THE late eighteenth century was a time of garden features designed as objects of beauty and the fashion was for building arbours, follies, hermitages and grottoes in the parklands and gardens of grand houses in Britain.

In the early 1800s, the wife of Capel Hanbury Leigh of Pontypool Park House, Molly, a wealthy widow from The Gnoll in Neath, is credited with inspiring the grotto and its spectacular shell decorations.

Following the lead of many contemporary wealthy ladies, Molly spent many painstaking hours collecting the shells and arranging them herself.

The ceiling of the Shell Grotto is its glory – fan vaulted with six fans riding from six pillars and in the centre of the dome, large stalactites hang down. The pillars and ceiling are covered with thousands of shells interspersed with minerals and stalactites from local caves. Set in the floor are the bones and teeth of animals set in patterns to form arcs and circles, stars, hearts and diamonds. The windows contain coloured glass.

The grotto was used by the Hanbury family of Pontypool Park House as a venue for picnics until the early 20th century and then became derelict after the purchase of the Park by the local urban district councils in 1922.

The Shell Grotto was fully restored with CADW grants in 1993 and 1994 and is now opened by the volunteer group, Pontypool Park Friends for the public to view on most Bank Holidays.

Nostalgia is provided by Torfaen Museum.