Cefn Ila – A rich history and a fruitful future in South East Wales
Grab a brew and sit back while you discover the unique story of our Cefn Ila site…
A bit of Background
About 2 miles outside Usk, Cefn Ila is a unique little world of exotic pine trees, heritage fruit trees, a walled garden and the ruins of a Victorian mansion that, in its guise as a maternity hospital, became the birthplace of many people now living in and around Usk.
Since 2007, Cefn Ila has been owned by the Woodland Trust and is open to the public. Surprisingly few people seem to know about this little Monmouthshire gem.
Start by going to Usk. Then take the Caerleon Road south out of Usk by turning left at the end of the bridge. After about a quarter of a mile, turn right by the Church at Llanbadoc towards Prescoed. After about another half mile, on the right you’ll see Cefn Ila signposted, just after a left/right bend in the road.
Cefn Ila is a patch of land covering about 84 acres (34 hectares). It was bought by the Woodland Trust in two lots between 2007 and 2009 and the site is described by CADW as a historic Park and Gardens. It’s also listed under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a priority habitat for wildlife.
Features include the site of an old manor house – which is now all-but gone – a large arboretum that contains mostly coniferous trees – so it should really be called a pinetum – a walled garden, an orchard, a bat hibernaculum, a lake and an area of surrounding land that is planted with new broadleaf trees.
There’s a public parking area, paths have been created throughout the site and there are occasional benches for sitting and admiring the views.
Aerial view of Cefn Ila and scenic seating area (Photo: Mark Zytynski):
The History of Cefn Ila
In medieval times this whole area was mostly natural woodland, not yet cleared for farming as most of it is today. There’s some evidence of a hunting lodge on the site, possibly used from time to time by the de Clares and their guests from Usk Castle.
By the 1650s the land, now including a farmhouse, was owned by Squire Roger Williams. He was a Royalist whose property was seized by parliament after the Civil War. But he managed to hang on to his head and Cefn Ila by paying a fine of £206 – a small fortune in 1650.
Over the next 100 years the farmhouse was improved and extended and by 1766 was a reasonably large manor house standing in 440 acres of farmland. And so it remained for another 80 years.
In 1846, the manor house and farm were bought by Edward Trelawney. A colourful character, he was by turns a junior naval officer, privateer and finally a novelist. He was a close friend of the poets Lord Byron and Shelley with whom he went to the Greek war of independence. There he met and married the daughter of a local warlord – after divorcing his English wife.
Trelawney only lived at Cefn Ila for 11 years – he was existing in rural seclusion to escape a scandal after running away with an MP’s wife. She later became Trelawney’s third wife.
During the 11 years he lived at Cefn Ila, Edward worked at maintaining the farm and created what was then a modern pleasure garden around the house. He built extensive terracing with rock gardens, a lake and a large orchard. He also planted the pinetum with exotic conifers from around the world and built the walled garden to supply the house with food for the table.
The word “He” is used here in the royal sense. Of course, he had a small army of gardeners, servants and contractors to do the actual work.
When Trelawney moved to Sussex in 1857, he sold the estate to Michael Parker Smith. There’s not much recorded about Michael’s eight years at Cefn Ila before he in turn sold it to Joseph Lister in the 1860s. Lister enjoyed his new house for just 3 years before he was killed in a riding accident on the estate.
Joseph’s son, Major Edward Lister, lived on at Cefn Ila and became the High Sherriff of Monmouthshire before his own death in 1885. Edward’s main contribution to the estate involved virtually demolishing the existing house and commissioning a famous architect, Alfred Waterhouse, to rebuild it in the style of a Victorian Cottage Manor House.
The estate was then bought from Edward’s widow by another colourful character, Gustavus Ducarel, who was the 4th Marquis de la Pasture. His family had escaped the French revolution and fled to England a hundred years earlier. Gustavus, whose family had made its name in the administration of the East India Company, died at Cefn Ila in 1916 and was the last person to actually live there. Two years later the family moved back to France and sold the estate to a prominent local, Mr Gustard.
Mr Gustard never lived there and a few years later, in 1925, he donated the whole estate to Pontytpool Hospital in memory of his wife Kate. At this point it became the Kate Gustard Convalescence Home.
This provided care for up to 24 needy women and children until 1939, when it became a child evacuation centre during the “phoney war”. It then evolved into a children’s hospital during World War 2.
Edward Trelawney, The Kate Gustard Convalescence Home, Newspaper Report of the Fire:
After the War, Cefn Ila had a major refit and re-opened in 1947 as a maternity hospital. This hospital had beds for 18 patients and during the next 26 years a large proportion of the population in and around Usk and the eastern valleys of Monmouthshire either gave birth or were born in this hospital. As part of a National Health Service rationalisation the hospital finally closed in September 1973.
You can watch a YouTube video of Oral histories relating to the maternity hospital here.
Just 11 days later, fire consumed the entire hospital, apart from the stable block. This is a newspaper cutting from the Argus at the time. Apparently, the building had a fire inspection just two weeks before the fire, which quickly set the conspiracy theorists’ tongues wagging!
The hospital was never rebuilt and the site, complete with the pinetum, orchard and walled garden, was left abandoned for nearly 10 years.
In 1982, Coleg Gwent bought some of the farmland for educational purposes and the rest was bought by The Royal Ordnance to provide a buffer zone for their ammunition production facility at Glascoed. On privatisation of the Royal Ordnance in 1987, this land became the property of BAE Systems.
Modern Day Cefn Ila
Scroll forward another 25 years and, in 2007 the Woodland Trust bought the land belonging to Coleg Gwent at auction, followed two years later by purchase of the rest of the site. Unfortunately, the surviving stable block, which had become home to several species of bats, was demolished by BAE Systems just before the sale, as the details specified that there were no safety hazards.
By this time, the house, pinetum, walled garden and orchard had been left to grow wild for about 35 years! The pinetum was choked with bracken and brambles, and much of the site had been overrun by laurel, originally planted as hedging, and rhododendrons.
Following a Heritage Lottery grant of nearly £300,000 in 2014, arborists were engaged by the Trust to prune and preserve some 40 significant trees in the pinetum and to remove those that were beyond saving. At the same time, the farmland on the West of the site was cleared and planted with over 36,000 mixed deciduous saplings as part of the Welsh Government’s “Plant” Project. Each tree represented a child born or adopted in Wales. These trees are also dedicated to Lord Raglan, President of the Usk Civic Society for 35 years.
Another contract was set to construct a bat hibernaculum to replace the stable block. This was completed in 2015 and bats immediately started returning to the site. Within a few years there were four species of bats living there.
Thirty Five Years of Neglect, Establishing the Lake and Volunteers in the Walled Garden:
In 2015 a volunteer group was started to clear some of the underbrush in the pinetum and to start renovation work on the walled garden. The first task was to clear the invasive laurel from the route of the front drive. This involved clearing an estimated 60 tons of timber and brush, mostly by hand. Work then started on clearing the choking underbrush in the pinetum, which was gradually returned to grass and ferns.
New saplings were planted to replace trees lost to neglect, one of which was a Wollemia Nobilis, or Wollemi Pine, planted as a commemorative tree just inside the gates. This species is related to the Monkey Puzzle and was only discovered in 1994 in Australia. At that time there were only about 100 trees left in the world. This was one of the first in the UK, grown as a seedling at Kew Gardens.
Another significant volunteer effort involved clearing the bed of an artificial lake established in Edward Trelawney’s time. This ruin of a valley was a combination of bracken, brambles and laurel that had to be removed before contractors could re-establish the dam and re-fill the lake. The work was completed in 2018 and the lake is now rapidly returning to natural habitat and home for a wealth of wildlife.
This pond is now host to dragonflies and amphibians. We hope that fish may soon follow, although this will change the ecology once again.
The walled garden proved another challenge. With 35 years of neglect, the weeds and underbrush were well established, but assiduous efforts at digging and planting vegetables and fruits are slowly providing dividends.
The orchard was cleared and some of the apple, pear and cherry trees have been DNA tested to establish their lineage. These heritage trees cover the whole range of eating, cooking and brewing varieties.
In 2020, the volunteer group was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Much of the gains against the underbrush of the last five years have been lost due to emergency, showing just how fast nature re-establishes itself. Hopefully the next few years will allow us to get back to where we were and to continue to develop this wonderful site for the enjoyment of the public.
Written by Chris Lewis-Cooper, local history enthusiast and Woodland Working Group Volunteer at Cefn Ila.
Comments and questions welcome below: