The ruins of Piercefield House
|Design and construction|
|Architect||Sir John Soane|
|Designations||Grade II* listed building|
Piercefield House is a largely ruined neo-classical country house designed by Sir John Soane, located near Chepstow in Monmouthshire, south east Wales. Its extensive surrounding park overlooking the Wye Valley includes Chepstow Racecourse.
The house is now a shell, along with its extensive stable block, but its status as a Grade II* listed building reflects its importance. It is currently owned by the billionaire Reuben brothers. A campaign to seek the protection of the building was launched by SAVE Britain's Heritage in 2013.
Records since the 14th century refer variously to Peerfield, Peersfield, Persfield and Piersfield, the area taking its name, according to some sources, from the nearby manor of St. Pierre. The land was owned by the influential Walter family from medieval times until the 18th century. Local historians report an enlargement of the existing house under John Walter in the 1630s, and a later extension around 1700 is believed to have been the work of the architect William Talman, also responsible for Chatsworth House.
In 1727, the estate was sold for £3,366, 5.6d to Thomas Rous of Wotton-under-Edge. His son then sold it again in 1740, for £8,250, to Colonel Valentine Morris. Morris (c 1678–1743) was born in Antigua, the son of a sugar planter and merchant, and is thought to have been descended from the Walter family.
The estate was then inherited by his son, also Valentine Morris (1727–1789), who began living at Piercefield with his family in 1753. At this time, tourism in the Wye Valley was in its infancy. Morris soon added to the magnificent splendour of the estate and its setting, by landscaping the parkland, with the help of Richard Owen Cambridge in the fashionable style of Capability Brown. The work was largely undertaken by architect Charles Howells and builder William Knowles of Chepstow, who had also undertaken work at nearby Tintern for the Duke of Beaufort. Piercefield was developed into a park of national reputation, as one of the earliest examples of picturesque landscaping. Morris laid out walks through the woodland, and included a grotto, druid's temple, bathing house and giant's cave. He also developed viewpoints along the clifftop above the River Wye, and opened the park up to visitors. One of the many tourists to marvel at this view was the poet Coleridge, who wrote: "Oh what a godly scene....The whole world seemed imaged in its vast circumference". The scientist and traveller Joseph Banks wrote: "I am more and more convinced that it is far the most beautiful place I ever saw".
In the 1770s Valentine Morris's gambling, business and political dealings bankrupted him, and he was forced to leave his beloved Piercefield and set sail for the West Indies. In 1785, Piercefield was sold again, for £26,200, to George Smith, a Durham banker, father of the linguist Elizabeth. Smith continued to open the walks, but straightened some of them. He also commissioned a young architect, John Soane – later to become famous as the benefactor of the London institution which now bears his name – to design a new mansion in the neo-classical style, which would incorporate Morris's house. Work began in 1792, and the new three-storey stone building had reached roof level when Smith found himself in financial difficulties. He sold Piercefield in 1794 to Colonel Mark Wood, Member of Parliament for Newark-on-Trent, who continued and modified the work with architect Joseph Bonomi, incorporating a Doric portico and wings, and commissioning the long stone wall which now runs along the edge of the estate. Wood was also the owner of Llanthony Priory. In 1802, Wood in turn sold the house and estate to the mixed race planter Nathaniel Wells, for £90,000 cash. Wells was born in St. Kitts, the son of William Wells, a sugar merchant and planter originally from Cardiff, and Juggy, one of his house slaves. With his inherited fortune, Wells continued to add to the Piercefield estate until it reached almost 3,000 acres (12 km²). In 1818 he became Britain's only known black sheriff when he was appointed Sheriff of Monmouthshire.
It is rumoured that Admiral Nelson spent a night at Piercefield House on one of his visits to Monmouthshire. Nelson was closely connected to the town of Monmouth through his mistress Lady Hamilton. It is possible that he stayed in the summer of 1802 with her and her elderly husband Sir William Hamilton, on a journey to a friend's Pembrokeshire estate via Monmouth and Kymin Hill.
In 1848, Samuel Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England described Piercefield in the following terms:
From Piercefield Park, a splendid seat, the views are remarkably magnificent, and embrace numerous reaches of the Wye, the Severn, and a great range of the surrounding country. The mansion, situated on an eminence, in the midst of fine plantations, is a superb elevation of freestone, consisting of a centre and two wings, and much admired for its tasteful architecture: on the spacious staircase are four beautiful pieces of Gobelin tapestry which belonged to Louis XVI, representing subjects in the natural history of Africa.
Wells left the area in the 1840s and his tenants closed the walks to the public. After Wells' death, the estate was leased to John Russell (1788–1873, High Sheriff of Monmouthshire 1855),who owned the neighbouring estate of Wyelands. In 1855 Russell bought the estate. The walks were occasionally reopened to the public, but for a charge. Around this time suggestions were made in the national press that the estate would be a suitable residence for the Prince of Wales. However, following the explosion at his Risca Blackvein Colliery, Russell sold the estate in 1861 to Henry Clay, a banker and brewer from Burton-on-Trent, and returned to Terhill House and later Badgeworth Court in Gloucestershire. In 1874 the estate passed to Clay's eldest son, also Henry Clay, who lived there until his death in 1921 aged 96.
The Clay family then sold the house and much of the estate to the Chepstow Racecourse Company (of which the Directors were all members of the Clay family), who opened the new racecourse there in 1926. The house, already in a poor state of repair, was abandoned and stripped, gradually decaying to its current ruinous condition, with just the main walls still standing. This was part of a widespread twentieth century tendency towards the destruction of country houses. Piercefield was allegedly used for target practice in the Second World War by US troops. The woods overlooking the river became established as a nature reserve, and footpaths which now form part of the Wye Valley Walk were reopened in the 1970s.
Recent and current activities
Plans to develop the site as a hotel or outdoor pursuits centre have so far been unfulfilled, with emergency repairs to the house carried out in 2008–09.
The Estate was marketed for sale in October 2005 with Jackson-Stops & Staff, Estate Agents, with an asking price of £2 million. It reportedly had planning and listed building consent for the restoration of the house, stable block and kitchen gardens, together with their associated cottages. The estate was withdrawn from sale in early 2012.
A festival with a central environmental focus, the Green Gathering, was held in the grounds of Piercefield House in July 2011. It was later announced that the site would be the venue of future annual festivals.
In July 2013, a campaign and petition were launched by Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain's Heritage to seek the protection of the crumbling building. A letter sent to the current owners of the building, David and Simon Reuben, said:
“This major example of British architecture must not be lost to the nation. For this reason we have invited our friends, supporters and those with an interest in the house to join us at a gathering outside the house.... You acquired the site when you became the owners of Northern Racing. At that time Piercefield House was on the market and you continued to allow offers to come forward. It is our understanding that a number of potential buyers came forward, but that you ignored their offers. In particular we know that an interested party in 2010, was ready, willing and able to restore it. He worked closely with an architect on a rescue plan for the building. However his offer was ignored. Unfortunately since then the buildings and land have been withdrawn from the market. Not only this, the main house has been separated from the land and parcelled off into an off-shore company. By separating the house from the land on which it stands you are alienating potential buyers and complicating the rescue of the house. Since you acquired ownership of the site seven years ago you have conducted some emergency stabilisation work to the house. These repairs are temporary holding measures: they are fast deteriorating and will soon need to be maintained, or replaced. Whilst effective in the short term the only real solution for the house is to find a sustainable solution. As a national charity that campaigns for the country’s heritage we ask you – what are your future plans for Piercefield House? As the owners of a listed building you have a responsibility to either care for it or to allow someone else to do so. We take note of the extensive educational and philanthropic work of the Reuben Foundation and ask you to respond to this appeal from leading charities, trusts, bodies and individuals involved in the care of Britain’s architectural heritage."
Clementine Cecil, Director of SAVE, said:
"As the owners of a listed building the Reuben Brothers have a responsibility to either care for it or to allow someone else to do so. It is of utmost importance for the future of this remarkable and beloved building, that all offers made on the house are taken seriously in order to safeguard its future for the nation."
- Forest of Dean and Wye Valley Review, "A Grim Experiment", 31 July 2013. Retrieved 1 August 2013
- Newman 2000, p. 471.
- Ivor Waters, The Unfortunate Valentine Morris, 1964
- BBC – South East Wales History – Remembering Slavery: Nathaniel Wells: The Black Welsh Slave Owner
- British History Online – St. Arvans
- Black Vein Colliery, Risca
- Davies Sutton Architects. Accessed 22 September 2012
- Country Life magazine, 21 October, 2005. Accessed 22 September 2012
- Jackson-Stops and Staff agency sale notice, September 2009
- Big Green Gathering 2012. Accessed 16 May 2012
- Save Britain's Heritage, Press Release: Sir John Soane’s Piercefield House is in peril: handsome offer made to repair it, 29 August 2013. Retrieved 14 December 2013
- Verity Family Records, Glamorgan Records Office
- Ivor Waters (1975). Piercefield on the Banks of the Wye. ISBN 0-904765-00-8.
- Newman, John (2000). Gwent/Monmouthshire. The Buildings of Wales. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-071053-1.