Gwernvale Manor Hotel, (also known as The Manor Hotel), Abergavenny, Wales
Record Id: 8302
The Manor of Gwernvale was a mense manor held in fief to the Lord of Brecknock, Richard de Newmarsh. In 1318 it was in the possession of Gronw the Bald and known as Ty Gronw Voel and it has been suggested that the name Gwernvale is a corruption of this, but it was also known as Moelmawr or Gwernvald. It later passed to Hugh Turberville who granted it to Roger de Bredwardine whose descendants continued to reside at Gwernvale for several more generations. The estate was purchased by Sir Henry Roger Proger in 1668. He left it to his son Charles who sold it to his uncle Edward Proger (1618 - 1713/4) of Hampton Court. Edward had been Member of Parliament for Brecknockshire, Page of Honour to Charles I, Groom of the Bedchamber for Charles II, Lord of the Manor of West Stow and Keeper of the Middle Park and Harewarren. Upon Edward's death the estate passed to his eldest daughter Phillipa, who bequeathed it to her husband Dr Samuel Croxhall, Chaplain in Ordinary to George I, but possibly best known for his version of Aesop's Fables. Samuel built a new mansion on the estate but only occasionally resided there. He left the estate to a distant relative Hester Bailiss of Hereford who conveyed it in her life-time to her niece, the wife of Mr John Newby, who sold it to William Tristram Everest (1747 - 1825), a solicitor who lived in Greenwich.
Tristram Everest (as he was usually known) built a new manor house and associated grounds a little lower down the valley-side from the house that Croxhall had built. Croxhall's house still stands and is now known as Gwerndale Farm. The exact date(s) that Mr Everest acquired the estate and had the new manor house built are not known and the names of both the architect and the landscape gardener remain a mystery. At this stage the thorny issue of the birthplace of George Everest, eldest son of William Tristram Everest, after whom Mt. Everest is named, needs to be addressed. It has been widely reported that George Everest was born at Gwernvale, but there is no documentary evidence to support this. What is known is that George was baptised at St Alphage church, Greenwich on 27 January 1791 and his baptismal certificate states he was born on 4 July 1790, but does not state the location.
There is a record of notable historian Archdeacon Henry Thomas Payne acquiring a painting of Edward Proger at a sale of property at Gwernvale in 1789, which opens up the possibility that Everest's acquisition of the estate might possibly date to around this time. In A History of the County of Brecknock published in 1809, the author Theophilus Jones, whose sister Sarah died at Gwernvale on 27 May 1832, states Gwernvale Mansion was built "a few years back", which lead later historians to assume this meant sometime in the last years of the 18th or early years of the 19th century. An advertisement for the sale of the Manor and Lordship of Gwernvale in the Hereford Journal dated 24 June 1795 states that the property was let to Mr Thomas Cy?ven (illegible in the scanned document) for £100 per annum and that his lease expired in February 1797. An advertisement for the sale of the Manor or Lordship of Gwernvale and a Mansion House called Gwernvale House in The Times dated 11 July 1795, states the estate was then in the occupation of a tenant named Thomas Gwin (probably the same person). It would thus seem fairly likely that Mr Everest probably acquired the estate around this time and that until 1797 there was a sitting tenant in occupation. This makes it highly unlikely that the new mansion was constructed before 1797, in which case George Everest could not have been born at Gwernvale, although it is fairly certain that he later spent time there.
Mr Everest, of Gwernvale House advertised to let Gwerndale farm, in the Hereford Journal of 14 October 1801, so it is known for certain that the new manor house had been constructed by that date, which ties in with the assumption that the new house was constructed around the turn of the century. Furthermore, the sale of Mr Tristram Everest's furniture in Greenwich was advertised in Morning Post of 6 May 1803 for the reason that he was moving, which coincides with his appointment as Deputy Lieutenant of Brecon, published in the Gazette of May 30th 1803. It would thus appear that Tristram Everest moved to live permanently at Gwernvale in 1803. George was sent to Military College in Woolwich in 1804 and departed for India in 1806, from whence he did not return until 1826, by which time both his parents were dead.
The mansion was offered for sale in an advertisement in The Cambrian and in the Hereford Journal in 1810 and included gardens, shrubberies, double coach house, stable for 6 horses and 32a 2r 2p of meadow land. It was offered for sale yet again in The Cambrian in 1813 when the advertisement stated that it was accessed from the turnpike road via a carriage sweep through meadows to an ionic portico entrance. The mansion comprised a hall, breakfast parlour, gentleman's morning room, library, dining room 22ft by 16ft, drawing room 20ft 6in by 19ft 6in with French windows, vestibule and geometrical circular staircase leading to five well proportioned bed chambers and two dressing rooms. A second staircase led to four servants apartments. The domestic offices consisted of a servants' hall, two kitchens, laundry, brew house, coal house, wood houses and two paved areas or tack courts. The cellars were stated to be arched and perfectly dry. Plantations nearly encircled the mansion and a terrace walk also led to the turnpike road near Crickhowell. A walled garden of nearly an acre was "at a convenient distance", with choice fruits, hothouses stocked with vines, peaches and pines (pineapples) together with a gardener's cottage, granary, poultry yard, cow house, piggery, dog kennel, stabling for 8 horses, a double coach house and other buildings.
The mansion was next acquired by John Gwynne (1780 - 1852) presumably around 1813. John had served with the 14th Light Dragoons throughout the Peninsula war, during the course of which he was twice severely wounded, before settling down at Gwernvale and serving as a JP and DL, then High Sheriff of Brecknockshire by 1819. In December 1830 John received a threatening letter signed by the fictitious "Capt Swing", the mythical leader of a widespread uprising of agricultural workers that rose and rioted in response to tithe charges, low wages and replacement of labour with machinery, coupled with the effects of the Enclosure Act of 1773. In 1841 his gardener was Abraham Goodwin.
The Crickhowell Tithe plan, the earliest available large scale map of the area dated 1844, shows the layout of the manor was much as described in the advertisement of 1810, interestingly the plan shows it as "Gwern y fald", see images. The apportionment, where the estate is shown as Gwernvale House, also showed John owned Pregge corn mill and Gwernvale Cottage situated on the lane leading up from the Brecon road to Gwernvale farm, together with a couple of outlying cottages. In June 1846 at the Abergavenny and Crickhowell Society show John won 1st prize for six Geraniums. In the June show of 1847, when it was stated that his gardener was J Stewart, he exhibited some notable species of Pimelia, Spectabile, Epacris grandiflora, Ghorizema varia, Azalia variegata, Euthalis macrophylla, Cactus Jenkinsonii, Erica hybrida, Erica wilmoreanii, Erica vestitia, Fulgida and six different varieties of roses. In the September show of 1847 John won 1st prize for greenhouse plants and 2nd prize for melons. In 1851 his garden labourer was 24 year old Charles Harris from Monmouth. John Gwynne died at Gwernvale on March 19 1852. Gwerndale farm remained the property of Tristram Everest until it was sold by his trustees in 1825 and has remained as a separate entity since that time.
The 1861 census shows the new mansion house was occupied by Sophia Philips aged 72, a widow "lady landowner" born in Warrington, Lancashire. Mrs Philips was the widow of Hardman Philips (1785 - 1854), one of the early settlers in the State of Pennsylvania, where he had purchased a large tract of forest and discovered bituminous coal. He founded the town of Philipsburgh, Centre County, where a house he had built in 1813, Moshannon Hall, still stands and is listed in the US National Register of Historic Places. He sold his American estates in 1844 and returned to live at Gwernvale where he devoted his remaining years to the cause of education and general improvement of his neighbourhood. He died at Gwernvale 5 December 1854. In 1861 the garden cottage was occupied by gardener Thomas Nicholas aged 36 from Jefferson, Pembrokeshire and his wife and another cottage by 24 year old under-gardener David Thomas from Eglwys, Pembrokeshire and shepherd John Morgan aged 22 from Whitney, Herefordshire. The 1871 census shows Sophia still in residence; the garden cottage was now occupied by 30 year old gardener William Lewis from Picton, Herefordshire and his family and the stables by another gardener James Williams aged 21 from Llanegan?(illegible), Breconshire and by groom Arthur Bushel.
In 1881 the 68 year old annuitant Margaret Wall was in occupation. She was the widow of Arthur Henry Wall JP who died at Gwernvale 9 February 1881 aged 65. Arthur was the son of the late Rev John Wall of Kington, Herefordshire. The house was again offered for sale in an advertisement placed in the Western Mail dated 28 June 1883, which did not include a detailed description of the property. The first large scale Ordnance Survey (OS) plan of the area was published in 1888, see images. The plan shows that the mansion house had not been much altered since the Tithe plan. However, it does show that a new drive had been constructed from the mansion to the lane near Gwernvale Cottage, presumably following the line of the terraced walk leading to the turnpike road near Crickhowell as mentioned in the 1813 advertisement. Also shown on the plan are three fountains, one near the largest walled garden, close to which a sun dial is marked, one just east of the mansion and one at the centre of a large pond on a terrace east of and below the mansion. Towards the top of the main drive off the Brecon road on the west side an elongate water feature is shown. (Some of these features are shown in outline only on the Tithe plan but not mentioned in the apportionment.) In 1891 Gertrude Jane Mary Lloyd aged 66 was living in the mansion. She was the widow of John Lloyd of Rhagatt and Berth, Corwen, who was one time High Sheriff of Denbighshire. Gertrude died at Gwernvale 31 March 1895.
The National Library of Wales holds two paintings of Gwernvale Gardens dated 10 Dec 1886 by Frances Elizabeth Wynne, the daughter of Charles Griffin Wynne (1780 - 1865) of Voelas, Denbighshire and London, who had been MP for Caernarvonshire between 1830 and 1832. One painting simply entitled Gwernvale shows the water feature east of and below the house whilst the other entitled from the garden Gwernvale shows a view over the Usk valley to the hills beyond with the coach house which had a dovecote on the east elevation right foreground.
In 1895 the Rev G Evans Gwynne, presumed to be a relation of John Gwynne, offered the mansion for sale. The sale included the pleasure grounds with lawn tennis courts, terrace walk, summerhouse, fountains, plantations, ornamental waters, shrubberies and valuable timber. At an agreeable distance from the house were orchards and 3 walled gardens, a large conservatory stocked with vines and peaches, two good cottages for coachman and gardener, poultry yard, coach houses with lofts over, cow houses, piggery and yard, double coach house with rooms over, saddle room, stables with 3 loose boxes and 2 stalls with room over, hay house and other convenient buildings.
Edward Pirie-Gordon (1853 - 1937), 12th Laird of Buthlaw, whose wife Louisa neé Handley preferred the climate of South Wales to that of Aberdeenshire, moved to Gwernvale in 1897. During his life at Gwernvale Edward was variously a JP, the DL of Breconshire, County Alderman of Breconshire, an original member of the Governing Body, of the Representative Body and of the Electoral College of the Welsh Church and chairman of the Diocesan Finance Committee of the Bishopric of Swansea and Brecon. He was Secretary of the Crickhowell Book Club and between 1907 and 1914 the Master of the local hunt the "Crickhowell Harriers". He was made a Knight of Grace of the Honourable Order of Jerusalem in 1927 for his work with hospitals and district nursing. The layout of the site in the second edition OS plan dated 1904 shows only minor changes had taken place since 1888, the most notable being steps which had been built from the mansion to the lower terrace and an area close to the top of the drive west of the house had been terraced and was possibly a new tennis court or croquet lawn. The Pirie-Gordon coat of arms, carved in stone or cast in concrete, was added to the west side of the house in 1911 when the west wing of the house was either extended or rebuilt and possibly around this time the route of the driveway from the Brecon road was altered with a hairpin bend added, presumably to reduce the slope somewhat; possibly coincident with the introduction of the motor car. This reduced the length of the elongate water feature. For many years Edward recorded the rainfall at Gwernvale, and his records have been kept by the Meteorological Office. In his will he left £50 to his gardener Robert Henry Roberts, who was from Dolgellau and had been with him since at least 1901, and the same amount to his bailiff Harold Palmer.
Upon Edward's death the manor passed to his only son Charles Harry Clinton Pirie-Gordon (1883-1969), universally known as Harry Pirie-Gordon. There is insufficient space here to do justice to his long and varied career, what follows being a short summary of his exploits. He was educated at Harrow and Magdelan College Oxford, where he had rooms opposite Edward Montague Compton Mackenzie (1883 - 1972), a co-founder of the Scottish Nationalist Party, but possibly more widely know as author of "Whisky Galore" and many other works of fiction. Mackenzie visited Gwernvale for a summer holiday in 1901. Whilst at Oxford Harry also became a close friend of Frederick William Rolfe (1860 - 1913) alias "Baron Corvo" who stayed at Gwernvale for extended periods. In 1906 they formed "The Order of Sanctissima Sophia", a secular semi monastic order the purpose of which was to add to the learning of the world. Harry was responsible for helping Rolfe with two of his books, "Hubert's Arthur" and "The Weird of the Wanderer" at which time Rolfe dubbed himself as "Prospero" and Harry as "Caliban"!
In 1910 Harry married Mabel Alicia Buckle, the daughter of the editor of The Times, and worked as The Times' foreign correspondent in the middle east before World War 1, using this guise to gather intelligence. At the onset of World War 1 he became an Intelligence Officer with the Royal Navy. He provided Lawrence of Arabia with a map of Syria he had made. (Lawrence later returned the map stained with his own blood from a beating he had received from "bad Kurds".) He was awarded the Distinguished Cross for Bravery in 1915 for his part in the landing parties on the Syrian coast from HMS Doris, where he was wounded. He later transferred to the army and was employed in the examination of Turkish prisoners of war and became editor of The Palestine News. He was mentioned in dispatches for his services with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force during the period September 1918 to January 1919.
After the war he was briefly deputy to the head of the British Commission to the Baltic Provinces before returning to work for The Times in 1919 as correspondent in Turkey, Palestine and Mexico. He was involved in writing for the production of The Virgin Queen (1923), a black and white silent film, directed by J. Stuart Black, starring Diana Manners as Elizabeth I. He also edited a series of guide books on the Middle East. In World War 2 and for a while afterwards he returned to duty in naval intelligence. He was a prolific, though anonymous, contributor to The Times Literary Supplement, founder and Fellow of the Society of Genealogists and edited the 1937 edition of Burke's Peerage. He was a former Director of Ceremonies of the Order of St John and in 1957 was promoted Bailiff Grand Cross.
In 1949 Harry Pirie-Gordon sold Gwernvale to Joshua Thomas, a retired mining engineer, who was the last private occupant. An aerial photograph dated 1952, see images, shows quite a lot of the original features could still be identified, the notable exception being the pond and fountain below the mansion, which appears to have been no longer extant by this date. In 1961 Mr Thomas sold the mansion to Raymond Berrow who opened it as a Country Club. The outbuildings and associated lands west of the main house now called "The Old Coach House", "The Farmhouse", and "Gwernvale Manor Cottage" were sold off separately at various different times. Land east of the current hotel grounds that was formerly part of the estate is also now in private ownership.
In the 1960s Donald Weeks, an American scholar, made a detailed study of the life and times of Rolfe alias Baron Corvo, during the course of which he would certainly have visited Gwernvale. In 1963 the manor house was Grade II listed by CADW. A large extension was built on the east side of the house in the early-1970s, together with new retention walls and a car park below what now became the Manor Hotel much as it is today. The fountain at the eastern end of the house was converted into a water feature. In 1986 Maureen Foster (now Probert), who was responsible for planting a display of irises at the 1992 Ebbw Vale Garden Festival, registered the purple bearded iris "Gwernvale" a hybrid of "Eastertime" and "Gypsy Caravan"and in 1991, at the Iris Society show at Wizely, Mr C Bartlett won the trophy for the best spike of 7 blooms with this cultivar. Maureen was asked to plan a garden and plant her irises at Gwernvale, which she did at her own expense. Unfortunately the plantings have not survived. The hotel went into receivership in the 1990s when it was purchased by the present owners Mr Glyn Bridgeman & Mrs Jessica Bridgeman, who undertook much needed repairs and upgraded the hotel to its present standard.
1797 to 1801: Manor house and out-buildings constructed and grounds laid out.
1961: Manor house became a Country Club.
1971: Manor house extended, now a hotel.
Original fountain feature (private)
Garden arches (private)
There are three walled gardens (private).
Georgian coach house (private).
Georgian farm building (private).
Georgian gardener's cottage and associated outhouse (private).
Georgian stone horse-trough (private).
In private ownership.