Martyn J Griffiths
Briton Ferry was regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in South Wales. Tourists, artists and writers came there to breathe in the serenity, the green exuberance of the countryside and the picturesque scene set by the River Neath and its little boats. This was all to disappear with the development of an iron works, docks, and many other industrial concerns, but in the early years of the nineteenth century it was indeed a place that would fit onto most visitors’ itinerary for a touring destination.
All the travellers commented on the luxurious countryside. They may not have been enamoured with the house of Lord Vernon, but the beauty of his estate was undisputed. Even nearby Warren Hill where once stood an ancient Celtic fort, was wooded in oak and beech trees at this time.
The artist, John Thomas Barber, visited in 1803 and commented:
'The extensive plantations spread over several bold hills westward of the Neath river, whose broad translucid stream here emerges in a fine sweep between high woody banks, partly broken into naked cliffs, and soon unites with the sea.
From a delightful shady walk independent over the stream, we branched off into an 'alley green' that led us up a steep hill covered with large trees and tangled underwood: the ascent was judiciously traced where several bare craigs projecting from the soil formed an apposite contrast to the luxuriant verdure that prevailed around. On gaining the summit the charms of Briton Ferry disclosed themselves in an ample theatre of Sylvan grace of more than common beauty…………'
There were numerous walks and drives set out in the grounds and Sir Thomas Gery Cullum, travelling through in 1811, said:
'The tide was at its height and the scenery about this spot is quite delightful, the walks being most judiciously planned through the rocks which are well wooded, with every now and then an opening to the sea, or the busy scenes of the wharfs where the greatest activity prevails at full tide.'
Whilst the majority of tourists were walkers, Sir Thomas would have travelled by coach with a minimal amount of foot travel, especially so as he was about 70 years of age at the time of his tour.
Cullum wrote that the climate was almost sub-tropical with sweet Bays and Portugal Laurel growing to prodigious size.
Sir Thomas Gery Cullum (1741-1831) 7th Baronet of Hardwick House, Suffolk
Writing about the area many years later, Henry Butterworth said that Briton Ferry
'….has been called a fairy region, a delightful place, 'where nature and art seem to act as rivals, but where in truth are cooperating to spread before the eyes of the observe, scenes of the most- bewitching enchantment.' In this favoured spot, the myrtle, magnolia, strawberry-tree, and other tender exotics 'will grow luxuriantly in the open air,” as they do in the mild and beneficent climate of South Devon.'
Very few travellers commented on the ferry itself. One of those was Mary Ann Coare from Kent who wrote in about 1830:
'The river at the passage is 3 miles over. They charged 2/6 for taking the ferry down to the boat which is a great imposition; 12 shillings for taking the carriage and 9d. each for Passengers.'
Colonel Greville at Briton Ferry by Julius Caesar Ibbetson
All visitors, whether tourists, writers, artists or workmen, needed a place to slake their thirst and Briton Ferry had its own small inn.
Sir TG Cullum briefly mentions having a 'frugal repast' there in 1811. Ten years later the Reverend Robert Hassell Newell also made a brief referral:
'Here is a good inn, much improved of later years and kept up, probably, by summer parties from Neath and Swansea.'
Newell scoured the area looking for the best places from which sketches of the picturesque could be drawn. For the best view of Briton Ferry, he advocated crossing to the other side of the river and picked a spot near Earl’s Wood.
References to this hostelry are always shown as, ‘the inn’ and a name is never revealed. However, D Rhys Phillips comments that this was later the Vernon Tavern and later still the Vernon Hotel, which was situated at the bottom of Warren Hill. He adds that about 1726-1734 it was kept by Catherine Lloyd, the leader of the notorious women smugglers of Briton Ferry.
The highway from Aberavon to Neath passed through the estate so there were a few derogatory comments made about both that irregularity and the structure of the house. All seem to be in agreement with Dr. Roberston, an early visitor who, in 1799, said, 'neither the structure of the house, nor its situation, correspond perfectly with the beauty of the grounds.' Barber commented that the house was 'a very ordinary building.'
Whilst most agreed on the stunning beauty of the area, Millicent Bant, a Lady’s companion, (1808), was singularly not impressed by the mansion, commenting that it was, 'not worth notice, grounds in very bad order, but picturesque and pretty on the banks of the river.'
Sir Thomas Gery Cullum (1811) was particularly put out:
'The grounds about Lord Vernon’s are by no means extensive, and small as they are, they are intersected by the High Road, being obliged to cross over the road before we had completed the circuit of the grounds.'
The botanist, Thomas Martyn (1801), was one of the few tourists who lauded the nature of the road, but then he was not a landowner like Sir Thomas who was probably averse to the peasants wandering over his property:
'A beautiful and picturesque spot. Lord Vernon has a seat here delightfully situated. The road taking a serpentine direction gives a different aspect at every turn, this constant variation of the scene increases the beauty of it, and which I think must have been much heightened had it been high water at the time and the day not so far advanced.'
We hear precious little about the people who lived in the small village and who worked the estate but Charles Shephard junior, writing in the Gentleman’s Magazine gives this account in 1796 of one festivity:
'Several of the Welsh peasantry had assembled at the ferry house, and they passed the whole night in singing and dancing. I found that the occasion of this merry and sociable wake was, the reapers having cleared away the whole of his lordship’s wheat were now regaling themselves with the fruit of their labors. It was, indeed, curious to see the dancing of these honest rustics, with their rural musician playing on the flute.'
The Neath canal reached Giants’ Grave in 1799 but was not extended into Briton Ferry until 1825 (Coflein), the extension being built by Lord Jersey without an Act of Parliament. This date varies according to which authority you read. There were a number of extensions from Giants’ Grave, starting about 1815 and it did not reach its final terminus until 1842.
As early as 1798 the Reverend Richard Warner of Bath could see the end of the picturesque Ferry and the coming industrialisation:
'…..much of the enchantment that depends upon the rural quiet and sequestered appearance of Briton Ferry, was likely soon to be destroyed, by the introduction of a canal to the village.'
The Sandys brothers, William and Sampson, who were members of a London legal family, walked through Glamorgan in October 1819 and commented:
'The landscape at the Ferry is very rich and picturesque but the effect is certainly lessened by the canal which forms too regular a line to associate with the rest of the picture.'
The only lengthy ‘straight section’ of the canal in the vicinity of Britton Ferry would appear to be the section between Metal Box and the ‘Landfill Site Bridge’ approaching Giant’s Grave – which incorporated part of the line of the former Penrhiwtyn Canal (constructed sometime between 1790 & 1795).
The Village Church by Thomas Horner (National Museum of Wales)
At the heart of the whole picturesque scene that was Briton Ferry was the church of St. Mary’s, which lay close to the mansion of Lord Vernon. The church was described in Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1833) as 'a neat structure sixty feet long and twenty wide.' Thomas Stringer wrote:
'The church yard is in a situation wholly secluded from the town; possessing all that sacred quietude which ought to distinguish the sanctuaries of the dead. It is shaded and overhung by the pensile branches of tall lime trees.'
The poet Mason was a frequent visitor to Baglan House and he noted:
'One peculiarity remains in some of the inscriptions in this church-yard which I have not found elsewhere; that of recording not only the years and months, but the days the deceased have lived. It was usual amongst the Romans, but has in general been dropped in modern times.'
It was believed, wrongly, for many years to be the inspiration for Grey’s Elegy in a Churchyard, but it was certainly the topic in ‘Elegy in a Churchyard in South Wales’ by the Rev. W Mason (1787).
Two whiten’d flint stones mark the feet and head.
While these between full many a simple flow’r,
Pansy, and Pink, with languid beauty smile;
The Primrose opening at the twilight hour,
And velvet tufts of fragrant Chamomile.
The poet William Mason (1724-1797)
Dressing the graves with flowers was said to be a purely Welsh custom though ‘Eliza’ writing in 1800 was not impressed with the general scene:
'….adorning the graves of their deceased friends with various kinds of shrubs & flowers, most of the green sods were thus decorated & they have a pleasing appearance, but otherwise the place was not worthy of much attention.'
The artist and writer, John George Wood (1813) commented on the prevalence of this practice:
'The custom prevails throughout south Wales, to a certain extent; but perhaps is nowhere practiced as in this neighbourhood'
William Daniell, a landscape and marine artist, wrote in 1814:
'None but sweet-scented flowers are planted on the graves; and no others are considered as emblematical of goodness: but the turnsole, African marigold, or some other memorials of iniquity, are sometimes insidiously introduced among the pinks and roses, by a piqued neighbour, in expression of contempt for the deceased or his surviving relations.'
He also added that the custom was dying out, partly because the horses of the clergy were eating the flowers!
The graves were whitened with lime every holiday. There are many descriptions of the plants on the graves and other floral tributes. Amongst the plants spoken of were:
The turnsole, African marigold, pinks and roses (white rose on the grave of a virgin and red rose on graves of persons distinguished for kindness, benevolence and other social virtues… Black’s Picturesque Guide 1858), tulip, carnation, peony and various shrubs, blue veronica, lavender, sweet marjoram, southernwood and rosemary (most common) and London Pride
The church was demolished and rebuilt 1891-2 although the ancient tower was retained. The population had grown enormously over the previous fifty years, hence the need for more seating capacity, but a commentator said that the new building looked disproportionate with the small tower looking as though it was being devoured whole by the enormous nave.
The beautiful picturesque nature of Briton Ferry had long gone by that time and The Handbook of Neath, written in 1852, tells of its passing:
'The grand old wood on the lordly hill has been felled and given place to a modern plantation. The churchyard is stripped of its trees; the quiet old inn in whose large upper room, with windows at each end, it was so pleasant to refresh ourselves after a long ramble, is now lost in a mass of buildings connected with the Works of the Briton Ferry Iron Company, and the scattered village, with its sweet gardens, is converted into a closely built irregular, and singularly ugly but industrious Township, abounding in shops, and supporting three Dissenting meeting houses.'
1787 Elegy in a Churchyard in South Wales, Rev. William Mason
1796 A Tour Through Wales – Gentleman’s Magazine, Charles Shephard junior
1799 Journal (NLW MS 11790A), Dr. Robertson
1800 Private collection, Eliza
1801 Diary (NLW MS 1340C), Thomas Martyn
1803 A Tour throughout South Wales and Monmouthshire, John Thomas Barber
1808 Diary of South Wales (Essex R. O. Ref D/D Fr F4), Millicent Bant and Lady Wilson
1811 Journals (NLW), Sir Thomas Gery Cullum
1813 The Principal Rivers of Wales illustrated, J. G. Wood
1814 Picturesque Voyage round Great Britain, William Daniell
1819 A Tour Through Wales (NLW File 393C), William and Sampson Sandys
1819 Welsh Excursions, Thomas Stringer
1821 Letters on the Scenery of Wales, Rev. Robert Hassell Newell
1830 Diary of a Tour in the West Country and Wales, Mary Ann Coare
1833 Topographical Dictionary of Wales, Samuel Lewis
1858 Picturesque Guide Through North and South Wales and Monmouthshire, Black
1887 Glamorgan Antiquities - Old Welsh Graveyard Customs, Henry Butterworth
1898 Reminiscences of Briton Ferry and Baglan, E. Humphreys
1929 The History of the Vale of Neath, D. Rhys Phillips
With thanks to Dr. Gareth W Hughes of the Neath & Tennant Canals Trust.