A Walker’s Guide to 19th Century Snowdonia

In this day and age holidays in the UK are taken for granted. The combination of high living standards, low travelling costs and easy access to the European mainland (at least for now!) has allowed for increasing number of British citizens to explore the world around them. In fact, the Office of National Statistics published records stating that 45 million people enjoyed a holiday last year; that’s 69% of the population.[1] It’s hard to think of a time when holidaying either abroad or locally was rare and reserved solely for those richest in society.

This diary of an unknown individual and his/her travelling partner, Eliza, gives us an insight into holidaying in its earliest formations (NRO, ENF/Z 1). Believed to have been written c.1809-1829 the two travellers took their trip in a time of booming seaside tourism.[2] However, this was not the case with the Northern Welsh lands they explored, which would not see a development in tourism until after the Chester to Holyhead Railway in 1848.[3] Instead what we have is a very in-depth, romantic description of the rural region that will persuade you to choose beautiful North Wales for your next holiday.

SPR Created on Scribble Maps 1

Map created showing the outline of the travellers’ journey

 

Following the map I drew up from reading the entries, we can see the pair started off from the River Mersey and moved on through the Vale of Clwyd to Abergele. The first landmark they come to is Conwy Castle. As told by the narrator this is one of Edward I’s many Welsh castles (and is still a popular tourist site today). What is truly fascinating though, is the anecdotes that the writer includes in their journey. Either avid historians or lovers of stories, Eliza and her companion are certainly well-versed in the folk-tales of the region. The writer tells us Conwy Castle was besieged by Oliver Cromwell, who supposedly discovered a pipe that led up to (what is thought to be) Queen Eleanor’s dressing room. By cutting said pipe Cromwell was able to force the garrison to surrender and victory was his.

The pair carried on towards the town of Beddgellert which took them directly past Snowdon. Here the writer describes the ‘swampy plains’ and ‘beautiful vallies’, comparing their fertility to the ‘heathy barren and rocky’ mountains which seem like the ‘ruins of a vast amphitheatres’. The visual imagery is immense, almost transporting the reader to those very valleys. In one of these valleys lies Gellert’s grave. This legend tells of Llewelyn who came home one day to see his child’s cradle upturned, blood on the floor and Gellert (his dog) with blood on his mouth. In his rage Llewelyn drew his sword and killed Gellert, thinking he had mauled his child. Yet, hearing the baby’s cries, Llewelyn turned the cradle over to find the baby unharmed and a wolf lying dead beside it. A common legend still told today, yet somehow in context with the dynamic descriptions of the Welsh country it seems more magical.

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The description of the famous Ladies of Llangollen

 

From then on the adventure continues with a week-long visit to Caenarfon for the birthplace of Edward II, and a pony ride up Snowden with a stunning view of the Sygun copper mines and Llanberris Lake. As shown on the map the couple move South, running into more ancient castles and beautiful landscapes until they reach their final location: Llangollen. The incident they describe here is actually an extremely important historical insight into women of the time. What they witness is two ladies, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, proceeding through the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey with ‘wands’ of flowers. These women were the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ who had deserted their life in Irish society to live together in the late 1770s. Described as the ‘two most celebrated virgins in Europe’ they had completely upturned the conventional ideas of society life by opting to seclude themselves and to live together in which some have believed to be a lesbian relationship. However, instead of rejection from society the ladies enjoyed the attentions of curious philanthropists, politicians and, on one occasion, the Princess of Wales. Poets such as Lord Byron and Wordsworth even dedicated some of their works to them.[4]

What is clear from this diary is that these two travellers were living at a time of great cultural shift: the concept of family holidays were growing and, more importantly, a differing attitude towards women and social structure. In this short journey through the North of Wales they have seen evidence of significant historical events as early as Edward I right through to the famous Ladies Butler and Ponsonby, and tales of folklore along the way. This is the beauty of Britain: stunning views with a local history waiting to be told.

So the next time you decide to take the family away for a few days, think of Wales.

[1] Table 5.01 from 2016, ‘UK Residents Visits Abroad’, Office of National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/leisureandtourism/datasets/ukresidentsvisitsabroad (Last Accessed 04/07/2017)

[2] Fred Inglis, The Delicious History of the Holiday (London, 2000), p.16.

[3] Tim Gale, ‘Modernism, Post-Modernism and the Decline of British Seaside Resorts as Long Holiday Destinations: A Case Study of Rhyl, North Wales’, Tourism Geographies 7 (2005) p.95.

[4] Coyle, Eugene, ‘Lifestyles: The Irish Ladies of Llangollen: ‘the two most celebrated virgins in Europe’’, History Ireland 23, p. 18.

Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Sorrel Robertson

 

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