The Grade II* listed building, bought for the community by The Welsh Georgian Trust in 2017, is of historical importance because of the discovery of a secret chapel in the attic where Catholics worshipped during a period when it was illegal and dangerous to do so.
It is the only known recusant chapel that exists in Wales and one of the best surviving examples in the whole of Britain.
One of the priests who led the secret services was denounced to Parliament by priest-hunter, John Arnold of Llanfihangel Court. He was arrested, hanged, drawn and quartered at Usk on 27th August, 1679. Father – later Saint – David Lewis was Wales’ last Catholic martyr.
The purpose of the meeting on Wednesday was to present the findings of the survey and to outline the vision for the future. Chair of the Plas Gunter Mansion project, Owen Davies, said in his introduction, “We are the history hunters, putting together a jigsaw of the pieces of history relating to this house. We have the edges to the jigsaw, we now have to fill in the middle bits.
“We’re not sure we’ll ever find all those missing jigsaw pieces because we don’t have the box for reference – so we don’t know exactly what it looked like in the first place,” he added.
The mansion was a centrally planned renaissance house built by the Gunter family in the 17th century and inhabited by the same family for a number of generations. It is known that Thomas Gunter, a lawyer, was living there in the 1670s and plied his trade in the room facing Cross Street, to the left of the main entrance, where the pop-up exhibition of the mansion is currently located.
Andrew Beckett of the Welsh Georgian Trust (WGT) said that the survey had uncovered some interesting findings but that it had in fact thrown up even more questions.
The upstairs of the property is not currently accessible to the public but the pop-up space at 39a Cross Street features photographs, historical information and artists’ impressions of the mansion.
The Trust will need to apply for Heritage Lottery funding to restore Plas Gunter Mansion so this initial archeological survey was commissioned to improve the chances of securing funding further down the line. Funding for the survey came from the Architectural Heritage Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund.
Local architects firm Morgan & Horowskij carried out the survey in collaboration with experts in conservation Holland Heritage, Archaeo Domus and McNeilage Conservation.
One of the survey’s aims was to establish a more exact date for the house and to date the later additions to the building.
Ovolo mouldings, fashionable in Wales in the mid 17th century, and evidence of a cross passage through the centre of the building from front to back are two features which date the main building at somewhere between 1625 and 1650.
The extension to the right of the original house, referred to as the Pot and Pineapple, was built between 1650 and 1680. An old-fashioned sweet shop business in the building was named The Pot and Pineapple by its owner, Amanda Peters, after a confectionery shop of that name in London that was operated by the Gunters of Abergavenny. The shop closed down but it is still referred to by that moniker and Amanda Peters was key in initiating the building’s restoration project.
One of the most striking features of the house, an ornate plaster ceiling in the first floor main chamber, had been the subject of debate among local historians before the survey was conducted.
Its vine trails and cherubs are typical of the late 17th century but its lack of symmetry in relation to the room had led to speculation that it was not part of the original house when the Gunters owned it, and that it had been brought in later, possibly from another manor house.
But Ruth McNeilage, an expert in wall paintings and decorative plasterwork and part of the survey team, is convinced that it is a 17th century ceiling that the Gunter family would have commissioned. After the family sold the mansion in the 18th century, the house was inhabited by a succession of less wealthy owners who would not have been able to afford to pay for such a ceiling.
The room that continues to provide the most uncertainty is the attic. Because the survey places the addition of The Pot and Pineapple extension to the original building at sometime between 1650 and 1680 it means that the secret chapel could not have existed until at least 1650. It is likely to have started functioning as a Catholic place of worship from the end of the Civil War in 1660.
Ruth McNeilage took samples of the layers of paint from the original wall paintings in the attic. “In vernacular houses owned by gentry like Thomas Gunter wall paintings were fashionable between 1550 and 1660,” said Ruth McNeilage. “Then the fashion changed.”
When brothers Edwin and Thomas Foster discovered the remains of the chapel in 1907 a wall painted altarpiece featuring the Adoration of the Magi was removed and was eventually moved to Abergavenny Museum in the 1970s where it is on display.
Ruth McNeilage believes the altarpiece mural was not painted until the early 18th century although she was unable to take any samples from it for this survey. Because of the secrecy surrounding mass being held in the house the owners might not have wanted any permanent religious symbolism in the attic.
She speculated that it might have been painted over an earlier painting or that it was created in the early 18th century as a memorial to the martyred priest.
“We have yet to establish the position of this altarpiece in the attic,” said Andrew Beckett. “A photo of the wall painting in situ in 1907 tantalisingly shows a gap to the left but there is not enough photographic evidence to establish where exactly it was,” he added.
During questions and answers with the 80-strong audience Andrew Beckett was able to confirm that a portion of the plasterwork from the attic is still attached to the altarpiece and it was suggested that Ruth McNeilage carry out analysis on this supporting plaster to establish its position in the attic.
Another feature of the house familiar to anyone who has seen the photographs at the pop-up exhibition at the mansion on Cross Street is the graffiti daubed on wall panels in the attic. Ruth McNeilage believes that it is too crude to have been part of a chapel – that graffiti at the time was decorative and beautiful – and speculated that it was daubed at a later date.
What emerged from the survey was the discovery of a blocked up window behind the graffiti panel, which strongly suggests that the panels featuring the graffiti were moved from somewhere else in the room or the house.
Another mystery that remains unsolved is whether there was an entrance to the secret chapel from the main attic. Reports from the time of the denouncement of the priest suggested a larger chapel than currently evidenced although those reports might have been exaggerated. If the larger attic formed part of the chapel then it is still unclear as to how it was accessed by worshippers.
This survey, unsurprisingly, has barely scratched the surface of what might lie below. “Only when we start taking it apart a bit more will some of these questions be answered” said Andrew Beckett from The Welsh Georgian Trust, whose task it is now to apply for major heritage grants to unlock more of the house’s secrets.
So what is next? The vision, according to Chair Owen Davies, is to solve a lot of the unknowns and restore and enhance the building, turning it into an educational and community resource that celebrates its local roots.
“The question we’re asking ourselves is: What should we restore it to? Back to what we think it was originally? Somewhere in between? The feeling at the moment is to take the upper part of the front of the building back to what it looked like in the 1907 photograph – so filling in the extra window that’s been added – but installing replacement Georgian style windows. We have no evidence of what it looked like before that photograph,” he said.
Stefan Horowskiy, the local architect and the survey’s project manager said: “There is a difference between restoration and conservation. This is more a conservation project because listed buildings often retain echoes from different periods of their history and are rarely restored to their original form. We need a building that’s successful in retail terms whilst making it a meaningful experience for visitors.”
The ground floor facing Cross Street will feature shop front windows because this is part of the building’s more recent history and the granting of any heritage money will depend on building sustainability into the project.
As to the back of the building, Davies said that they would be consulting with conservationists, experts, Friends and the community. The land behind the building does not belong to the trust but the intention is to try and acquire that land and restore it to an appropriate garden space that would form part of the visitor experience.
Inside, on the ground floor, the idea is to recreate the cross passage from front to back, possibly leading to the original door (currently in the museum) and a garden. The only fixed plan at the moment is to turn the downstairs of the Pot and Pineapple building into a visitors’ exhibition and interpretation space.
Owen Davies added: “The remainder of the ground floor needs to be a flexible area that allows for adaptation of use over time to reflect the ever evolving nature of the high street.” One proposal is for a National Trust style tea shop on the ground floor which could spill out into a potential garden area.
The first floor, featuring the main chamber with its decorative plaster ceiling, would become accommodation similar to that offered by Landmark Trust properties. The Friends are looking to work with St Mary’s Church and Abergavenny Museum to create a complementary heritage offering to draw more visitors to the town.
“The building has to become an income generator. Entrance fees and donations alone won’t be enough to make it a sustainable project,” said Andrew Beckett. “Offering attractive, high-end accommodation for a significant proportion of the year would help ensure that income stream. Periods of time during the year would be set aside to keep that first floor open to visitors,” he added.
Beckett referred to Llwyn Celyn, a Landmark Trust property in nearby Cwmyoy, which has recently featured in a two-part series on More 4. The two one-hour programmes, “£4 Million Restoration: Historic House Rescue” follows the painstaking restoration of the building as it is brought bank from the brink. The house is now available to rent as holiday accommodation through the Landmark Trust. The series is available to view on Channel 4’s catch-up service, All 4, until 5th February (episode 1) and 12th February (episode 2).
Plans for the attic are currently the least developed and one question from the floor concerned the restoration of part of the attic space as a chapel, whether mass could be held there in the future because of its importance for Catholics as a place of pilgrimage.
Andrew Beckett replied that there were plans to recreate a space similar to what they think the chapel was, restoring some of the wall paintings. He confirmed that the religious significance of the building was going to be integral to the visitor experience.
It is hoped that the presence of a nationally significant historical manor house in Cross Street will help to regenerate that part of Abergavenny. Owen Davies said, “It’s taken nearly 300 years for us to realise we have an historical gem here that’s of potential national and international importance. There are layers of social history relating to the building that we’d like to unveil.”
Key stakeholder groups from the community are already involved: The Civic Society, Our Lady & St Michael’s Church, Abergavenny Local History Society and Abergavenny Museum. The Friends are keen to hear from other stakeholder groups or individuals who might like to get involved.
2,000 people visited the pop-up exhibition between its opening in July 2017 and September 2018. Around 30 volunteers supervise the space, which includes a permanent exhibition of the Plas Gunter Mansion project and an area for displays by local community groups. It is open Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10.30am till 4pm from March to December.
Anyone interested in volunteering or getting involved should email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Volunteers will be offered training in telling the Plas Gunter Mansion story and in operating the display screens, starting in February.