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!


If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

Wednesday Wander – Portmeirion, Wales

portmeirion-2I’ve chosen to wander to the village of Portmeirion, North Wales, this week. There are a couple of reasons for doing so; one, it’s a pretty interesting place and, two, it’s fifty years ago this week since filming started on cult television series The Prisoner, which used the village as its backdrop.

portmeirion-3The Prisoner starred Patrick McGoohan as a man known only as Number Six, held prisoner in the village for reasons that remain unclear. Every week he would try to escape, and every week he would fail. The other residents of the village were also known by numbers, rather than names, and huge white balloons called Rovers floated about, preventing the inhabitants from escaping. (For more info, check out this BBC News website article). While the show only ran for seventeen episodes, it became a cult classic – Prisoner conventions are held at the village every year, and the annual music festival  is called Number Six, in homage to McGoohan’s character.

portmeirion-5But even without the bizarre alternate world of The Prisoner, Portmeirion is, as I said, a rather interesting place. Built between 1925 and 1975, it is the brainchild of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who wanted to create an homage to the Mediterranean coast. However, this particular slice of Italianate heaven is set on the rather less balmy, yet no less beautiful, North Welsh coast, where the sea shines silver under rolling clouds, mountains stretching green into the distance.

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The lush gardens and buildings have inspired many writers and musicians over the years – Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit while staying there, while Iron Maiden wrote a song called The Prisoner which included a sample of dialogue from the show. The village has also featured in videos for Supergrass, XTC and Siouxsie & The Banshees, to name a few, as well as being used in film and TV productions including Doctor Who and Cold Feet. Frank Lloyd Wright, the esteemed architect (and one of my favourites) visited the village in 1959 – the list goes on…

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I first visited Portmeirion as a child then, later, returned as an adult. It was as magical as I remembered, even on a cloudy day – the colours and shapes beautiful against the lush green shrubbery. And, hidden among the trees, my friend and I found a small pet cemetery complete with gravestones – a poignant reminder of the family who owned and lived in the village for many years. Now Portmeirion is owned by a charitable trust and you can stay in the village itself, as most of the buildings were designed, and have always been used as, a hotel and self-catering cottages. I think it might be an ideal place to go for a writing retreat – anyone interested? 😀

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

Five Photos, Five Stories Challenge – Day 4 – Ruthin Castle

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‘Look, there’s a peacock.’

‘Oh, like a statue of one?’ My Australian husband frowns, shading his brow as he looks at the bird perched on the high stone arch.

‘No, a real one,’ I say, as the bird moves, hopping down and letting out one of those plaintive cries they make.

‘What?!’

Then ensues a small chase, me with the pushchair, him with the camera as he follows the peacock along the ruined walls, surprised by the penchant of the British to keep such birds in the grounds of their stately homes.

It’s a magical day, one of three we spend at Ruthin Castle in North Wales as part of a family celebration for our much loved grandmother, taking her back to the land of her birth for her 80th birthday. There is a dinner, formal attire and I receive a compliment from a stranger on a staircase, reminding me of who I am and who I can be. During and after dinner we are entertained by a harpist and a welsh male voice choir, harmonies blending to bring tears to our eyes. My daughter sings along in her highchair, banging chubby hands on the frame as the music swells around her, the newest link in a long chain of family all brought together in the same room.

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The rules of the Five Photos, Five Stories Challenge are:

1) Post a photo each day for five consecutive days.
2) Attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or a short paragraph. It’s entirely up to the individual.
3) Nominate another blogger to carry on the challenge. Your nominee is free to accept or decline the invitation. This is fun, not a command performance!