Its uncomfortable history is part of what makes Piercefield Park near Chepstow the ideal place to help visitors understand the story of Britain’s historic links with Africa and the Caribbean.
January’s announcement by the Church Commissioners of the establishment of a £100-million-pound fund to address the ‘past wrongs’ of the Church of England’s historic role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade has received the predictable reaction in some parts of the British press, with cries for the Church of England to sort ‘its own house out’. But surely that is exactly what the C of E is doing?
In the USA over the last few years many churches and other institutions, particularly those in the South, have begun to acknowledge their links to plantation slavery and have set up funds to help the communities who have been historically the subject of appalling racism. In Britain we are some years behind. Britain’s historical slave plantation economy, its Deep South, if you like, was thousands of miles away across the ocean in the Caribbean. Like the USA, Britain too has many beautiful houses, landscapes, roads and institutions funded in part or whole from the labour of enslaved Africans. However, perhaps because the descendants of those enslaved people predominantly live in the (now independent) former colonies in the Caribbean, or in large cities in Britain, the historic links are not so apparent as in the USA.
It is for this reason that Britain needs a place to promote understanding. This should be neither just an urban museum, nor just websites or an on-line forum (although these are needed too) but a place that builds on centuries-old connections, good and bad. It should be a place that looks forward positively to the future. For this reason, I suggest that this place should be Piercefield Park, a ruined John- Soane-designed mansion, stable block and its landscaped grounds, just a short walk from the historic town of Chepstow and its racecourse, on the west side of the Severn Estuary.
The Grade II* listed house is privately owned and has been left to decay for many years. The grounds, however, are still publicly accessible and are Registered Grade I – the highest form of legal protection afforded to historic sites of ‘exceptional interest’ in Britain as an ‘early example of a sublime landscape’. The reason for this accolade is because from the early 1750s onwards thousands of visitors from the fashionable resorts of Bath, Bristol Hot Wells and further afield made ferry trips across the Severn to see 23 carefully curated ‘scenic’ views from the wooded cliffside walks. The views were recorded by renowned artists such as Thomas Hearne and JMW Turner, and many amateur sketchers. The experience of seeing them was celebrated in private journals, William Gilpin’s influential tour guide Observations on the Picturesque and William Wordsworth’s poem Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey. Indeed, the trip to Piercefield and the Wye Valley became so popular, that, in an allusion to the aristocratic Grand Tour to Rome, it became known as the Wye Tour. But the cliffs and woods that Wordsworth and so many other tourists closely associated with emotional freedoms, indeed with liberty itself, were also intimately connected with human bondage. The creator of the woodland walks at Piercefield, Valentine Morris, was the Antiguanborn heir to not only to Piercefield but to several sugar plantations on the island. Here hundreds of enslaved Africans and their children laboured for no pay, bound to their ‘owner’, until they were sold or died. A 1777 inventory of Morris’ plantation ‘Looby’s’, indeed, revealed that the ‘movable assets’ included a man given the name Piercefield. He was valued at ten pounds, one shilling and five pence. More than 20 years ago my chilling discovery of the historic links between Piercefield and Caribbean slave plantations prompted me to embark on a PhD to look at the links between British architecture, landscape and the trans-Atlantic plantation economy. The thesis won the RIBA award for PhD research in 2010; last year, revised and updated, it was published as A Bittersweet Heritage: Slavery, Architecture and the British Landscape. The book is not just about Piercefield, however. It investigates how other plantation owners and Atlantic merchants based in western ports such as Liverpool, Whitehaven and Glasgow were, like Morris, instrumental in transforming previously poor and remote areas of Britain into fashionable destinations: Snowdonia, the Lakes and the Western Highlands of Scotland. They created landscape gardens that celebrated views, commissioned artists to record these views in oils and watercolour, and, crucially, organised road construction enabling tourists to visit. The book shows, moreover, how Atlantic merchants took ideas about the appreciation of natural scenery across the ocean to the sugar planters of the Caribbean, and to tobacco and cotton plantations of the nascent United States. But of all the places linking wealth from plantation slavery and the appreciation of spectacular natural scenery, from the Falls of the Clyde near Glasgow to Jefferson’s Natural Bridge in Virginia, and the ravines of the River Cobre in Jamaica, Piercefield, the first, has the deepest resonance. Importantly, today Piercefield is one of the most accessible to many people, a short and beautiful walk from Chepstow with its railway station, tiny museum and car park, with links to Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Newport, and the towns and villages between. Could not a foundation be formed to purchase Piercefield’s elegant, roofless 18th-century mansion and restore it as an exhibition space that links with Chepstow Museum, and other museums further afield, to help to tell intertwined histories of the global and the local? Could not the spectacular, once stone paved walks be restored and maintained so that the natural beauties of the Wye Valley are revealed to more visitors? Could not a project be set up linking nearby schools with schools in the Caribbean and West Africa to think about international issues of food production and ecology today? Could not the derelict stables at Piercefield be converted to holiday accommodation so that city-based families can also appreciate the beauties of the Wye Valley, and understand the story of Britain’s historic links with Africa and the Caribbean? The so-called ‘culture wars’ that try to pitch young against old, ‘woke’ attitudes against ‘traditional’ history, urban against rural in Britain are divisive and dangerous. These battles are unnecessary too; the truth about our globally connected island histories surely provides a creative force that can be used for good. If other institutions and individuals followed the Church Commissioners’ example, perhaps Piercefield could once again be one of the western world’s foremost natural tourist sites, as it was in the late 18th century. But this time the whole story would be told.