A strange house, a Welsh lawyer and an Italian Contessa.
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
To the north of Merthyr Tydfil, near the railway viaduct at Pontsarn, stands a very peculiar house. The property has been known by a number of different names, over the years, including Hafod Cottage, Vaynor Cottage, The Old Spanish House and, more recently, Hy Brasail. At the time of writing, the house, a Grade II listed, stands empty, neglected and looking very sad. What makes the house unique is the style in which it was built.
Like its name, Hy Brasail, the house, is shrouded in mystery. Some commentators have suggested that the house was named after ‘Hy Brasail’ - also known as ‘Hy Brasil’ - a mythical island somewhere off the coast of Ireland.
According to legend, the island is hidden by an inpenetrable mist except for one day every seven years. In the old Irish tongue the name of the island suggests beauty, great worth and might. In 1674, a Captain Nisbet was on a voyage from France to Ireland when he chanced upon the mysterious island. According to the Captain’s reports, a colony of enormous black rabbits inhabited the island together with a magician who lived alone in a castle. It’s an unlikely tale and a strange place after which to name a house near Merthyr Tydfil.
As well as having a strange name, the house called Hy Brasail is a bewilderment of ideas. Part of the dwelling is conventional and looks like a Victorian middle class house but a strange extension has been added. Stone columns hold up an incongruous arch while, just beyond, Spanish archways support an upper floor containing stone mullioned windows, sheltering from the weather under a Welsh slate roof. Alongside the mullioned windows, an upstairs veranda sits, surrounded by carved stone balustrades. To add to the discord, two Venetian stone towers emerge, like campaniles, from the roof. Even the towers, with their pink stone columns, are mismatched; one is larger than the other.
There are several opinions regarding the origins of the strange dwelling. Although there is no evidence to support the idea, some say it was built by an owner in the style of his wife’s Tuscan childhood home. It is known that a solicitor named Mr. James, whose law practice was in Merthyr, lived in the house in 1912. At the time the house, rather smaller than it is now, was known as ‘Vaynor Cottage.’ Each morning, Mr. James walked to Pontsarn Station to catch an early train to Merthyr. Each night he returned to his empty house. That summer, he went to Italy for a holiday where he met an Italian Countessa and immediately fell in love.
Thinking the holiday liaison was something more serious than a brief romance, Mr. James returned home and added an Italian style extension to his house with the hope that the Contessa would join him in Wales. To make the house more homely, he furnished it with fine furniture, porcelain and paintings and in the courtyard, at the front of the house, he placed a large statue of an eagle sat on a plinth. Sadly, the Contessa never came to Wales and Mr. James’ dream of love remained unfulfilled. The disappointed solicitor resumed his daily train rides to work and remained a bachelor for the rest of his life.
In 1948, a butcher by the name of Bowen bought Vaynor Cottage. Bowen’s Irish wife, a teacher, wanted a name for the house that was more in keeping with its size and quirky character. It was Mrs Bowen who renamed the house ‘Hy Brasail’ after the mythical island from Irish folklore.
The eagle was either sold or stolen in the 1980s and the railway station at Pontsarn has long since closed. Today, the old rail bed is part of the Taff Trail and walkers who enjoy the path pass close to Hy Brasail, a structurally odd derelict building and one of the strangest looking houses in Wales.