The Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust Ltd.

Character Areas

Lower Wye Valley

034 Penallt

Aerial view of Penallt Old Church and the earthworks associated with a possible medieval shrunken village.

HLCA 034 Penallt

A small loose organic clustered settlement of farmsteads and cottages with associated enclosures focused on Penallt Old Church (St Mary's); relict/buried archaeology; possible medieval shrunken village and fieldscape; varied field pattern of evolved irregular enclosures at 'core' of settlement; more regular elsewhere; traditional boundaries (including dry-stone walls); ecclesiastical features: Medieval/post-medieval church and cemetery; communication features; Ancient Woodland and scrub/unmanaged land. Back to map

Historic Background

The historic landscape area of Penallt is an area of dispersed settlement and its associated agricultural land on the steep upper slopes of the Wye Valley. It includes the historic hamlet of Penallt though not the modern village which lies to the southwest, beyond the boundary of the Historic Landscape. Penallt was part of the parish of Trellch until 1887, when it became a separate parish, and was part of the manor of Trellech. The area's topography largely defines the area; the River Wye and adjacent areas of ancient woodland form its boundaries. Though a tithe map dating to 1847 exists, the parishes of Penallt and Trellech were united until 1887, when Penallt became a separate parish in its own right.

A medieval date for the Old Church is considered likely; the church is first mentioned in a list of churches contemporary with the reign of King John (1199-1216) in an appendix to The Book of Llandaff (Bradney 1913, 157) and it is also mentioned in 1254 (Brook 1988, 82). The slightly curving churchyard might suggest an early medieval date, however this remains to be confirmed.

The church served as a chapel-of-ease to St Nicholas in Trellech until Penallt became a separate parish in 1887. The church was altered and restored in 1886/7, possibly by J P Seddon the Diocesan architect of the day. Before this, a new church had been built in 1869, sited closer to the local population centre in the emerging village of Pentwyn, St Mary's, after which the older medieval church was known as the Old Church.

The parish of Penallt was largely unenclosed until the Enclosure Act of 1810, and parts of the area remain unenclosed on the 1847 tithe map in the northwest of the area, around the surviving area of common land (see the adjoining character area HLCA 032). By the date of the First Edition OS (1881, 1887) however, the area had been entirely enclosed, forming small semi-regular fields, which survive in this pattern up to the present (OS 2006 1:10000 Landline data). Elsewhere, the field pattern has changed significantly, particularly in the fields immediately above the riverbank, which have been amalgamated into a single enclosure. The settlement layout is mainly unaltered from that on the tithe map; the majority of the area's surviving buildings are depicted on the tithe map and all are in existence by the First Edition OS (1881, 1887).

The lack of settlement development in the area is perhaps due to the change in settlement focus away from the old settlement near the Old Church to the present village to the southwest outside the Historic Landscape area, which was underway by the mid-nineteenth century, and also encroachment into the area known as 'the Birches', along the routes south and to the crossing points on the Wye. It is likely that the old settlement focussed on the church is in fact the remains of a shrunken medieval settlement; aerial photographs of the area indicate possible relict/buried features, which would indicate a previously more extensive settlement.

Historic Landscape Characteristics

Penallt is characterised as a small loose organic clustered settlement and parochial centre focused on Penallt Old Church (PRN 01273g, NPRNs 307475, 307359, LB 2104 Grade I), an exceptionally fine medieval church, now listed Grade I.

Penallt Old Church is first documented in the early thirteenth century in an appendix to The Book of Llandaff. Though the majority of the present building dates to the late fifteenth/early sixteenth centuries, an internal batter to the north wall of the nave in addition to the documentary evidence suggests that the present church is a later rebuilding. The square tower is the oldest visible part of the church; the lower part dates to the early fourteenth century. This part is built of roughly coursed, unevenly sized blocks of stone, and is decorated with tracery, possibly of early fourteenth century date. The tower was heightened in the mid-seventeenth century, probably to house the church's bells, the earliest of which has a date of 1662. The alteration is reflected by slight differences in the stonework, the upper part of the tower is constructed of more neatly cut blocks which are more randomly coursed. Several windows of this date survive which may also have been put in during this work. The church building is constructed in squared blocks of red/grey local sandstone, grading into conglomerate with ashlar quoins. Local stone, of Old Red Sandstone type was selected for the dressings to the openings and carved detail. During the restorations of 1886/7, the bottom of the rood stairs was removed, together with box pews, three-decker pulpit and galleries around the north and west sides of the nave, and the floor in the chancel was brought up to the same level as the nave.

Further ecclesiastical features associated with the church make important contributions to the character of the area. The churchyard itself (PRN 08237g) is an irregular curving quadrangle, as depicted on the tithe map (1847) and is slightly terraced into the steeply sloping hillside on which the church is located. The coursed rubble boundary wall is broken at the entrance on the south side where the lych gate is located, along with a stile to the right of the gate. The lych gate and stile (PRN 07959g, LB 24928 Grade II) are thought to date to the early twentieth century are constructed of sandstone conglomerate rubble walls with a gabled oak roof. Within the churchyard stand the octagonal base and shaft of a medieval churchyard cross (PRN 01291g; NPRN 306513; LB 2105 Grade II; SAM MM 146), as well as several interesting memorials of Post-medieval date, the earliest of which dates to the mid seventeenth century. An important example is the large impressive chest tomb of Thomas Pritchard (PRN 07960g, LB 24946 Grade II) dated to 1834, which is constructed of sandstone and contained by a low stonewall with wrought iron railings.

The early settlement nucleus centred on Penallt church comprises loosely clustered arrangement of cottages and farms, located within an area of irregular of enclosures; this appears to represent early encroachment into the open woodland. Aerial photographs indicate possible relict/buried settlement features in the vicinity of the church at the boundary of the more regular fieldscape, possibly medieval, to the north and east, hinting at a once more extensive settlement that would agree with the assertion that Penallt is likely to represent a shrunken medieval settlement.

The current settlement is largely as it was during the mid-nineteenth century (tithe map 1847). The close relationship between the church and settlement are emphasized by the element 'Church' in the names of the farms and cottages. The majority of the buildings are constructed of coursed or random stone, some rendered, while the roofing material is predominantly slate.

The area's varied field pattern is an important characteristic: evolved irregular enclosures are found at the 'core' of the settlement, while a more regular, slightly curvilinear arrangement of medium-large sized sub-rectangular and rectilinear fields lies to the northeast, reminiscent of medieval open field; this farmland is associated with Church farm. Nearby is a house known as the 'Old Tythe Barn', a barn conversion of a structure shown on the tithe map of 1847 and labelled as a tithe Barn on the First Edition OS map (1887). To the west is a small area of regular rectangular enclosures, more typical of late post-medieval enclosure.

Although the irregular field pattern of this area is considered to be medieval, it should be noted that a similar enclosure pattern noted at 'the Birches' (HLC027) could be of post-medieval date. Further in depth investigation of the enclosure pattern and development of settlement within the area is therefore needed, and would be of considerable interest.

To the north associated with Jackston farm are small rectangular fields, which represent later post-medieval encroachment on to the eastern edge of Church Common. Associated with this area are two rectangular structures depicted on the First Edition OS map of 1881 (PRNs 07138g and 07139g), within an area enclosed after the date of the tithe map. The field boundaries of the area are varied, though predominantly post-and-wire fencing, with some hedges with distinctive hedgerow trees, and dry-stone walls, some of large conglomerate blocks.

The area has strong associations with other parts of the parish of Penallt; the more recent village of Penallt is located to the south of the Old Church, outside the Historic Landscape area, where the new Church of St Mary was constructed in 1869. The character area is also closely related to Hael Woods (HLCA027), the area of 'the Birches' and the Black Brook Valley, where another phase of settlement expansion appears to have occurred during the post-medieval period, characteristically piecemeal irregular encroachment along the wooded slopes to the southeast of Penallt.

The wooded nature of the area is an additional characteristic; ancient woodland defines the east and west boundaries of the area, whilst small parcels of ancient woodland survives in the matrix of agricultural land of Penallt. It is also possible that some of the distinctive trees found in the field boundaries are remnants of former cleared woodland. Penallt is also characterised in part by unmanaged scrub, either indicating a degree of woodland reversion associated with the decline in dependency on smallholding, or areas, which were never fully cleared or improved.

Tracks, paths and narrow winding lanes provide a further characteristic of the area, linking the settlement of Penallt to its agricultural hinterland, various outlying holdings (many are now public rights of way), areas of settlement expansion, and the wider landscape, such as Trellech to the east and the crossings on the Wye to the west. The main route through the area is a narrow country lane, which traverses the valley side towards 'the Birches' (HLCA027); hedged banks and dry-stone walls of large conglomerate blocks enclose the lane.