Yesterday my husband and I took our children to Margam Country Park, which is near Port Talbot in south Wales. It is more than 800 acres of pretty landscape and and home of some remarkable historic buildings. To wit: the ruins of Margam Abbey, the Margam Orangery from the Regency period, and Margam Castle. Thus, it is both a lovely place to walk and a good place for a historian to lick an edifice or two in her enthusiasm.
It wasn’t quite as gorgeous during my visit as it is in the picture above, since the foliage was mostly gone and the sky was a wintery drizzle-grey, but it was nevertheless a really nice place for a picturesque stroll. There was a burbling brook and a waterfall, which never fail to be appealing to the eye, and some Mandarin ducks that were too cute for words.
Plus there was two excellent playgrounds for them to romp around on. One of those playgrounds included fairytale houses for kids, which made my daughters squeal with delight.
My squealing, however, was saved for the viewing of the monastic ruins and other such fripperies.
Behold the glorious remains of Margam Abbey!
This was a Cistercian monastery built in 1147 by Robert, Earl of Gloucester. It was a quiet religious establishment, minding its own business, until 1537 when King Henry VIII of England began the Dissolution of the Monasteries to thumb his nose at the Catholic Church. As small Welsh monastery with only 12 monks and no members of note stood zero chance of escaping the dissolution, so the monks were kicked off the land and Margam Abbey was put up for sale. Sir Rice Mansel, a rich landowner in the area (who would eventually become so wealthy his decendants would intermarry with the Talbots, family members of the Earls of Shrewsbury), bought the property in 1540 and let the majority of the abbey fall apart from neglect or actually ripped stones out of its walls to put in buildings elsewhere. The nave of the abbey was saved, however, and became the Margam parish church … which is still used for services today! Can you imagine going to church on Sunday, no big deal, in the remains of a 12 century monastery?
Next to the ruins is a very well-preserved orangery . To be able to grow your own citrus fruit in England year round, thereby eschewing potentially old-looking fruit shipped in from warmer climes, was a big fat deal during Regency. There was no emphasis on quiet, modest wealth at this time – if you had it, you needed to flaunt it. Serving and displaying the oranges and lemons grown in your private greenhouse was one of the best ways to do that. The owner at the time, Thomas Mansel Talbot, was one of the richest landowners in the United Kingdom and had staggering yearly income from his rents, so an orangery was practically a necessity. Thus, Talbot hired architect Anthony Keck to build him a gorgeous orangery in a neoclassical style at the very end of the 18th century. While it no longer produces fruit, has become a very popular venue for weddings and corporate parties.
Thomas Talbot married Lady Mary Lucy, one of the many daughters of Henry Fox-Strangways, 2nd Earl of Ilchester, and they produced one surviving child, Christopher (Kit) Rice Mansel Talbot, born on 10 May 1803. Kit, like other upper-crust boys of the time, grew up surrounded by the another of the Regency era’s fads – a yearning for the Gothic and “horrid”. As rich as any king, Kit had the funds to make his fancies real, so in 1830 he hired the architect Thomas Hopper to redo the family’s stately manor house into a neo-Gothic extravaganza of “decorative patterns, finials, scalloping, lancet windows, hood mouldings, and label stops”. The result became known as Margam Castle, for obvious reasons.
Alas, it was here that I found the only thorn in my otherwise happy paw. Within the castle was a sign which listed Princess Mary as one of Henry VIII’s wives instead of his daughter. If I had had a sharpie to hand I would have fixed the mistake on the spot, by gum.
When the weather is warmer there are all kinds of activities at the park, including zip lines and a petting zoo/farm and a small train, but even on a bleak day in December with only the buildings and landscape open for admiration it was a magnificent place to visit. It was like walking across time, from the Medieval to the Modern, with the addition of the occasional red deer or peacock peeping at you from bushes.
I cannot wait to go back!