Category Archives: Pen y Cae

At last!

Who would have thought on that day in April 2018, when we spoke to the NRW Manager, Mike Cresswell, about Pen y Cae, that we would soon be posting back the signed Lease just a mere four years later!

The two Ians post the lease documents.
The two Ians post back the lease documents

Yes, it really has been four years since that fateful conversation, but now it finally looks as though we’ll have to start getting our hands dirty in bringing the building up to scratch. There’s plenty to do; fix the water supply, sort out a solar power system, get the wood burner up there and fitted, get the gas cooker up and fitted, reglaze the broken windows, get new padlocks for the doors and a few coats of paint won’t go amiss either.

Put it another way- the hard work starts here. Although to be fair there’s been a lot of hard work involved already; negotiating the lease (big tanks to Andy Schultz), getting funding (big thanks to Sue Mabberley) in particular.

Finally, a big Thank You to Helen and Barbara at the National Park for being so patient having approved the funding such a long time ago and looking after our money whilst we waited for the legal proceedings.


It took the solicitors and NRW another three and a half months to do their end of the signing the lease, but now we think we have it all sorted out!

There’s posh!

We might be still waiting for the Lease, but another part of Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has really come up trumps and has helped us to be ready to go on Day One by supplying us with kitchen utensils, a cooker, sleeping mats, nature books, binoculars and these magnificent tables and benches.

Lovingly crafted from donated valley Ash timber by Mick Petts, these two tables and four benches will be more than sufficient to accommodate future users. The Ash is courtesy of the nasty Ash Die-back disease, so some good has come from the loss of these lovely trees.

It was a bit of a monster job for Mick to turn out both these and some further pieces for kitchen shelving and work-tops in little over a month from the raw-material being obtained. First Simon Thomas transported the trunks to Ian Mitchell’s for them to be roughly cut into planks by Martin Fraser’s mobile sawmill, then allowed to dry just enough for Mick to be able to work the planks without them twisting as they dry out completely.

So wonderful that timber from the valley can be used to equip Pen y Cae, just like they would have in the original days of the building. Well done, Mick, and “Thanks” to Sarah Tindal at NRW for having the vision to fund it all.

We’re in the money!

We learned on Wednesday that we have been successful in our first major bid for funding for doing up Pen y Cae.

The Brecon Beacons National Park’s Sustainable Development Fund has deferred a decision on our bid back in September whilst they asked for more details on a couple of points.

This time we were able to join the ‘meeting’ to answer directly any concerns they had. Sue and I joined from a wet Grwyne Fawr and Cath Larkins from lock-down in sunny France! The wonders of modern technology!

We joined the meeting just in time to hear Pen y Cae being described in rather downbeat terms by one of the panel members, but it turns out we just missed his very glowing memories of using the centre in the 80’s and 90’s.

We were pleased to note a number of friendly faces around the screen, people Sue and I have worked with in the past and present, so hoped that would be a good omen.

It turned out they were the ones who asked the more awkward questions, while one member of the panel sat stroking his cat like a certain villain out of a James Bond movie!

Fortunately, we had come armed with all the information they needed and Cath was able to quote some of her learned dissertations on child welfare which seemed to bring out nods of approval.

Then with a few quick Thank You’s from the Chairman and we were summarily cut off!

A quick phone chat with Cath and we felt we were probably onto a winner, and fortunately the confirmation arrived via e-mail only an hour or so later.

We have yet to see the full offer, but we assume it is for the full £21,300 we applied for.

Now we await a decision on the next bid at Awards for All for their maximum of £10,000.

Pen y Cae on Sea???

Amazing weather on Sunday, with clear sunny skies on the tops and thick mist in the valleys, makes Pen y Cae look like it’s by the seaside!

I suppose on a VERY clear day and standing on a tall step ladder with a good pair of binoculars, you MIGHT just see the Bristol Channel, but in truth Pen y Cae remains a mountain get-away rather than a seaside chalet.

The good news however is that the Brecon Beacons National Park Sustainable Development Fund have accepted our funding bid for just over £21,000 and so we now await the decision from Awards for All to match fund the SDF.

Watch this space!

Update on Pen y Cae

The recent COVID problems have set us back a little in getting Pen y Cae up and running, but things are now starting to move ahead again.

Firstly we are now deep in discussion with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) who are the de facto owners of the building. With the help of our legal expert, Andy, who lives just below Pen y Cae, we are working through the various factors which will inform the wording of the final lease. We hope to finalise matters in the not too distant future.

Alongside this we have recently applied for funding from the Sustainable Development Fund (SDF) of the Brecon Beacon National Park Authority. Unfortunately their request for more detail on a couple of points means that we may not get a decision until November, but we are hopeful that they will support us. We are also working up a bid to the Awards for All funding stream and hope to get that sent off in the near future.

Finally with funding from the Black Mountains Land Use Partnership (BMLUP) we have been able to make a wonderful video about the history of Pen y Cae that can be used both for promotional purposes and as a teaching resource once we begin to welcome groups to Pen y Cae. Big thanks on this to Emma, Emma’s children, Cath, Judith and Oliver – there are others but their names escape me!

Some thoughts on Pen y Cae

We were very fortunate that our renewable energy survey funders (Monmouthshire CC and Monmouthshire LEADER) have also funded a video company and so were able to get them to make a lovely short video of a number of us up at Pen y Cae back on a gorgeous sunny September day.


Renewable energy ideas for a completely off grid location

As an important part of our Pen Y Cae Outdoor Activities Centre (see our previous post on this  – we needed to find ways of ensuring the building had power for hot water, light and so on without reverting to the original diesel generator.  Easy in a new build, not so easy in a building that was in existence in 1830 – and probably quite a bit before that!

We all know about PV, solar thermal, hydro and wind, but we needed to know what would be the best combination in such a remote situation – and in a National Park.

We were fortunate in that some of the working party have close links with a number of people involved in renewable energy in Monmouthshire – indeed one household (Nant y Bedd) has opened on a number of occasions for the Monmouthshire Eco Open Doors.

Using these contacts we were able to both find a source, actually two sources, of funding and an expert to do the work.

The funding came via Monmouthshire LEADER and the Mons Well being Community project.  Many thanks to them

The work was undertaken by Dean Partridge of Atega, and most comprehensive it was. A full copy of it can be accessed below.

We are very happy for anyone to access and use the information included in the study, but would like to know so that we can add more anecdotal ‘evidence’ or assistance.

Penycae_Sustainable Redevelopment Feasibility Study

All we have to do now is make a final decision on how much of the proposals we need to include in the final specification for the project and then find the money!

Ian Mabberley

Director GFCIC and PyC working group



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