When Valentine Morris inherited Piercefield in 1743 he set about landscaping his estate on a truly grand scale. Laying out paths and clearing trees, he constructed grottos and follies and romantically named viewpoints such as the Lover’s Leap, Double View and The Giant’s Cave. The result was one of the most outstanding examples of 18th-century picturesque landscape in Britain. Piercefield became the highlight at the end of the Wye Tour. William Gilpin declared that ‘Mr Morris’s improvements at Persfield are generally thought as much worth a traveller’s notice, as anything on the banks of the Wye.’
In the 18th century, most tourists alighted from their boats at Martridge Meadow. Their goal was the Wyndcliff, ‘the last grand scene of the Piercefield drama. This was the highest point on the Piercefield Walks with a view which Coleridge described as ‘the whole world imaged in its vast circumference’.
The new turnpike road built through the lower Wye Valley in the 1820s made it easier for visitors to arrive by carriage. A ‘fanciful little habitation, called the Moss Cottage’ was built beside the new road by the Duke of Beaufort to provide refreshments for the growing number of visitors, who increased dramatically following the introduction of regular steam packet services from Bristol. The Duke made other enhancements including the Eagle’s Nest, a double-decker viewing platform perched on the summit of the Wyndcliff, linked to Moss Cottage via three hundred and sixty-five steps.
The Giant’s Cave was a favourite with visitors who were advised to, ‘Carry some gunpowder and leave it with Mr Morris’s gardener in order to fire some small cannon on the Rock as you pass by. The reverberating echo of which you will find has a wonderful effect.’ At one time a stone giant stood above the cave entrance. He held a huge boulder over his head, as if about to hurl it on the walkers below. The giant and his boulder suffered from frost damage and slowly crumbled away.
Piercefield House dates from after Valentine Morris’s death, when Sir John Soane was commissioned to redesign it. A curving portico and flanking pavilions by Joseph Bonomi were added later. The history of Piercefield is intertwined with the slave trade. Valentine Morris was the son of a wealthy sugar plantation owner from Antigua. When he owned Piercefield he also owned slaves named ‘Piercefield’ and ‘Chepstow’. Nathaniel Wells, the son of another plantation owner and a black slave, bought Piercefield in 1802. He was sent to Britain to be educated and became a respected member of Monmouthshire society, a magistrate and in 1818 High Sheriff. Today Piercefield is a Grade 1 Registered Historic Park and Garden and the house is listed. Some of the vistas which surprised and charmed earlier visitors have been lost, but enough of Valentine’s viewpoints remain to take your breath away. You can follow in the footsteps of the Wye Tourists on the Picturesque Piercefield Walk which runs through Piercefield park.