Old Hall Gardens

History of Old Hall

These notes on the history of Old Hall Gardens are based on: Old Hall Grounds Cowbridge: A Brief History, with kind permission of the authors, Dick Buswell and Linda Osborn. This is a pamphlet published by the Cowbridge Charter Trust and is available free of charge from Old Hall, Cowbridge. You can also download a copy here.

Old Hall: the House

The history of Old Hall and its gardens is the story of the town in miniature: periods of prosperity and hardship are reflected in the use of the gardens and the occupation of the house.

The present site of Old Hall probably contained about ten burgage plots, some perhaps fronted by merchant houses with workshops behind and a ‘shop’ to the street; others are likely to have been rather poor stone-built thatched cottages. In the long gardens behind there would have been privies, middens, pigsties, stables, workshops, orchards, chicken runs, vegetable plots or even a rabbit warren.

A deed of 1639 refers to a mansion house, with two new houses built together fronting the road, owned by a Thomas Andrewe, who also owned the land to the south of the house. This land ‘commonly called the Cuninger’ (a rabbit warren) was, by 1639, an orchard.

Over the succeeding century, the property changed ownership and was acquired in 1744 from a John Towgood of Bristol by Thomas Edmondes ‘gentleman’ (1715–1790), our first hero. The deed of 1744 refers to passages, sheds, courts, rooms, cellars, outhouses, and shops – a varied complex of buildings on the site. Thomas Edmondes added a suite of rooms with a classical façade and Venetian windows fronting the gardens, which were also being laid out at this time.

Evidence indicates that for much of the C18th and early C19th the west side of the property was occupied as a separate house but in the 1840s the Reverend Thomas Edmondes (vicar of Cowbridge with Llanblethian for 46 years) moved into the main part of the building, which he then upgraded to reflect his considerable wealth, mostly derived from rich coal seams that he owned in the South Wales Valleys.

After Thomas Edmondes’ death in 1893 the two properties were combined. The street frontage was rebuilt in mock-Tudor style with a stone porch and the house acquired additional rooms.   

Old Hall and the School

Old Hall was taken over by the Grammar School in 1932 and used for teaching, a library and a staff room. However, it had little income and the building soon deteriorated. By the early 1960s the buildings were declared unsafe. Meanwhile the school had built a gymnasium and a dining hall just outside the South Gate in 1938 on the Closes, land that belonged to the Edmondes. In 1963 they acquired more of this land in Mill Road and erected a series of 'temporary' huts that eventually were used by the junior classes of the comprehensive school that was formed in 1974. These were abandoned in 2011 and the land sold to Taylor Wimpey who built 21 'executive' houses and 6 'affordable' houses on the site known as Scholars View.

After Glamorgan County Council took over Old Hall much of the back part of the house was demolished, including its classical façade, and the building left as a controlled ruin. Today it houses a Community College and offices of the Vale of Glamorgan Council. In the grounds are two buildings designed by students of the Welsh School of Architecture: the local library and a health centre, the latter replaced by a private children's  nursery; a new Health Centre has been built near the Leisure Centre.

Aerial view of Old Hall Gardens, 6th October 2013.

Old Hall watercolour by Eleanor Edmondes, 1929. By kind permission of the Edmondes family.

The Edmondes Family

The Edmondes were one of the most colourful of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century families in Cowbridge and the Vale. They had been settled in the Cowbridge area for over 200 years from the late seventeenth century and gradually won prominence as landowners and public figures. Thomas Edmondes, one of many with that Christian name, founded the Michaelmas Fair at Cowbridge in 1750 and became Under-Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1752.  With the aid of a mortgage, he bought the manors of St Hilary and Beaupre for £6,500. A rather reckless man, he was soon in debt. In 1759 he spent more than a thousand guineas purchasing a commission in the Guards for his son John, then aged twenty. John Edmondes married Charlotte, the sister of a fellow officer. The marriage settlement in favour of the groom was said to run into thousands of pounds but it appears to have been based on a less than honest account of his father's income and wealth. There is evidence to suggest that Thomas had two illegitimate children in 1767 and 1771.

By the late nineteenth century they had become rather more respectable. The family left the house in the 1930s.

The Gardens

On acquiring the two acres of land to the rear of the burgage plots on which old Hall was built, Thomas Edmondes began a series of landscaped gardens overlooked by the house's Venetian windows. Unfortunately there has been no archaeological analysis of the gardens but their design was probably in keeping with the styles of the late 18C including the planting of fashionable large trees, gravelled walks and, as a mark of the Romantic past of the walled town, a raised revetment to the West which looked over a newly crenellated wall overlooking the town Butts. The south wall was rather roughly rebuilt and two gateways added with Classical pillars. The remains of the SW bastion were raised to accommodate a summerhouse. In keeping with the demands of a substantial town house, the grounds would also have contained a kitchen garden to supply fruit and vegetables.

By the late 19C tastes in gardens had changed and new uses were found for the space within the walls, including a lawn tennis court – a fashionable pastime for ladies by the 1880s – a croquet lawn, and a sunken garden (now a pond) just in front of the house. The area occupied by the neighbouring Physic Garden was once part of Old Hall's gardens and was primarily used for growing flowers. 

When the Grammar School took over the house in the 1930s the gardens were well maintained with, by now, large trees offering shade and shelter where boys could relax and study. The area now occupied by the Physic Garden became the School's kitchen garden supplying all manner of vegetables and fruit for the boarders' dinners.

Once the Grammar School was closed in 1974 this was taken over by the County Council as a tree nursery – mostly sycamores – but they neglected it and the area became a an inaccessible wilderness. The large copper beech that had graced the main garden for so long was felled despite much local opposition. While the succeeding Vale of Glamorgan Council carried out minimal maintenance from 1983, it was not until the Cowbridge Charter Trust took over the care of the grounds in 2011 that the present more pleasant appearance of the gardens was established as an asset to the  town.

The Walls

Cowbridge became a walled town in the 13C when walls about three metres high were built to enclose the core of the ‘long town’. Of the four major gates only the South gate remains, and that much modified and rebuilt. There were at least two bastions in the SE and SW corners, respectively. The walls may have been crenellated but that’s conjecture. Often such features were the product of a later, Romantic imagination. The crenellations on the west side, for example, are almost certainly 18C, part of the remodelling of the gardens at that time.

What were the walls for? Mostly they were there for economic reasons – to control ingress and egress to protect the market rights of the burgesses who paid no taxes or market rents and had monopoly rights to trade. They may have had some defensive function but they were pretty insubstantial.  More likely they may have been a symbol of Anglo Norman power, reminding the Welsh that they were the ‘outsiders’ and that the ‘English’ were now in charge – a colonial power.

The South Gate of Old Hall Gardens.

The walls we see today are, for the most part, of 18C origin; the medieval walls probably would have been largely ruinous by that date. They were seen as old fashioned and obsolete, quarries of stone that could be used for new modern buildings. So they were largely dismantled, as were the large E and W gates of the town which impeded modern traffic.

For the more wealthy house and land owner whose property was bounded by the Walls they were then reconstructed on a much more modest scale, narrower and less tall than the originals but built on the medieval foundations, some of which can be seen to the east of the central gate. In effect, they became garden walls with new gateways to the surrounding lanes and fields.

The gate from Old Hall Gardens into the Physic Garden.

The medieval bastion in the SW corner was reconstructed at this time (mid to late 18C) and on top was built a fashionable gazebo / summerhouse / folly, probably octagonal in shape with ‘gothick’ windows and a door, with a fireplace inside: a lookout onto the fields to the south – a ‘prospect’ of Llanblethian, increasingly a village for fashionable summer residence. 

Archaeological work in the last few years has revealed a great deal about the walls of Cowbridge. They now have ‘Listed’ status and have been ‘restored’ using original building materials where possible. This work was completed by 2011 by the Cowbridge Charter Trust.

Base of the Medieval Wall.