A strange house, a Welsh lawyer and an Italian Contessa.
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.