The Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust Ltd.

Character Areas

Lower Wye Valley

005 Piercefield Park

Aerial view of Piercefield Park with Chepstow racecourse (top left-hand corner).

HLCA 005 Piercefield Park

Core of Post-medieval gentry estate associated with the Picturesque Movement: Neoclassical mansion (ruins) and associated outbuildings; ornamental leisure: registered 18th century landscaped parkland and garden; historic associations (Picturesque Movement); Communication features. Back to map

Historic Background

The historic landscape area of Piercefield Park represents an area of parkland that survives today in a much reduced size from what had been an extensive estate associated with the house at Piercefield. The area falls historically within the parish of St Arvan's as it existed at the time of the mapping of the tithe in 1847.

The earliest activity in the area relates to the buildings at Piercefield House itself, the first house built on the site is believed to date from the fifteenth century, constructed at some point during the Tudor period. The estate was in the ownership of the Walter family from this point onwards, only changing hands into the ownership of Valentine Morris the Elder in 1736. His son, Valentine Morris the Younger, significantly increased the size of the estate and the present park is largely his creation. From c.1752 the latter added to Piercefield's grounds, planting groves and clumps of trees, as well as single specimens, and was jointly responsible, along with Richard Owen Cambridge, for the creation of the famous Piercefield Walks.

The core of the ruined house that survives today at Piercefield was built by George Smith who purchased the estate in 1784; the existing house was rebuilt in 1785 in the fashionable Neo-classical style of the time. The resulting building was along the lines of that which John Soane had designed, although Soane's designs were not strictly followed and in fact never fully implemented as Smith became bankrupt and was forced to sell the property prior to its completion. Colonel Mark Wood purchased the estate and completed and expanded the new building, with the assistance of the architect Joseph Bonomi. Bonomi was responsible for the addition of the two flanking pavilion buildings and a curving Doric portico (now destroyed), and was also responsible for the interior decoration of the building.

The Piercefield estate changed hands several times through the nineteenth century, the most notable of its owners during this period being Nathaniel Wells. Wells purchased the estate in 1802 and added lands to its holdings increasing the size of the estate to 3,000 acres, and became Sheriff of Monmouth in 1818 and later Deputy Lieutenant. Wells himself was of mixed parentage: his father had been a sugar merchant and plantation owner in St Kitts in the Caribbean and his mother one of the slaves on the plantation.

The estate was eventually purchased by the Chepstow Racecourse in 1923, following the death of the last surviving member of the Clay family, the then owners, the first race being held on the course in August 1926. The house was abandoned and later used for target practice during WWII by American troops stationed in the grounds.

Today the estate is greatly reduced in size and its landscaped parkland partly lost to Chepstow racecourse; what remains is currently under pasture for the grazing of sheep, and in use for equestrian pursuits. The Wye Valley Walk takes in views of the house along its route.

Historic Landscape Characteristics

Piercefield Park is characterised as the remnants of a landed estate with parkland and associated country house and estate buildings. The parkland and gardens have been registered as a Grade I Registered Historic Park and Garden: Piercefield and the Wyndcliff PGW (Gt) 40. The house, in a neoclassical style, and associated buildings at Piercefield (PRN 00777g, LBs 2013, 24754, 24755, and LBs 24759, 24760, 24776) are a predominant characteristic of the area and are the result of several phases of construction. The main house and flanking classical pavilions are Grade II* listed buildings, known collectively as the Ruins of Piercefield House: Central Block LB 2013; Left/West Pavilion LB 24754; and Right/East Pavilion LB 24755). Other protected characteristic buildings and parkland features in the area include a barn and byre (LB 24759), described below, the walled (kitchen) garden, with its associated bothies and cottage (LB 24760), and a dam and pond retaining walls (LB 247760, all Grade II listed. The walled kitchen garden was built in the second half of the eighteenth century and described in sale particulars of 1793. Rectangular in shape, it is bounded on the west by a stone wall and by a brick wall on stone foundations on all other sides; associated are a circular brick-lined well, and a small two-storey brick and slate cottage, a range of ruined glasshouses, and a range of single-storey stone and slate bothies. Other features include a fine, well-preserved underground ice-house.

The core of the house at Piercefield is considered to have dated to the fourteenth century, though demolitions carried out under George Smith and Colonel Wood during the eighteenth century, and subsequent rebuilding are likely to have removed most if not all of the early structure. The neo-classical building we see today was constructed during the latter part of the eighteenth century. George Smith, who had bought the property from Valentine Morris in 1784 (responsible for the laying out of the Piercefield Walks, see HLCA 004), a year later commissioned Sir John Soane to reconstruct the house in the fashionable neo-classical style. Bankruptcy, however, forced Smith to sell in 1794 and the subsequent owner Colonel Mark Wood and his architect, Joseph Bonomi, completed the reconstruction; the twin flanking pavilions were constructed to Bonomi's designs. What remains today is a roofless shell, a three-storey building of brick with stone facing. All the windows have gone, though the building retains some original classic detailing; on the main southeast front are Ionic pilasters, cornice, two Doric columns and the bases of the rest of the portico. The twin pavilions survive in a much-ruined state with some of the bas-reliefs still in place. The site is in a neglected and overgrown state.

To the west of the house is an enclosed yard with a long range of stables on its south side and a large barn to the north. The stable range is two-storey, of rendered stone with a slate roof, again ruinous. The barn is a traditional stone barn with large central openings to the north and south and appears older than the rest of the buildings in the group. It is generally in good condition.

Piercefield Park and the adjacent Piercefield Park Ancient Woodland (HLCA 004), became famous during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because of the naturally dramatic scenery, where the River Wye loops in two enormous bends; whilst the main part of the park presents a gently rolling or undulating landscape, the eastern edge (HLCA004) has densely wooded and precipitous slopes, and cliffs several hundred feet high. The western side of the park, within the current historic landscape character area, was largely open grassland, the 'Upper Lawn', and the 'Lower Lawn', with scattered trees and clumps, some of which survive. At the southern end is a small deciduous wood, Park Grove, and along the western boundary is a narrow strip of mature deciduous trees, some of which are considered to date possibly to 1794, when Wood had the stone wall built, another characteristic and imposing feature of the parkland area, which bounds the western side of the park. To the east lie the wooded precipitous slopes above the Wye, where the famous walk, viewpoints and picturesque features, such as The Giant's Cave, The Platform, The Grotto, Druid's Temple, and The Alcove are located (all within the adjacent HLCA004).

The communication routes, which link the park to the surrounding landscape (ie, Piercefield Park Ancient Woodland HLCA 004 and The River Wye HLCA 001) are significant as they form an integral part of the network of paths set out by Valentine Morris the Younger and Richard Owen Cambridge during the eighteenth century. Tracks in the area include the new drive, built and designed by Adam Mickle for Wood; the drive connected the house with the new lodge (Lions Lodge) at the southern edge of the park.