One of the most picturesque stately homes in Welsh border country is Cefn Mably, standing on“ the west slope above the River Rhymney and backed by trees. The name means ‘ ‘Mabel’s Ridge” and is not mentioned by any of the Welsh Bards before the year 1091.
According to tradition, the mansion was built by Mabel (corrupted to Mabli) the daughter and only child of Sir Robert Fitzhamon, who appropriated Cardiff Castle and who also built Newport Castle. This Norman Lord extended his lands to include the St. Mellon’s area, and Mabel was also responsible for building Peterstone Church. As Newport was intended to be her home before the death of her father, Wentloog was considered the
Lordship of her husband. She had large possessions, and married a son of Henry I supposedly by Nest, the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr of South Wales, thus becoming the consort of the Lord of Glamorgan.
The house stands on the brow of the hill, then the ground suddenly falls away, sloping down to the Began to the south, and east towards Michaelston-y-Vedw Church.
The Park wall of Cefn Mably encloses a large piece of land west by south of the house, which used to have thirteen hundred deer. There are magnificent oak trees in this park and, in 1739, the branch of a single tree was cut down which weighed 31 tons. This tree was left standing and was capped with lead. On October 17th 1779, it fell to the ground and was found to be 56 feet long and to have an average circumference of 21 feet. A cooper of Bristol offered Sir Charles Kemeys £100 for it. The mansion included an estate of 6,000 acres until 1920, but the house has been converted to a HOSpital today. The land used to be purely agricultural and the Kemeys-Tynte family were the owners of it from the year 1447. ' On the right of the road leading to Maes-y-bryn, there are some young oaks, which were raised from acorns given to C01. C.K. Kemeys-Tynte by the late Mr. Bruce-Pryce of Dyffryn House, St. Nicholas. These acorns were taken from oaks growing in his grounds. There is a legend that these are descended from the famous oak which forms the long table in the Soldiers’ Gallery, as so’me of its acorns were given to the owners of Dyffryn House at that time, who were the Buttons, cousins of the Kemeys family.
Now let us take a conducted tour of the house as it was in past days. For 300 years little change has taken place. The road has brought us up through the trees on the ridge, and we turn to the left where we can see the long front facing the Severn, and extending from the Chapel on past the Tudor Wing to the end buildings, which were built during the reign of Queen Anne. The door is wide open to welcome us and has a Doric porchway crowned by a set of three old lead vases.
We see that the Dining-room is in the form of a letter T, and has three fireplaces. The room is beautifully panelled in oak, and in the style used at the end of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth.
This room has a secret hiding-place in the wall by the window, and if you peer down it you can see the hidden way of escape from the house, which was probably used by a frightened Jacobite, for the Kemeys family were strong supporters of the Stuart Kings.
The main fireplace has a cast fireback, and this bears the arms of the house and the Kemeys motto, “Duw dy ras”, Which means “God, Thy grace”. There is another old Welsh saying cut into the marble of the drawing-room mantlepiece, which says “Tan da, porth glan, a lodes lawen”. This is an old Glamorgan Triad about the three things which make for comfort, and in translation is “Good fire, clean floor, and a merry lass”.
A short flight of stairs leads up to the Soldiers’ Gallery, with its famous long oak refectory table, which extends to a full 52ft, and occupies the whole length of the Gallery. It is said to be the longest table in the country, and is made of one plank Six' inches thick, 2ft.9in wide and 42ft.8/12 in long. As it was not found to be long enough, an additional plank of 9ft. was attached to it. This long table is mentioned in “The Duke of Beaufort’s Progress in 1684” , where it is called “an extraordinary shovel Board.”
There is another curious oak table in the same gallery, and this stands on its own platform. It is a relic of the time when rushes and straw were the only floor coverings.
At the end of the Soldiers’ Gallery, is a little dark room with a small window looking into the Gallery. This is described as the Punishment Room, where soldiers were confined for petty offences. Here they were left to watch their comrades eating, a subtle and cruel punishment.
Above the Soldiers’ Gallery, is the Dancing Gallery, beautifully panelled in oak with a long shining oak floor, reminding us of Sir Charles Kemeys dancing over its surface. He was extremely fond of dancing and one of the three best dancers in Wales. He held Pembroke Castle for King Charles the First, and when in 1648 Oliver Cromwell made him surrender by sheer determination, he had to pay a fine of £3,500 and was exiled for two years.
An old Welsh song tells of his dancing fame:
Tri dawnsiwr goreu’n Nghymru,
Syr Charles o’Cefn Mably,
Sgwier Lewys wych o’r Fan,
A Syr John Carn o’Wenni, Ho ho.
The three best dancers in Wales,
Sir Charles of Cefn Mably,
Squire Lewis of the Van,
And Sir John Carne of Ewenny, Ho ho.
The Dancing Gallery terminates in a large window reaching from ceiling to floor, through which we can see the Chapel garden and, further away, a magnificent View of the Old Deer Park with its clumps of oaks and Spanish chestnuts.
As Mr. Williams, the St. Mellon’s Headmaster, reminisced later on this room, he said that the only tripping over the floor in the early twentieth century was when the elderly caretaker went down the room to open the door of the Bishop’s Bedroom!
Close to this Gallery, is a massive staircase with huge oak steps, which leads to a platform in the middle of which is a “perpendicular flue” communicating with a small dimly-lit chamber. This has baffled all antiquarian research.
The Bishop’s Bedroom is a cosy but strangely placed room. From it, the Bishop was able to watch the dancers gliding past his bedroom, when he raised a small grilled hatch in the door.
The King’s Room is so called from Charles I, who is said to have slept in it, and Bishop Compton of London gave his name to the Bishop’s Room, when he stayed at the house as the King’s companion. Both the King’s Room and the Bishop’s Room are said to be haunted.
The Bishop’s Room and the Tub Room contain fine hangings of antique Spanish leather. The high beds have curtains which descend from the ceilings and date from the time of Elizabeth I.
The Red Bedroom has a concealed recess behind a panel. It also has a fine specimen of a King Charles I fireplace.
There is one grim relic of the days when each Lord was a law unto himself, for upstairs at the head of a stairway is the gallows, with a drop down which the curious may look to see by a faint light how deep it is.
The Hall is lofty and its walls are panelled. Family pictures cover the walls, painted by Dobson, Sir Peter Lely, Diepenbeke, Berghem, Walker and others. A hiding-place exists behind one of the paintings which, opening by pressure, reveals a staircase descending into a vault underneath the Library. Tradition records that a subterranean passage extended from the vault to the River Rhymney In the Hall stands the Blackjack, with the Stuart Crown and the letters C.R. upon it. It also has the date 1646 marked upon its glossy front. Very prominent objects in the same room are two figure screens of the time of Queen Anne, and also finely carved chairs. The ancient silver loving cups at Cefn Mably bear the following mottoes:
“HEDDWCH, LLONYDDWCH A CHYNYDOGAETH DDA”
“Peace, quietness and good neighbourhood”
On the other side:
“ALLWEDD Y GALON YW CWRW”
“Beer is the key of the heart”.
Another cup has:
“DIGRIFWCH A SIBERWYD”
“Merryness and Sobriety”.
The Smoking Room is an ancient panelled chamber still contain- ing its stone table, one side of which is fixed to the wall of an alcove from which hangs a large japanned jug. A smoking story has been handed down concerning Sir Charles, who lived in the early part of the eighteenth century. He travelled much on the continent and became a great friend of George, the Elector of Hanover. When the latter became King of England, he sent for his old friend saying:
“I long to smoke a pipe with him again”.
Sir Charles Kemeys, however, was a strong Jacobite and favoured the Pretender. He replied to the message:
“I should be happy to smoke a pipe with him as Elector of Hanover, but I cannot think of it as King of England”.
Thus Sir Charles had the task of rebuilding and extending Cefn Mably, which then stood as he had finished it.
The Chapel is not as ancient as the mansion, but it is an exact reproduction of the original Chapel which was destroyed. It has a fine stained glass window and a quaint Georgian pulpit with a lower storey below it, from which the clerk called loudly his “Amens”.
In this Chapel, the sexes used formerly to sit apart.
Now coming out into the grounds of the house, can we perhaps hear the strains of the harp and fiddle playing “Sir Charles’ Delight”, while the Bishop peeps through his grilled hatch to watch the dancers? '
However, before we return to the eighties, let us remind our- selves while we walk through the old Deer Park of the story of Sir Nicholas Kemeys, the hero who was killed defending Chepstow Castle. He was considered the strongest man of his times. More about his exploits will be found in the next chapter.
A certain notorious poacher went to the Deer Park one night with his donkey thinking to kill a fat buck, which he would take to Cardiff on the donkey and sell for a good price. But by ill-fortune, Sir Nicholas caught the poacher red-handed and, seizing him by the belt, he lifted him up and threw him over the park palings.
The unfortunate poacher, after recovering his breath, called out loudly:
“Sir Nicholas, please let me have my donkey, and I’ll never come here again as long as I live”.
Sir Nicholas Kemeys seized the donkey in the same way, and hurled the poor beast kicking and struggling over the palings to join his master! In the front of the house, the Falling Gardens were probably built in the time of James I, when such gardens were fashionable. As we look across the green grass, we might remember that green, the old Welsh colour, was the colour of the Kemeys livery. This was worn not only by the men but also by the women of the household in the time of Queen Anne and George I.
But all is not peaceful here. Cefn Mably was besieged by the Parliamentary forces during the Civil Wars and successfully defended by Sir Nicholas Kemeys. Some of the Puritan soldiers found a temporary camp in the space between the Gate House, which was then standing, and the present steps which lead up to the"Cwert Glas”.
The Royalists made a sally and, after a desperate struggle, drove the enemy out. Those who fell, tradition tells, were buried where they lay.
In the avenue leading to Maes-y-bryn, on the right hand, there is a sunken fosse, which resembles a bridle lane. This is part of the entrenchment which Sir Charles Kemeys had thrown up in about 1645, when the house was threatened by the Puritans.
On the north side of the house, during the removal of the earth- works in 1867, a breastplate and cannon balls were found.
So we leave Cefn Mably with its massed chimney stacks and many gables, showing a blending of many periods of history. But we shall make a return visit in the next chapter, when we shall discover more about the illustrious family who owned it and made history here.
Extract from The Story of St. Mellons by Alison Bielski (publish 1975 by Alun ISBN 0907117406, 9780907117407)