Shells, mountain paths with views of south east Wales, and a rare sunny day, sometimes Pontypool can be quite a wonderful place…
Pontypool is a small town in south Wales, and considered to be part of the south Wales valleys. Whilst not set up high in the mountains, Pontypool has a huge industrial background, and is now home to roughly 36,000 people in Pontypool’s country borough, Torfaen.
But despite this population and the historic background, it’s quite easy to forget Pontypool and overlook it. Compared to Cardiff, Pontypool stands on jelly legs that collapse on the first touch. No longer in its heyday, Pontypool struggles to get back on its feet. But despite this, Pontypool and the county borough of Torfaen is hiding a few travel gems.
Once one of the earliest industrial towns in Wales, with links to both the iron and coal mining industry, Pontypool started to become prominent when the Hanbury family influenced the area. With a house in the heart of acres of ground, the Hanbury family were exceptionally rich.
And it’s because of the Hanbury family that today I get to write about two areas of interest in Pontypool: The Shell Grotto, and the Folly Tower. Stick with me, because these places are a hidden treasure in Pontypool.
The Shell Grotto
Built in the late 18th century, The Shell Grotto was erected on the top of a mountain, with views of the Severn Estuary. The building, made of pennant sandstone, conical stone, animal bones and sea-shells is now a grade II listed building, meaning it is protected by Cadw, Wales’s historic and environment preserving service. Because of the interior of sea-shells, The Shell Grotto earned its name. It is also known as Shell Hermitage, and it’s possible that because of that name, the Welsh legend of a hermit living inside the walls of the grotto came to fruition.
The Shell Grotto no longer opens to the public. This is because of vandalism by public, and a lack of funding to keep the monument open. However, a group of volunteers from Friends of Pontypool Town open The Shell Grotto on bank holiday’s, so members of the public can enjoy the local bit of history.
Growing up and living in Pontypool, The Shell Grotto has always been a permanent fixture. Remember the Hanbury family I mentioned earlier? Well, they built the grotto to use as a place for picnics during nearby shoots in the 19th century. The Shell Grotto even had a royal visit, when in 1882 the then Prince of Wales, soon to be Edward VII, joined a picnic during a shoot inside The Shell Grotto.
The inside decorations of sea-shells, which also include an actual starfish, is rumoured to be the idea of Molly Hanbury. She was known to have a keen interest and a collection in shells, and during the 19th century it was incredibly popular to in grottos.
Because The Shell Grotto has always been a permanent fixture to myself and the people of Pontypool town, it is easy to overlook. But when The Shell Grotto was opened on a sunny bank holiday, it was a good idea to visit the attraction, and really appreciate the interior design. It’s easy to get to The Shell Grotto. There are numerous pathways from Pontypool Park leading up to The Shell Grotto, and there is even a house next door set up in the mountain! However, disabled visitors may find it difficult to get to the Grotto because of the lack of patched pathways and the rough domains. Due to only being opened by volunteers, it is hard to supply a vehicle service.
Now, The Shell Grotto is in ownership of Torfaen County Borough Council. It’s a sobering thought to know that it is being looked after, and with a fence around it, we’re safe in the knowledge that the locked door will only open on bank holidays. However, it’s a shame there is not enough funding to turn The Shell Grotto into a proper attraction. After all, Pontypool is home to the most well preserved Grotto in Wales. That’s a pretty good thing to have!
However, moving on from The Shell Grotto, it’s time to talk about…
The Folly Tower
On the same ridge as The Shell Grotto is The Folly Tower. Once again, The Folly Tower was a creation of the Hanbury family. It is thought that the original tower, built overlooking what is now the A4042 road, was built around 1765 to 1770 by John Hanbury. A record in 1865 described the tower as: ‘an elevated spot where a Tower (formerly a Roman watch-tower) was many years since rebuilt as an observatory and which is popularly known as ‘The Folly’.”
On a warm, sunny day, my neck burning, I was amazed by the sight and the striking view The Folly Tower has on the mountains of Pontypool. In 1831, the tower was renovated once again by Capel Hanbury Leigh, and I’d that during that time, The Folly Tower would be the modern day equivalent of owning a Lamborghini: it meant wealth.
However, The Folly Tower I look upon today is not the same one renovated by Capel Hanbury Leigh. In the 30s, the Folly was in a state of disrepair. Visitors were warned to be wary of falling debris. In 1940, the War Office ordered demolition of the original Folly, as it was too much of a landmark and an easy point of reference for attack of the nearby Royal Ordnance Factory.
The new rebuilt tower was reopened in July, 1994 by The Prince of Wales. It has been designed to look like the original, and from the top you can see views of Wales. However, like The Shell Grotto, The Folly Tower is only open on bank holiday’s, yet it was unfortunate that on this bank holiday The Folly was still closed. But when these places rely on volunteers to open, you can understand why only one can be open.
I’d still very much like to go inside the tower. Having seen the tower on the mountains almost on a daily occurrence, there is a curiosity inside me that wants to see what is inside.
If you ever find yourself in south Wales, it is definitely worth considering visiting Pontypool, to visit these two landmarks. They may be easily overlooked, and they may be taken for granted by Pontypool residents, but with so much history it would be a shame for them not to get the attention they deserve. Just visit on a bank holiday.