites: it and the pillars are decorated with thousands of shells, minerals and also real stalactites. The floor is paved with animal bones and teeth set in patterns of arcs, circles, stars, hearts and diamonds.  In the 18th century such garden features were intended to be emotive, in this case to provoke a reaction to a simulated journey into the earth where the darkness is relieved only by the sparkle of minerals and ancient shells. This grotto is cylindrical and built from local sandstone with a conical roof.

The Gorsedd Stones
   When the 1924 National Eisteddfod, the festival of singing, dancing and poetry, was held in this park, a circle of standing stones was created, also known as The Circle of Sacred Refuge. They are made from local conglomerate stone and the large central one is called the Stone of Presidency, Altar of Gorsedd or Perfection Stone. The layout of the stones is governed by the rules of the ceremony and the bards wore distinctive colours: a poet sky-blue; a Druid white and green was the shade of the ovate to symbolise growth in learning and science. Again, they are high up and the site feels quite special.

Ponds, Bandstand, Ice House and Italian Gardens
   The Nant-y-Gollen ponds were originally one large millpond intended to power a forge downstream. In the 1920's they were used by Johnny Weismuller, the first Tarzan, for a swimming event. The bandstand was erected in memory of Mr Stanley Tudor Roderick, a well known Pontypool musician and bandmaster. It now presents the annual Jazz in the Park festival. The Georgian Ice House is unique in having a double chamber. The Italian Gardens were based on the Isola Bella Gardens in Lake Maggiore: plants were brought back from there as was the custom at the time and the specimens were considered fashionable on the early 1900's.

Other attractions
   The woodlands are mixed with beech, oak and yew, some 250 years old, the large sweet chestnuts being originally planted for use as charcoal for the iron forges along the Afon Lwyd river - some are 400 years old. There are tennis/netball courts, an immaculate bowling green with an attractive pavilion, a dry ski slope, an 8,800 capacity stadium, an annual fireworks display with synchronised music, a Leisure Centre with soft play, a national cycle route through, a tramway tunnel, access to walks along the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal and the Brecon Beacons National Park and a nearby museum.

A day out
  In almost any weather you could spend an enjoyable day out here, noticing the black War Memorial Gates on your way out.

You are then near the library, quite near the museum (I'll write about this little gem later) and right by the bus stops where you can catch several buses including the 63 to Usk with its charming castle and on to Chepstow with its imposing castle and beyond. The X3 and X33 go to Abergavenny with amazing effigies in St. Mary's Church. See timetable link at very foot of page) and the X24 which goes every 10 minutes to Newport, Cwmbran and Blaenavon.

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