On my recent short foray to the Tiddenham and the Devil’s Pulpit near Tintern, I took the opportunity after filming for ITV’s Wonders of the Borders to park near St Arvans to explore the incredibly steep and beautiful woodland paths (Piercefield Walks) which skirt the western (Welsh) side of the Wye Valley. Striking out from the Lower Wyndcliff carpark, north-east of St Arvans, I walked along paths overlooking a tight bend of the Wye with occasional vistas across the national border which here follows the river towards Lancaut in Gloucestershire.
At first, one feels one is exploring narrow paths which are ‘natural’, or at least crafted for modern visitors. Quickly, however, one realises that the tree species (including rhododendrons) and carefully crafted vistas through the thick vegetation are part of a carefully planned picturesque mid-/late 18th-century landscape. This is woodland next to Piercefield House. The country house and its ancillary buildings are now in ruin and overlook Chepstow Racecourse, which was built in its parkland. Elsewhere in Piercefield Park, also along the steep slopes overlooking the Wye, there are other landscape features, including a well and cold water plunge bath, a grotto with a standing stone which I didn’t visit, associated with a likely prehistoric promontary fort: Pierce Wood Camp: (for the grotto, also look at Archwilio and check out the Megalithic Portal).
The most striking feature, however, is the ‘Giant’s Cave‘, where a natural peninsular is pierced through by a curving cave to a viewing point/bastion to its south-east, guarded by a low wall. It was partially natural in origin it seems, but was enhanced as part of the estate promenade in the mid-/late 18th century (Check out Archwilio).
This feature had been embellished further: there are references to the sculpture of a giant being originally raised over one of the entrances to the cave. However, I do wonder if this means the sculpture had been situated on top of the promontary itself rather than mounted somehow on top of vertical rock-face. Either way, if that wasn’t dramatic enough, cannons were mounted to fire and echo around the steep valley walls. Today, there is an interpretation panel that contains an early 19th-century description of the site and credits the work to the owner of Piercefield Park: Valentine Morris.
Morris (born in Antigua, 1727, died in London, 1789) was a aristocrat and sometime Governor of the island of St Vincent’s. When at Piercefield, he is noted as fostering tourism in the Wye Valley by opening his park, and these paths, to visitors.
There is a further dimension to this Picturesque landscape worthy of note, but I’m unclear whether it was conciously considered as a feature in the 18th century. By fostering these beautiful views over the Wye into England, Morris’s woodland walks created striking views to the line of Offa’s Dyke as it runs along the top of the scarp to Spital Meend hillfort.
Therefore, in crafting a druid’s temples and a giant’s cave, Morris was ornamenting his own parkland landscape with arcadian allusions, but also by directing the gaze over the Wye, he was extending interactions with the distant past through vistas and sonic effects over a very ancient border towards the dyke that framed the entire skyline. Was Offa’s Dyke, therefore, part of his intended visual and auditory envelope and thus integrated into an ideology of empire for his family and visitors (including, famously, Samuel Taylor Coleridge) through landscape design? The Giant’s Cave and its context certainly serves to make the point that, in looking at later 18th-century picturesque gardens and parks, the relationship between Britons and Anglo-Saxons, as well as myth, legend and the natural topography, was a part of colonial ideologies and practices with resonances at home and abroad.
In the context of the current Black Lives Matter movement which has challenged the long-standing denial of colonialism and slavery inherent in the British landscape, it is worth mentioning that here, overlooking the Wye and the Anglo-Welsh border, a colonial plantation owner (and thus slave-owner) was creating vistas which, for many people past and present, capture the ‘essence’ of this beautiful Anglo-Welsh borderland.