The Welsh word pen means head, top, end or edge; allt means hillside, cliff or wood. Any combination of these meanings would serve as a description of Penallt, for this well-wooded area stands high, rising nearly 900 feet, and forms a broad plateau, falling very steeply to the river Wye on the east, to the Trothy on the north, less steeply to the narrow Whitebrook valley on the south, and is bounded roughly by the old ridge road from Monmouth to Chepstow on the west – a district about three miles square.
There has been industry here from time immemorial. There are many ancient quarries from which came the stone that made Penallt famous for its millstones. There were mills in Whitebrook, Blackbrook and at the site of the General's from mediaeval times, and metal-working, flour-milling and paper-making were flourishing industries until the end of the 19th century, water-power being provided by the complex of ponds down the valleys; an aerial photograph has shown many instances of charcoal-burning, which suggests that the high plateau was more thickly wooded than it is today, when only the slopes down to the rivers are still forested.
The views from the edges of the plateau are of staggering beauty. Westward, they reach to the Blorenge, the Sugarloaf Mountain, the Skirrids, the Black Mountains and, rising in the distance 40 miles away, the heads of the Brecon Beacons; to the north they stretch out through the gap of the Wye Valley to the Malverns, to the east, over the Wye gorge, to St Briavels Common and the rolling loveliness of the Forest of Dean.
Bernard Shaw, staying at the Argoed in 1897, wrote to Ellen Terry: 'The God who made this country was an artist; he moulded his hills so that their lines run down into the valleys quite magically, and trimmed them with tufted woods so that not an acre glares however warm the sun is. The fellow who turned out Dorking was a bank-holiday tradesman by comparison.' And today, over 100 years later, except for a glimpse here and there northwards of the housing overspills of Monmouth, the countryside is still unspoiled.