Ten Gothic Gardens
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Piercefield
Do the walkers along the Wye Valley Way realise they are plunging into a Gothic landscape when they make their way around the great bend of the river surrounding the Lascaut peninsula? Perhaps not, considering  half of its journey through Piercefield is closed at the moment for 'path works' - heaven knows how long for.

Valentine Morris inherited Piercefield in 1743 but only moved there after ten years. Disappointingly he seems to have been less thoroughly mad than several of our Gothic Gardeners, but was rather an improving sort of landowner, with a burning interest in bettering the roads of Monmouthshire -  in 1771 he even fought, and lost, a by-election to be the county's MP on the issue. Thankfully for the reputation of Gothic Gardening, Morris was an outsider - a Creole, no less - who never fitted in with English society. Finding life at home impossible, he became Governor of St Vincent, but had to surrender the island to the French, and returned to London in the 1780s near-bankrupt from gambling, political adventuring, and hopeless generosity.  His wife ended in a madhouse, and Morris himself died in poverty in 1789 having had to sell Piercefield five years before. It was in those 19 years when he was resident on the estate that he developed the network of paths, views and features that make the area a Gothic Garden.

Trips along the Wye Valley were increasingly part of the home tourism circuit from the 1740s, excitable 18th-century romantics taking in the ruins of Tintern Abbey as well as the wooded gorges by the river. Piercefield Park happened to include a near-circular sweep of the Wye which left a bowl of verdant farmland surrounded by towering cliffs: Morris caught the bug and provided visitors with a means of viewing this landscape, which cried out for a little dramatisation. In contrast to the precipices and drama of the walks, the house sat in parkland which was gentleness itself.
Piercefield gateposts

Piercefield Lover's Leap
The northern entry to the walks was through these lowering gatepostsThis could be the Lover's Leap which was a feature of this Gothic Garden as of others - the drops and falls of Piercefield make me decidedly edgy.
Piercefield landscape
Occasionally the trees clear and a glimpse of the strangely enclosed landscape the walks were designed to show off emerges.
Piercefield Giant's Cave
Piercefield Giant's CavePiercefield Stones
Eventually the path brings you to the Giant's Cave. Like similarly-named features in other places, it would only fit a very modest giant indeed, and in fact the swarming bees we encountered there were much more menacing. This strangely-decorated standing stone may be the remains of the 'Druid's Temple' which was once a feature of the walks. Its modern adornment with Aboriginal-style symbols by some recent visitor seems entirely in keeping with the mysterious atmosphere Mr Morris was aiming to capture - even though he would never have thought on these particular lines.
Piercefield Grotto
Compare the little Grotto, looking out over Piercefield Wood - or at least it would do if the trees were cut back - with the Dropping Well at Hackfall or even St Anne's Well at Chertsey. It's clearly been bought from a sort of catalogue of romantic garden features, so closely does it resemble other sites. The Grotto sits on the western flank of a perfectly genuine Iron Age enclosure or hillfort within the Park boundaries, one of two. What the antiquity of the standing stone on its northern edge might be, though, is anyone's guess.
The suite was completed by a Temple, demolished about 1800, and a Cold Bath, which is still there but off a bit of the path currently (2009) inaccessible.
Piercefield rails
Piercefield HousePiercefield Stables

Not far off the main path you can glimpse these sad, twisted rails - important to note, as they mark the old route from the walks to the house. The Piercefield House Valentine Morris knew wasrebuilt by his successors and designed by the great Sir John Soane. The walks were disrepaired by 1850, the estate was sold in 1926, and the mansion fell into disuse and finally ruin. In a brutal irony of time it has now become a feature in its own Gothic landscape.

Piercefield House
Outside Piercefield proper, the Duke of Beaufort added another feature in 1828: the 365 Steps, which lead up to the Eagle's Nest on the top of Wyndcliff, affording views out over the whole of the Lascaut bowl. With its stone steps, bridge and cleft rocks, it stops just short of being completely terrifying.
Piercefield lacks the cleverness of Hackfall and the sheer madness of Hawkstone, but I found it the most frightening Gothic Garden I've managed to visit. The paths skip perilously close to awful drops which tempt the frail mind to abandon its hold on life, and the house and outbuildings are somehow remarkably horrid and desperate ruins. It is, as they say, worth seeing, and thinking on.Piercefield Eagles NestPiercefield Eagles Nest

 
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