Wednesday Wander – Plas Newydd, Llangollen

This week I’m wandering to a rather wonderful place tucked away on the hillside above Llangollen. This is Plas Newydd, once home to the famous ‘Ladies of Llangollen.’

The two ladies in question were Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler, who came from Ireland in 1778 to live in Llangollen, North Wales. Their story is a fascinating one. Both born to noble families, they met at school in 1768 when Sarah was 13 and Eleanor 29. Sarah was an orphan and ward of Sir William and Lady Fownes, while Eleanor came from the Ormonde family and lived at Kilkenny Castle. Lady Fownes was friends with Eleanor’s mother, and Eleanor was asked to keep an eye on Sarah while she was at school. The two became close friends, corresponding for several years until, both unhappy in their home lives, they decided to run away together. Eleanor was under pressure to enter a convent, while Sarah was enduring the unwelcome attentions of Sir William, who had decided she would make a perfect second wife (even though his first wife was still alive!).

The two women first attempted to escape in March 1778. Dressed in men’s clothing and armed with a pistol, they made it as far as Waterford before being apprehended and brought back to their families. Despite further pressure, Eleanor managed to escape again, running to Sarah. Faced with such devotion, their families finally relented and they were allowed to leave Ireland in May 1778 to start a new life together.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Manfred Heyde (own work)

They moved into Pen Y Maes cottage, as it was known then, in 1780, renaming it Plas Newydd (welsh for New Hall). They extended and renovated the cottage, including the addition of stained glass windows and extraordinary wood carvings on the interior and exterior of the building, many of which were salvaged from old churches and furniture. You aren’t allowed to take photographs of the interior, but I did manage to find this image of one of the staircases, just to give you an idea of what it looks like inside. The details around the exterior doors are also extraordinary, and it must have been a magical place to live. The Ladies lived there for almost fifty years, in what they called ‘a life of sweet and delicious retirement’, until Eleanor passed away in 1829, Sarah dying just two years later.

During their lifetime the ladies were figures of curiosity, well-regarded and attracting many famous visitors, including Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington, William Wordsworth (who composed a poem while staying with them) and Madame de Genlis. Their relationship was seen to embody romantic friendship, a high ideal much sought after at the time. The true nature of their relationship is still unclear – they shared a bedroom, sleeping together in the same bed, and referred to each other as ‘Beloved’. They also dressed in men’s clothing and powdered their hair, as can be seen in the few portraits that survive.

Whether The Ladies’ relationship was simply one of platonic love, or something more, doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that they were both strong enough to live their lives outside the conventions of the time – yes, they both came from privilege, but this was still a time when women were reduced to ‘wife of’ once they were married, no longer allowed to hold either property or their names. I love the story of the Ladies because it’s a story of love, of friendship, and the desire to live life as they pleased. The house in its in green gardens, ruined castle on the hill beyond, stands as a beautiful memorial to life, to the Ladies, and to love.

Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next time!


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Wednesday Wander – Llangollen Canal

I’ve just been down a tax wormhole this morning, so it’s nice to take a break and go for a wander. Today’s Wednesday Wander was selected at random – I opened IPhoto and went to the first place I saw, which is the old canal in Llangollen, North Wales.

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I’ve written about Llangollen before – it’s a place dear to my heart. My mother’s family is from that part of Wales and I remember childhood holidays spent in the are, as well as more recent trips to the small town hidden among mountains. It’s an ancient place, with the River Dee racing through, small streets of houses and the ruined castle and abbey nearby.

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I’ve walked the canal several times, though these photos were taken around this time last year, when we followed it to its source. Completed in the 19th century as part of the great British canal network, it follows the wild river waters for a way, the calm still reflections a contrast to the rushing white foam below, then continues on to the Pontycsyllte aqueduct, recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We walked the other way,  to the weir where the river and canal meet, a huge oak tree guarding the conjunction of waters.

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The day was cold, but the winter colours and mountains made for a beautiful walk. There’s a peace I find there like no other, so it seems an appropriate choice for today’s wander, when the myriad intricacies of even a simple tax invoice have made for a not-so-peaceful morning. Thanks for coming with me 🙂

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Mountains and Surf

I took a couple of days off over the weekend.

There were a couple of reasons for doing so: the first was that I’d finally pressed ‘Publish‘ on No Quarter, the second book in my Ambeth Series. The second was that my husband had booked himself and our daughter in for sessions at Snowdonia Surf, the outdoor surf pool in North Wales.

Mountains and blue sky, taken from the car

Mountains and blue sky, taken from the car

I may have mentioned this before, but North Wales is one of my absolute favourite places on earth. Something about the landscape, the light, the grey stone and green dreaming mountains speaks to me, connecting to something deep in my bones. Most of my family come from Wales, so perhaps it is my blood calling me home – I don’t know, but whatever the case may be, I always feel a little bit like it’s Christmas morning when I’m there (and I’m a big fan of Christmas morning).

Friday night we headed out, stopping first at my parents’ house for dinner and an overnight stay, then leaving early the next morning and heading over the border into Wales. We stopped on the outskirts of Wrexham, in the small village where my grandmother was born. We were staying with family there as well, and an afternoon in Llangollen beckoned.

Canal walk

Canal walk

Our afternoon in Llangollen was lovely – the sun shone and we walked along the canal into the town centre, enjoying lunch at an ancient mill on the banks of the River Dee. A party of white water rafters became stuck in the shallows directly in front of the large restaurant terrace and bumbled around for about fifteen minutes trying to get free, to increasingly loud calls and hilarity from the crowds on the riverbank – we all clapped and cheered when they finally worked themselves loose and headed off down the river, no doubt glad to see the back of us.

The River Dee - rafters gone on their way

The River Dee – rafters gone on their way

 

After lunch we visited Courtyard Books, one of my favourite independent bookstores. After a couple of purchases we headed back along the canal to the car and I snapped a photo of Castle Dinas Bran through the trees. On my post about Rivendell last week, Barbara commented that she thought the ruins of Dinas Bran would make a great Weathertop, and I have to agree – what do you think?

You might have to zoom in a little...

You might have to zoom in a little…

 

 

The next day dawned bright and sunny and we headed off early to make our booking time. We took the A5 through Llangollen and into the mountains, driving through leafy tree tunnels opening out into valleys starting to gleam with autumn, looming mountainsides patched with bronze. I’ve driven along a few of the world’s scenic routes – the Sea to Sky Highway in Vancouver, the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the California Coast road through Big Sur and Monterey, and I have to say that I think this drive compares in beauty, especially when the sun is shining. So I was definitely in my happy place as we headed into the Conwy Valley, where the Surf Snowdonia pool is located.

IMG_2301Other than the prototype in Spain, Surf Snowdonia is the first facility of its kind in the world, and is pretty amazing. It’s a large man-made lagoon with a long pier stretching down the middle – this is where the waves are created. A large block moving along a track under the pier pushes the water ahead of it, creating a perfect surf wave. There are zones for beginner, intermediate and advanced surfers, and the fact that you have to book a time means the waves are never crowded.

IMG_2307Additionally, and a bonus for someone like me who doesn’t enjoy sitting on beaches for hours on end, there’s a very nice restaurant alongside the pool, so you can sit in comfort and watch the surfers go past. However, I found I spent a lot of time outside – the weather was so glorious and the pool so fascinating to watch I couldn’t resist.

IMG_2303The final verdict was one word: awesome! Both surfers had a great time and, as we headed home under the super moon hanging like a golden lantern in the sky, we took a moment to appreciate the weekend and all we’d experienced.

 

And now IMG_2327I’m sharing it with you 🙂

 

Heart Reflections

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Over the half term holiday a couple of weeks ago, I went to Wales to visit family. They live just near Llangollen, a small town nestled in the arms of the mountains, the river rushing through its midst.

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The River Dee from the canal path

The town hasn’t really changed since I was a small child, and I suppose hadn’t changed much even then. There are small winding streets, old stone houses and river gardens, shops where you can buy local art pottery, old books or souvenirs, tiny dragons or slate house numbers, flags and magnets and all the things we take away to decorate our homes, little bits of magic to remind us where we’ve been. A ruined castle sits high on a hill overlooking the town, as do the venerable black timbered halls of Plas Newydd, where two ladies lived together in defiance of both their families and eighteenth century convention.

We did as we always do when we visit. Walked the main street, wandering in and out of small shops where my daughter spent some carefully hoarded pounds, ate in a café (staffed by two fabulously coiffed young men), watched the River Dee as it bubbled over the rocks and under the old stone bridge. Then we went for a walk along the canal path.

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The canal was created as part of the great industrial revolution, a smooth straight stretch of water running alongside the ancient river, her waters too wild to carry the boats filled with coal and stone and supplies. The River Dee has a long chronicled history, first mentioned in the writings of Ptolemy as the River Deva, almost two thousand years ago. Deva means goddess, and the river waters were said to be sacred to the goddess of war, their ever changing path as they moved toward the boundary with England said to state which side would be victorious in any given year. So this is pretty cool stuff. In modern welsh the river is still called Dyfrdwy, which translates as ‘the waters of the goddess,’ so the tradition still holds.

I love that kind of thing.

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So off we went, walking the gravelled canal path, the ancient waters of the goddess tumbling over stones to the left of us while the canal stretched smooth and unbroken to the right. The day was bitterly cold, the foliage bare golden brown in most parts. Yet there were still signs of Spring to come – a few buds of blossom, snowdrops carpeting the opposite banks. I took some photos and talked to my mother and, as I tucked my hands in my pockets and watched my daughter dancing ahead, hand in her grandfather’s, I felt a great sense of peace. It’s the kind I get when I’m in the Welsh hills, as though I could lie down and wrap myself in the landscape. This is why I call it my heart home, I guess. There is no other place that does this for me.

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A huge old oak tree stands where the river and the canal join…

Do you have a heart home, somewhere you’d love to live if you could? If so, where would it be?