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Torfaen Tales

Gran and the Grotto

You know what it’s like. You live in a place all your life and people ask you about the tourist attractions, and to your shame you have to admit you haven’t seen half of what’s on offer.

That’s how it was with the Shell Grotto. I’d heard people speak of it but had never been there. It’s at the top of the hill overlooking the park. It was built probably a couple of hundred years ago when the idea of having some sort of odd little building on your land came into fashion among the landed gentry. A little stone building made to look like a cave inside, and the walls decorated with shells and bones and whatnot. Local legend had it that a tramp used to live there, and that maybe he was the lover of one Lady Hanbury.

All these years later the Hanbury dynasty, fundamental to Pontypool, is no more. Any descendants are thought to have moved away. Their former home is now a school, and the Hanbury estate is now our local park and a collection of surrounding farms.

The Shell Grotto rated a mention on the news a few years ago when it was re-opened after restoration. For a while there was a flurry of interest and then things grew quiet once again.

I know a few people who’ve been up there and said it was a nice walk. But walking has never really been my thing. I’m more into settling by the TV with a bag of crisps, and my figure tells the sorry tale.

My friend Carla has a habit of getting me into things I don’t really want to do. I’m thankful that she seems to have gone off the line dancing classes since that spectacular fall, but I never know what she’s going to suggest next. Still, I suppose life would be dull without someone to get me away from endless evenings in front of the TV.

One Saturday morning last summer she came by just after I’d returned from dropping our Gareth off on a school activity weekend at some place the other side of Abergavenny. Hundreds of noisy boys all eager to spend two days getting muddy and shouting a lot.

“Good morning, Annie,” she said just a little too enthusiastically. I knew something was up.

Nevertheless I filled the kettle with water and fetched two mugs from the draining board.

“It’s a lovely day,” she continued, pulling back the kitchen curtain to reveal my view over next door’s half-built garage. Very picturesque. However I had to admit it was a glorious day. Plenty of blue sky and sunshine.

“I fancy doing something different this afternoon. How about a bit of a walk? We could take a picnic.”

I screwed up my nose. “You know I’m not keen on walking. Anyway I should stay home and mow the lawn.”

“Oh, it’ll still be there tomorrow. Come on! Where’s your sense of adventure?”

Carla has a habit of getting her own way. An hour and a half later we set out across the fields, having left her car parked near the Folly Tower. Another local landmark I’d never visited. A tower much like the sort of thing you’d find as part of a castle. Another restoration project, not that you’d know to look at it as it looks as though it’s been there for hundreds of years. The original tower probably was, but our Air Force flattened it during World War Two as a preventative measure, for the German Air Force was using it as a marker to line up their bombers for the run to the huge underground munitions factory not far away at Glascoed. As with the Shell Grotto, the Folly Tower was rebuilt in recent years with the intention of generating tourist interest.

As we approached the tower Carla explained that the Shell Grotto was ‘not that far away’, in fact only on the crest of the next hill. All we had to do was walk across the hilltop, a gentle stroll of just over a mile. Much easier than the other route to the Grotto, the steep ascent from the park, she assured me.

Of course as we drew level with the tower Carla insisted we take a closer look.

“Looks closed to me,” I said hopefully, eyeing the sturdy door at its base. It looked like a long way up, and I’m not a fan of stairs.

“I hope not, Annie. There’s supposed to be a staff of volunteers at weekends both here and at the Grotto. Ah, someone’s opening the door. Must have seen us coming.”

He was a friendly fellow, full of facts and figures. It would have been ill-mannered not to do the climb, so I trudged up the spiral staircase. When I eventually joined Carla at the top I had to admit the view was pretty spectacular even though I was seriously out of breath and my cheeks felt as though they were glowing an unattractive lobster shade. Still, who was around to notice? Absolutely nobody.

Having had our fill of the bird’s eye view of the next county and time to cool my red and sweaty face in the welcome breeze at the top of the tower, we set off along a rutted track in the direction of the Shell Grotto. The guide at the tower had pointed out the way.

We jogged along in companionable silence. I had to admit it made a nice change to be out in the fresh air without the noises of suburbia. The path cut between fields, looking very much like a picture-book farm scene with contented cows, neat hedgerows and shady trees.

A couple of girls approached from the opposite direction.

“See, we’re not the only ones out for a healthy walk this afternoon,” said Carla. The notion of a stroll in the fresh air was somewhat dampened by one of the girls asking if we had a cigarette she could scrounge.

We nearly missed the Shell Grotto. I had been expecting something larger. It looked like a disused stone barn. I don’t know quite what I was expecting.

“That must be it,” said Carla, climbing the fence.

Sure enough, there was a sign outside and a couple of young lads on duty. We stepped inside. For a minute or two I could hardly see a thing while my eyes adjusted to the comparative gloom. The grotto seemed even smaller inside, but it was indeed shaped very much like a cave. The supporting pillars had been formed with a natural, irregular shape making them look like stalactites or stalagmites. I can never remember which is which. The ceiling was vaulted unevenly but it somehow had the reverent atmosphere of a small church, a place of worship. And all over, the interior was studded with shells, chunks of rock, coal nuggets, pieces of glass, bits of bone, bits of pottery, all manner of objects. A salutary lesson in recycling.

Carla was reading and inwardly digesting the informative display, but I was mesmerised by the atmosphere of the grotto and the strange beauty of the mishmash of objects decorating the walls. Then I looked at the floor; it was patterned with lots of little bones.

“It’s all right, they’re animal bones,” explained the guide. He’d obviously seen the dawning expression on my face.

Although a bit macabre the floor was a work of art. I couldn’t help thinking of the hours of back-breaking work that must have gone into its creation. Looking around the place it was hard to tell what was original and what had been restored.

Then my eyes were drawn to an egg-shaped piece of ceramic material stuck onto the wall and circled with pearly shells. It was larger than a hen egg, and rather like half of one of those Fabergé eggs. It was decorated with tiny little pink roses, perfectly formed and surrounded by leaves.

Where had I seen such a thing before? The thought nagged at my consciousness as we sat on the grass outside and munched on our picnic. I’ll say one thing for Carla, she does know how to put together a decent spread in record time.

After we’d eaten all we could I dragged Carla back into the grotto and showed her the half egg on the wall.

“It’s bugging me. I know I’ve seen something like it somewhere else, but I can’t think where.”

Carla shook her head. “Doesn’t ring any bells. Shall we go?” she said, consulting her watch.

I grinned at her “Hot date tonight?”

“Yes, as it happens. I went to one of those speed dating evenings last week and met someone with potential. I’m meeting him for a drink tonight.”

Carla and her Men with Potential. I had to smile. Still, she got the dates and I stayed home, alone except for a ten year old son with dubious taste in music and television. Maybe with Gareth away for the night I could rent a video to my liking and get a take-away from somewhere other than McDonalds. There were worse ways of spending a Saturday night.

The walk back to the car seemed quicker than the outward journey, and Carla dropped me home in plenty of time to line up a decent video from the local shop and get some snacks in.

The ‘phone rang at some ungodly hour of the morning. My first thought was that something had happened to Gareth. My heart froze in my chest.

“Hello?” I said tremulously.

“Annie, it’s me,” said Carla.

“What’s wrong? Are you in trouble?” I had visions of Speed Dating Man having drugged my friend. You hear dreadful stories these days about date rape.

“It’s all right, Annie. I’m fine. Sorry to wake you, but I remembered where I’ve seen one of those eggs before. There’s one on your grandmother’s mantelpiece.”

“Carla, you could have waited until morning to tell me,” I grumbled. “I thought something had happened to Gareth when I heard the ‘phone.”

“Sorry, mate. I just wanted to tell you before it went out of my head. Sorry to wake you.”

Luckily for Carla I slipped back into a deep sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Later that morning I remembered our conversation in the early hours. Intrigued, I decided to stop by my Nan’s house. A visit was long overdue so I grabbed some flowers from the petrol station.

She was as always pleased to see me and welcomed me with open arms despite the length of time since my last visit. My father’s mother is a funny little soul, well into her seventies but with the youthfulness of an ageing hippie. And similar taste in clothing. That day she was dressed in an ancient smocked Laura Ashley style dress and a colourful red and pink striped cardigan.

She made me tea in a mug that looked less than clean. I declined a biscuit, suspecting the cat may have been into the tin which was left open on the bench.

I managed to steer her into the sitting room, and sure enough, among other clutter on the mantelpiece was a china egg on a carved black stand. Exactly the same as the one in the grotto.

“This is nice, Nan,” I said, turning the smooth shape over in my hands and undoing the metal clasp. The egg was disappointingly empty. “Where did you get it?”

She smiled vaguely. “I don’t remember, dear, but it was probably something to do with my rich ancestry.”

“Rich ancestry? What do you mean, Nan?”

“Oh, never you mind,” she said, dismissing the subject. Despite further probing I could get nothing further from her. The subject was closed.

Carla popped in later in the week and I reported my visit to my Nan.

“Hmm, rich ancestry. You never know, Annie. She could be a descendant of the Hanbury clan, whether legitimate or otherwise. They were the only really rich people round here. You need to do some research into your family tree.”

I groaned. “How on earth am I going to do that?”

“They keep records at County Hall. Also, there’s some sort of Family History Society. I’ll find out for you. You realise this means that you in turn could also be a Hanbury by descent? Local gentry, no less!”

“What, me? A single parent living in a council house? Get real!”

“Stranger things have happened, Annie. Shame there’s no fortune to which you could lay claim to a share.”

True to her word, Annie came back to me with details of the Family History Society and the opening hours of the records office at County Hall. I spent hours trawling through microfiche slides of spidery writing, and the very nice people at the History Society patiently took down details of my lineage and consulted their own records.

I drew a blank, and so did they. Mr Roberts telephoned a couple of weeks later. “I’m sorry, Miss Hughes. We can’t find any possible connection between your grandmother and the Hanbury folk.”

I baked a cake and popped back to visit Nan.

“Hello dear, nice to see you again so soon,” she said. “What a lovely cake! I used to bake, but I don’t bother now I’m on my own. Come in and have a cup of tea.”

We seated ourselves in the sitting room, and of course my eye was drawn once again to the egg on the mantelpiece.

“Nan, do you remember last time I was here I asked you about that egg and you hinted that it had something to do with your ancestry? I wish you’d tell me what you meant, it’s been bothering me. I’ve seen part of an egg just like it up at the Shell Grotto. Did you mean to tell me that you think you’re descended from the Hanbury family?”

Her eyes widened with amazement, then her face took on an expression of guilt.

“Oh, my dear. Oh, no. I’m sorry to have misled you. I remember I was in one of my mischievous, fanciful moods the last time you called. I visited a fortune teller many years ago who said my mother had an affair with Fabergé, the chap who made those stunning, decorative eggs, and that he was my real father. All nonsense of course, but wonderful fuel for the imagination. I’m sorry, my dear. I’ve been a naughty girl. The truth is, I befriended a fellow who was involved in the restoration of the grotto. He bought a pair of those eggs at a car boot sale. Quite worthless, but pretty all the same. He gave me the undamaged one as I admired it so, but I suppose he must have used the other one for his work on the grotto.”

So there you have it. I really am plain old Anne Hughes, resident of Pontypool, daughter of a plumber and a school dinner lady. Not a Hanbury heiress, and very unlikely to be related to anybody with the slightest drop of Russian Fabergé blood. And does it really matter at the end of the day? Certainly not!

By Karenne Griffin

Last Modified on: 05-11-2015

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