Old Pen Y Bryn

Sir William Thomas lived in a house in Church Street, Caernarfon the family's coat of arms are still to be seen above its door. But about the year 1580 he built a new mansion house Pen-y-Bryn at his manor of Aber.

pen y bryn02

This picture has been blown up from the Rowlandson sketch of 1797 in the Smithy Page 

To his new house Sir William later added a tower. Pen-y-Bryn with its tower, remains substantially as it was in Sir William's day and is one of the few examples of a Jacobean house to be found in Caernarvonshire. Sir William had evidently intended this to be his family's principal seat and there, indeed, his descendants lived for several generations. But the Thomas family fell on evil days following the Civil War and in the reign of Queen Anne 1702 - 1714, though they retained the Coed Helen estate, lost possession of the Manor of Aber.
The excavations were conducted by GAT at Pen y Bryn in December of 1992 at Cadw's request to assess the potential for recovering evidence which might relate to the former presence on this site of the llys. In addition RCAHMW have undertaken a re-examination of the house and assessment of the archaeological
'excavations' around the house. It seems appropriate therefore to review the available evidence at Pen y Bryn in the light of these recent developments. Pen y Bryn is situated on an elevated terrace overlooking the village of Aber and 200 in to the north-east of the village.
Pen y Bryn is situated on an elevated terrace overlooking the village of Aber and 200 in to the north-east of the village. The house was the residence of the Thomas family, one of the leading county families, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The family's connections in Caernarfonshire were established by Rice Thomas, the second son of Sir William Thomas of Llangathen, Carms. In 1553 he acquired a crown grant of the manor of Aber (T. J. Owen 1966; Lewis and Con way Davies 1954: 180) at a time when he was the deputy surveyor of crown lands in north Wales. The family's principal residence was at Coed Helen, near Caernarfon, built around 1606 (William Thomas was high sheriff for the county in 1607). The family fell on hard times towards the end of the seventeenth century and Pen y Bryn was acquired by the Bulkeleys of Beaumaris. The house is of two storeys, with a four-storey round tower at the west end. The east wing of the house was probably built as a free-standing typical Snowdonia plan house in the late sixteenth century. Subsequently the central block and gabled entrance porch were added c.1600 (Figure 8). The tower may originally have been free-standing and was incorporated in the central block in the early seventeenth century (RCAHMW 1993).

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figure 8. Pen y Bryn. Aber. Revised sequence for main house after RCAHMW. (Crown copyright drawings.)
Three areas were investigated, the location of the trenches being chosen on the basis of results obtained from topographic and geophysical survey (Figure 9).
Area A
A six-metre-square trench was opened on the lawn immediately north of the house, where the geophysical survey suggested that there was a considerable amount of artificial make up. A sequence of tipped deposits containing building debris over one metre deep were removed by machine and the trench subsequently cleaned by hand. A wall of unmortared boulders was located 15 m to the north of and parallel to the long axis of the house. A disturbed cobbled surface extended to the south of this wall.
Following this excavation by GAT, further trenches were opened to the south-west by the owners of Pen y Bryn, revealing the remains of a building. The building can be identified with that shown on a drawing of 1810 by the artist Sir Richard Colt Hoare (NLW views in Wales). Subsequent survey by RCAHMW showed that it comprised two small conjoining rooms entered through a gable doorway, attached to a wider building with a hearth and a wide fireplace. The building cannot be closely dated but is suggested by the RCAHMW to be of r.1700 (RCAHMW 1993).
The majority of the pottery recovered from trench A was of post-medieval date. One rim sherd of a jug of fifteenth/sixteenth-century date appears to be the earliest in the group. It is possible that this vessel was still in use at the beginning of the seventeenth century and is therefore almost contemporary with a high proportion of other vessels represented, which consist of tablewares and more utilitarian forms used by the household for storage (]. Rutter, Grosvenor Museum, Chester).


figure 9. Pen y Bryn, Aber. Location of excavations and supposed line of enclosure.
Excavation Area B
Two banks are visible as linear earthworks running across the field to the north of the house. The banks are orientated cast to west across the plateau and on the same axis as the house. Trench B was laid out in order to provide a perpendicular section of the banks (Figure 10). The trench measured 25 m x 1.5 m. The northernmost bank was revetted in stone. This had been achieved by setting large boulders into a ditch which ran parallel on the north side of the bank. A further ditch was located immediately south of this and another ditch to the north of the second bank was also identified. The ditches are on average 1.5 m wide and 1 m deep. The banks and ditches are suggestive of formal landscaping features associated with the house and gardens.
The Royal Commission have subsequently suggested that the banks and ditches formed part of a 70 m2 quadrangular enclosure (Figure 9). The enclosure was defined by earthworks on the north, east and possibly south sides and by a natural slope on the west. The north and east sides consisted of a double bank and ditch. The outermost ditch conforms to the most northerly ditch identified in GAT's trench A. The east side of the enclosure as identified in the survey is defined by a 6 m-wide bank revetted by a modern stone wall which forms the side of a sunken lane, 3.6 m wide, which was possibly adapted from the site of a former ditch. The bank apparently turns to the south-west to become the side of another sunken lane to the rear of the house.
Area C
A rectangular building which forms the central element of a longer range of outbuildings is located 50 m north-east of the main house. The building is 6 m wide and 11 m long, consisting of three bays. There have been a number of alterations to the masonry fabric; however, the original arrangement consisted of centrally opposed doorways with fenestration at ground and first-floor level. The building is of uncoursed rubble masonry, but the windows have massive dressed gritstone mullions and jambs.


figure 10. Pen y Bryn, Aber, Area B. Section across linear features to north of house.
A single trench measuring 2.20 m x 2 m was excavated within the building in an area which had recently been the subject of investigation by the owners. A sequence of several deposits were recorded which appear to represent the renewal of floor surfaces. These were devoid of dating evidence. The only feature present was a slate-lined and nibble-filled drain which ran across the width of the building on the south side of the entrance and continued southwards against the east and west walls. The drain was sealed by the floor deposits described above and appears to be an original feature of the building. An original interpretation of the structure (RCAHMVV 1956: 3) suggested that it was a barn constructed c. 1700, on the evidence of the style of the roof trusses. A new structural survey (RCAHMW 1993) suggests that the building was altered or repaired in the early seventeenth century and that the root trusses are of that date. This survey also shows that the building was always designed to have a first floor and suggests that 'the width of the opposed doorways and the formal regularity of the facades militate against any normal agricultural function'. The building is then compared with a number of other rectangular buildings with opposed doorways such as that at Castleton, Glamorgan, and the gatehouse of the monastic grange at Abbot's Llantwit (RGAHMW Glam Inv 111ii, 1990: 301). Taken in conjunction with the position of the building in relation to the enclosure bank and ditch, it seems probable that this building is indeed a gatehouse of late medieval date, possibly as early as the fourteenth century.' This hypothesis will be considered in more detail below.
A four-storey tower is located at the west end of the main house, and was originally thought to be a little later in date than the central unit of the house (RCAHMW 1956: 3). The recent RCAHMW survey suggests a different sequence of events. It is now-believed that the east end of the tower has been truncated by the gable end of the seventeenth-century central unit and that the top storey of the tower is a seventeenth-century addition. It is not possible to date the earliest phase of the tower, other than that it appears to be earlier than the seventeenth-century central block. This interpretation is dependent on 'a straight joint in a cupboard in the ground floor'. The RCAHMW (1993) suggests that the tower may have formerly been a dovecote, subsequently converted into a rather elaborate watch tower. Prior to these alterations the tower was originally 9 in high and 5 1/2 m in external diameter. The survey suggests that the internal curving walls would then have been cut back to create the present rectangular rooms.

The excavations and subsequent survey have recovered some information on the layout in front of the house prior to the alterations in the early nineteenth century. The entrance to the cellar below the central block of the main house opened on to a cobbled courtyard with the 'Colt Hoare' house to the north-west. Following the demolition of die house depicted by Colt Hoare the area was raised and levelled and the present, circular lawn laid out while at the same time the existing driveway to the house was constructed. At this point the access to the cellar would have been blocked and the existing front doorway to the house inserted in the stair lower. This probably occurred between 1810 (the date of the Colt Hoare drawing) and the 1840s, by which time the 'Colt Hoare' house had been demolished.
The RCAHMW report, while accepting that the llys of Aber with its domestic and administrative buildings were located at the motte at Ty'n y Mwd, suggests that Pen y Bryn may have been the home farm of the demesne of Aber (RCAHMW 1993). The complex apparently consisted of an enclosure with a gatehouse and possible dovecote, which predate the house. There is no dating evidence for this suggested complex but similar examples arc known from the fifteenth century. The existence of the "home farm' complex is dependent on a number of assumptions. Only the linear features to the north of the house have been investigated by excavation and the remaining evidence for the enclosure is only tentative. For instance, the east side of the enclosure apparently comprises a bank 6 m wide and 1.2 m high, dimensions which have nothing in common with the features which are taken to comprise the north side of the enclosure. The evidence for the south side of the enclosure is even less convincing. The identification of the enclosure (RCAHMW 1993) remains to be demonstrated by excavation. There may be alternative interpretations of the banks and ditches, for instance that the banks visible to the north of the house may have been landscaping features with at least one of the ditches representing a sunken boundary or ha-ha. At present there is no convincing evidence to suggest that the barn dates from the fourteenth century and its status as a gatehouse does to some extent rely on the existence of the enclosure. The absence of any finds of medieval date from all excavations so far carried out also argues against any significant medieval activity on the site. Further, the notion of demesne farming on crown manors previously the sites of Welsh Ilysoedd or royal courts is not supported by the historical data, as demesne farming was not a feature of the post-conquest period in north Wales (Johnstone 1997: 57). At present the only convincing explanation for the origin and construction of the buildings and associated features at Pen y Bryn remains the arrival of the Thomas family in the sixteenth century.
Pen Y Bryn Cottage, immediately N.E. of Pen-y-bryn, is a small rectangular house of two storeys, built of uncoursed rubble with large quoins. The masonry is similar to the E wing of Pen-y-Bryn, built ca 1700. The roof is of slate, The W front contains a doorway and window, the N gable a modern window which may replace an earlier one. The N. cable has a stepped coping. A small dormer has been added on the E side. The ground floor contains an original fireplace at the S. end with heavy beam. The floor is divided into two by a modern partition below an original ceiling beam. Apart from a single roof principal of simple type, the remaining woodwork and internal fittings of the house are modern.

    • 1 Garthewin MS. No. 2089. UC.N.W.
    • 2 Griffith. ped., 202,
    • 3 Drawing by R. Colt Hoare. "View* in Wales". N.L.W.. Vol. 9. No. 25.
    • Condition: of all buildings, good.
    • SH 65827273 (House) 25 i 49      7 N.E.
    • SH 65847279 (Bam)
    • SH 65847275 (Cottage