Pen y Cae Project

The CIC has set up a working group to investigate the possibilities of bring the building known as Pen y Cae back into use as an outdoor activites centre for local schools, Scouts etc.

This blog pulls together a few of the pieces of information about the project.

It all started with a chance meeting between a passing cyclist and a local resident & member of the CIC.  Read on ……..

Serendipity – or a chance meeting sets us going

The initial proposal from Cath Larkins


Throughout the 1980s and 90s Pen y Cae was leased from the Forestry Commission by the Portway School Foundation Governors. On a clear day, my father, who was the head teacher, could see the Sugar Loaf from his office. To celebrate his 18thbirthday, my father, had cycled from London to Wales and then over the Gospel Pass to Hay, seeing mountains for the first time. He was determined that every child at his school would have the sorts of opportunities he’d never had; Pen y Cae was part of making that happen. He’d spotted the building on a walk, applied for a grant and got Manpower Service Commission support to build a shower and toilet block extension and cesspit. A pipe was put in to a nearby spring. A local forge made a back boiler and grate to fit the fireplace and my father completed the plumbing and carpentry himself, with a little help from his children! Half a class at a time, would come and stay there, with two or three teachers who were skilled enough to manage with up to 16 children and without electricity for five days at a time.

In the summers and at weekends, we were also fortunate enough to use Pen y Cae as a family; doing some of the maintenance, as well as using it as a base for walking, making music, writing and painting. My parents continued to stay there after he retired, but after my mother died in 1999 we never returned and my father headed off to higher mountains in the Pyrenees. Then when I moved to Abergavenny three years ago, and in the last few weeks of my father’s life, we talked of Pen y Cae often.  I showed him pictures of the new view, now many surrounding trees have been felled, and told tall stories of how it was still being used by groups exploring the hills. I feel some obligation now, if possible, to try to may those words true.

With this in mind, after a serendipitous encounter with Sue Mabberley in June 2018, I visited Pen y Cae with a colleague. We assessed the current situation and considered possible futures to investigate. My colleague and I both have some experience of renovating stone houses and we both take groups (children, young people and adults) on residentials. As a Forest School Leader, I also have experience of taking groups into remote locations with minimal/no facilities. I currently direct a university research centre concerned with childhood and youth, and therefore have a reasonable understanding of current issues in education and children’s social care.

Current situation

It appears that Pen y Cae is being used for livestock. In the last two years, the bunk beds, tables and chairs have been removed. The kitchen has been gutted and boards have been put over some of the toilets. Apart from some bags of woolly jumpers, the building is now empty.

There has been an attempt to force the front door, which has damaged the door surround. The rear door has no lock. There is one broken window. The roof, ceiling and first floor woodwork remain in good condition, although there are some signs of penetrating damp in a few places, some torn roofing felt and some degradation of mortar. One of the lean-to stores has partially collapsed. It is likely that the water pipe from the spring has deteriorated. There are no gutters on the building, but this has been a source of annoyance for many years!

On the ground floor there are two small rooms, a former kitchen space and four toilets and showers. The hot water system seems to be still in place, but the fire was always very smoky and a wood burning stove with back boiler would be more efficient. The upstairs can be accessed via two staircases. One built into the wall by the chimney leads from the main room to a bedroom. The other leads from the ante room, where teachers used to sleep on mattresses on stone benches, to a mezzanine. A lockable door between the two upstairs spaces used to enable gender segregation of pupils.


The early History of Pen y Cae

By Oliver Fairclough

Pen y Cae is one of a number of small farms high on the middle part of the Ffwddog ridge. These include Fferm, Ffwddog Fawr, Ffwddog Fach and Picau. These were sold, together with Cadwgan and Neuadd, by Blanche Baker Gabb to the Forestry Commission in 1937. By then most of the land was rented with Ffwddog Fawr, and the whole area was planted by the Forestry Commission during and soon after World War II.

OS Map 6 inches to the mile, 1905

Pen y Cae is probably identifiable on the first OS map published in 1830 (but not named), and is clearly shown on the 1843 tithe map (below) of the hamlet of Foothog in the parish of Cwmyoy.

Tithe Apportionment map, 1843, and detail © National Library of Wales

In 1843 Pen y Cae was a sixteen-acre smallholding, including two arable fields and a wood, in addition to grass pasture. It was owned and occupied by a John Davies.  This may be same John Davies who lived at Picau nearby from before 1841 to after 1871, as he paid rates on both in 1870. Pen y Cae does not appear as an occupied building in the censuses (made every ten years from 1841) though an Ann Williams of Pen y Cae was buried in Cwmyoy in 1852.

Given its location on the upper part of the ridge at around 400 metres, it is perhaps an 18thcentury enclosure from the ‘waste’ or common land. The hamlet or manor of Ffwddog belonged to the Earl of Abergavenny until its sale to Richard Baker Gabb in 1889, and although John Davies rented Picau from the Abergavenny estate, Pen y Cae had no landlord. Both Picau and Pen y Cae seem to have been abandoned at about that time, during the late 19th-century Agricultural Depression. Pen y Cae is listed among the properties sold by Blanche Baker Gabb in 1937. It was then farmed with Ffwddog Fawr, though in the early 20thcentury the tenant of Cadwgan used it, and kept cattle in the house (oral testimony recorded by Isobel McGraghan, 1970s).

Pen y Cae seems to have survived in relatively good condition because it was re-roofed in corrugated iron, probably during the first half of the 20thcentury. The house itself may date from c.1770-1850.  It has a Georgian appearance (central entry, symmetrically windows), but retains the older feature of a stone spiral stair adjacent to the fireplace. The outline on the 1843 tithe map suggests that there may then have been a small barn or cow house beyond the cottage itself, the latter perhaps being extended post-1843. A building survey should clarify the phasing.

What’s happening now?

A very brief description of what has happened since July 2018

First thoughts

Following Cath’s initial contact and a chance meeting with a friend who had recently walked past Pen y Cae, we raised the idea of bringing it back into use at the CIC AGM.  Unanimously it was agreed to “have a look at doing something”.  A week later we set off to investigate the building and found it in surprisingly good condition.  Local NRW District Manager, Mike Cresswell, seems to have been responsible for this.  He had arranged for the doors and windows to be secured and the detritus of various flocks of sheep and the occasional vandal removed.  (Big thanks, Mike!)

Doors and windows secured

To the uninitiated it all looked very sound – a view later confirmed by a local builder who offered his time to take a professional view.  There would be a bit of plumbing work required…..

maybe not ready for immediate use

…. but the structure is sound and watertight, even if the cooking facilities needed a bit of upgrading…

“That’s the cooker?”

The ‘advance party’ was happy to continue with negotiations with Natural Resources Wales (NRW), the owners.

“Let’s go for it!”

The paperwork phase

Before we started to ask for approval to take on the lease of Pen Y Cae we did a bit of research. We got in touch with as many as possible of the local schools, the Scouts and the outdoor activity providers.  Was this something they would be interested in?  The overwhelming response was “YES” and it also came with numerous offers of help painting, cleaning etc.

So it looked like a feasible project.

The next job was to complete the NRW application form.  Fortunately we’d done one of these before and so knew pretty much how to do it.  We produced a project plan, accumulated the letters of support from the schools, Scouts etc and filled in the form in the greatest detail possible.  We knew it would take 12 weeks so we sat back and waited – well, no we didn’t, there were plenty of things to discuss and plan for.

Eventually we heard back from NRW that, subject to three main conditions, they were keen to go ahead with the idea.

Condition One:  Planning Permission.   A quick phone call to the National Park planners and Ian having a meeting, by chance, in their offices quickly ascertained that Cath’s father had been extremely efficient back in the ’80’s and all the planning details were there. Here’s a sample

Condition Two: Bats.  Well, we know a thing or two about bats, and we know who to talk to.  One of Sue’s ex-colleagues is part of the Gwent Bat Group and she kindly came to have a look and declared the interior of the building bat free.  There may be bats outside, but we should be able to work round that.

Condition Three:  Is it an Ancient Monument?   Apparently it’s not classified as an Ancient Monument, so no problems here.

Looking to the future

In the interim, we had arranged a feasibility study on powering the site using only renewable energy.  Funded by Monmouthshire CC and the Monmouthshire LEADER programme, we now have a definitive view on how the building can be sustainable and still have hot showers and electricity.  Thanks to Dean Partridge at Atega (and of course Hazel and Mark for their funding inputs).

Another Dean, Probert this time, is a local builder who happily gave up an hour or so of his time to give the building a ‘once over’.  He declared Cath’s father’s original work to be of the best quality and said the building was sound.  This was great news.

Where do we go from here?

Obviously we need to start investigating funding sources to carry out any works required – particularly the energy related ones.

But also we need to know exactly what our potential users will be expecting from Pen y Cae.

To this end a smaller group is now putting together a proposal for a couple of days at the site where users can come along and describe how they would use Pen y Cae.

Once we know this we can move ahead towards what is going to be a fascinating future for a lovely old building in the most fantastic location.

Ian Mabberley











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