On the Trail of Dr Johnson: Chester, Sir Y Fflint & Sir Ddynbych (Flintshire & Denbighshire)

When last we left our intrepid band of 17th century travellers (Dr Samuel Johnson and his friends/ co-habitors, the Thrales) they had finished mulling around Shropshire and headed for a place called ‘Westchester.’ Previously they have visited a lot of stately homes (some of which no longer exist) and Dr Johnson has done a lot of grousing. But finally they are about to reach their destination: North Wales… Or more specifically the county of Sir Ddynbych.


Dr Johnson mentions that on the afternoon of July 26th he and his companions came to West-Chester. A quick search for a place called ‘Westchester’ or ‘West Chester’ reveals no such place exists (in England) during the modern era, so that leads us to several conclusions. Firstly could be that Dr J just got the name wrong (Wouldn’t be the first time) or there was actually a place called ‘Westchester.’ After briefly mentioning that his father visited a fair there whilst he himself had smallpox (which, apparently, occurred sometime in the reign of Queen Anne (who rulled until 1714) as his mother took him to be given ‘the royal touch’ which was said to cure all ailments) we are given the clue as to where this is. Dr J mentions ‘walls.’ The only places in the region that have such walls as Dr J describes (in that they are complete and can be walked around) is Chester… Shrewsbury did have walls but they have long since disappeared (even by Dr J’s time) and Warrington nearly had walls built during the Civil war but they decided against it and as a result got the shit kicked out of them by Cromwell. Besides which, Warrington is too far north and Shrewsbury, perhaps, too far south for the area we are dealing with. (And neither have any relation to the name ‘Westchester,’) Further investigation reveals that some people did indeed unofficially call Chester ‘Westchester,’ owing to the fact that it was in the west of the country (which is about as flimsy an explanation as has ever been given for anything) and based on that excuse you could add a direction to any place name you wanted (North Wigan, East Maidstone, South Slough etc). Westchester was a name that was used quite frequently as it happens (mostly by people who lived nowhere near Chester) around Dr J’s time and it was even used by another well known traveller, Ceilia Fiennes, who travelled around England on horseback between 1684 and 1703.

Dr J explains a little about the walls and mentions that he and the Thrales walked around the walls and gives a few facts about them. According to the notes of the book, Mrs Thrale told some anecdote about this walk but from what i can make out it was either just that he kept her up past her bed time, nearly pushed her over the edge or that he drew on the walls in chalk. I can’t imagine Dr J drawing on the walls like a child so i would presume it was the former that he kept her up past her bed time… Which is an old lady anecdote if ever I saw one. Also, Dr J moves on to mention that he saw the cathedral and says that it was ‘not of the first rank.’ I might be tempted to agree with him here because, in all honesty, Chester cathedral isn’t the greatest architectural marvel in the world. It’s very blocky and looks more castle like and secular than anything overtly religious. There’s no general flow to the structure and it just lacks style. This may perhaps be because it still retains most of its early monastic structure, the cloister and refectory for example whereas other cathedrals (I think Norwich and Gloucester might be two,) have integrated these parts more successfully. At Chester the Cathedral is very hemmed in and there’s nowhere (except for on a brief stretch of the walls,) where you can stand back and appreciate the structure. It’s not like other cathedrals where you can really see it… St Pauls in London or the Cathedrals of Liverpool for instance. Chester Cathedral just doesn’t stand out in any way. Even by looking on a map of 1795 and 1789 we can see that it was also very hemmed in, moreso than today, and it probably looked even more unremarkable then than it does now.

Chester Cathedral

Chester Cathedral- This is one of only a limited number of views you can get of the actual structure.

Johnson next alludes to visiting the castle and he mentions that part of it is a grammar school and also where the assizes are held. Most of the orignal building that Dr Johnson saw has now vanished almost completely. Only a small portion of walls and towers to the south still stands. The rest was ‘rebuilt’ in a neo-classical style a few years after Dr J visited… I say rebuilt they just knocked it all down and built something entirely new. Interestingly enough however, what stands there is very similar to what John visited. First of all part of the site is occupied by Chester crown court, which is really just a continuation of the old assizes system. And secondly, to the rear of the court is a part of Chester University… Which isn’t really a grammar school but it still carries on with the theme of education. I think what we have here, therefore, is a good example of continuity of usage.

Two other things Dr Johnson mentions about Chester are some roman remains: an underground arch and a roman hypocaust. As for the underground arch I don’t know where that might be but for the hypocaust there are two possible solutions. One is in Miss Selfridge and the other is in a Spud-U-Like. Both are equally likely to be the one that Dr J saw but I think the most likely is the one in Miss Selfridge. Both are specifically hypocausts and both were known about in 1774 but the Miss Selfridge one is more identifiable as a hypocaust. Then again, it’s entirely possible that he saw both and the one in the Spud-U-Like was the one he described as the underground arch. I’ll let you judge for yourself but it’s my opinion that Dr Johnson saw Miss Selfridge’s hypocaust (Oh god… That sounded unintentionally dirty!)

Today Chester has plenty more Roman remains to be seen. For a start they didn’t even know about the amphitheatre back in 1774 and there’s plenty more above ground and under besides. There’s the whole DEVA ROMAN EXPERIENCE to explore, the legionary treasure room which can be seen on Northgate street, a huge column and an entire public park created entirely for the purposes of displaying the remains. Theres also something between the amphitheatre and the Roman gardens but i can’t for the life of me remember what it is.

Dr Johnson doesn’t say an awful lot about Chester and soon he and his companions move on to a brief stop over in Yr Wyddgrug (Mold) for lunch. He doesn’t say much which surely, as previously he has bitched about poor food quality, must mean he was at least satisfied with the meal. And as for modern day dining in Yr Wyddgrug well… You can probably find anything you want. There’s a weatherspoons called ‘The Gold Cape’ (Named after the famous Yr Wyddgrug Gold Cap,) a chinese restaurant and plenty of inns floating around. There’s even a Subway if you fancy a sandwhich. But that’s not all to do with food in Yr Wyddgrug… Yr Wyddgrug is also a place designated as a ‘cittaslow’ or a slow town, which is basically just a way of saying that they are supposed to take life very slowly as a way of improving the health and well being of the town. This also, unsurprisingly, includes food. This means the food of the town is dedicated to being both local and seasonal. They also aim to promote such forgotten foods as the Medlar (which is known as the ‘arse fruit,’ is mentioned in Romeo and Juliet and also eaten rotten,) and Badger Faced Mountain lamb. I don’t know what Dr J would think of this movement, being as he was from a time when all food had to be local and seasonal through no reason other than that there was no alternative, but i get the sense that he would approve of such a thing… It just doesn’t seem like he’d disapprove somehow, even though he disapproved of a great many things. It just feels like it.

Following on from Mold the travellers arrive at Plas Lleweni (which was known by Dr J and the Thrales as Lleweney Hall.) Because of this name difference I had a little trouble in finding the place initially. However, thanks to Google’s spelling correction I was directed towards a farm near Dinbych (Denbigh). A little research later revealed that this was indeed the right place. As was the case with Shavington earlier on the journey, the building no longer stands as in 1776 it was sold to the brother of Lord Shelbourne who was later Prime Minister and then further sold to Baron Dinorben who tore most of the place down and used the materials to build another house near Abergele, Kinmel Hall, which supposedly mimics the facade of Plas Lleweni. Thankfully Kinmel hall still stands (See the picture)

Kinmel Hall (Courtesey of Wikimedia)

Johnson doesn’t give us much of a description of the hall itself, bar mentioning that it forty feet long, twenty eight feet wide and is partly sashed and partly has casements. We can see from the picture of Kinmel that it does look as though there may be either sash or casement windows, perhaps both, but speculation over that matter does not tell us definitively if Kinmel hall looks at all like Lleweni. In fact, looking at pictures of Lleweni (here) the two don’t look much alike at all. They may possibly have been of similar sizes but I think Lleweni was a very much different structure than what we can see at Kinmel and it may just be that it’s a flight of fancy to claim they look similar because they are made of exactly the same material. They certainly do have similarities, we can see as much from the windows, but i still doubt that they were the same.

An interesting connection to note here is that Lleweni seems to have played quite an important in the history of North Wales. Originally it may have been a place called Llysmarchweithian and belonged to a man who supposedly helped to found one of the fifteen noble tribes of Gwynedd. The Salusburys had supposedly owned the land since they had been given it by William the conqueror and, according to some other sources, the place became one of the leading hotspots for Welsh culture, was associated with Robert Dudley (Yes, that Robert Dudley…) and at one time, so the sources say, one of the Salusbury family was ‘controller of North Wales,’ which in ordinary terms meant he was quite influential and therefore, at this time, we can say with some confidence that Lleweni was the power base for the whole of the region. This was where the magic happened which in itself is remarkable and only makes the fact that the building no longer stands all the more melancholic.

The next day Dr J visits another house called Bach Y Graig. Now all the evidence seems to point to this place being something of a reasonable sized house and Johnson gives us quite a description of the place. He talks about a place in an ‘uncommon and incommodius form’ and he mentions that the windows have been stopped and the floors stolen. He also says that the house ‘never had a garden,’ indicating perhaps the house never attained the grandeur it was originally intended to have. Now the fact that the floor had been stolen does set me wondering about the state the house was in. It may possibly have been abandoned because Johnson also briefly mentions a set of buildings that could be used for servants quarters. There is little more to go on other than what we have here and a note at the back of the book, from another 18th century traveler, Thomas Pennant, who mentions that the house is fairly large, set around a courtyard and has six stories, which includes a cupola. According to Pennant the building was very Flemish in it’s style.

However, finding this house today is something that proves a little tricky as, unlike say Shavington or Lleweni, both of which have left at least some trace, there is very little to tell us where this place actually was and it took quite a lot of searching to actually find it. I was at something of a loss as every search I did seemed to point me towards what looked modern farm buildings. To me that didn’t seem right so I kept looking… I came across several places, including one that looked as if it was falling down, but none of them seemed to fit with Dr Johnson’s and Pennant’s description of the place. And then i came across this Bed and Breakfast and on the ‘History’ part of that website I found the one place that tells you about the history of the Bach Y Graig house. As it transpired it was where those modern farm buildings are and what stands today is just the gatehouse as the hall Dr Johnson knew, like so many other places, was demolished in 1817. Now according to the B and B website, at the time of the journey the house was owned by none other than Mrs Thrale, Dr J’s travelling companion (whom, according to this section of the book he frequently called ‘his mistress,’ which could suggests that something was going on between them, and given that Dr J also sent her images of ‘bondage,’ i’ll leave it to your imagination.) That, I believe, is a very interesting piece of information, although it can offer us little but the exception of speculation. The fact that it was demolished in 1817, a good few years before Mrs Thrale died, perhaps suggests that it was she herself who had it demolished. Then again it is still entirely possible she had sold the place long before then as it was a good forty years after she and Dr J had first visited.

Next day we see Dr J visiting Llanelwy (St Asaph) and mentioning the cathedral. Dr J remarks upon how the cathedral has both a ‘dignity and grandeur,’ though he is less eloquent when talking about the bishop’s palace, calling it ‘mean.’ From what can be seen on the satelite images it’s very clear that Johnson has a point, particularly about the bishops ‘palace’ which is really nothing more than a medium sized house. What we can see with the Cathedral is precisely the opposite of what we can see at Chester… Even though it is small it is visible. It is surrounded on all sides by a somewhat extensive churyard, isn’t hemmed in and it can be seen from various points around the city. It’s not the most spectacular cathedral in the world by any feat, in fact it could easily be mistaken for a church by anyone who didn’t know better.

Dr J finishes his account of Llanelwy by mentioning that the Bishop (Who was a Bishop Jonathon Shipley) whom he calls ‘civil.’ Dr J mentions very little about Shipley but a little digging reveals him to be quite an interesting figure. He was a supporter of the United States in the war of Independence and was a friend of Benjamin Franklin (Who called him ‘America’s constant friend’). It sets me wondering if he and Dr J had a short conversation about the colonies, over dinner perhaps. And even more interesting is that the two men were on the opposite side of the political spectrum when it came to America. Dr Johnson once, quite famously, bitched ‘I am willing to love all mankind, except an American,’ so you can probably imagine that any conversation he might have had with Bishop would have been a particularly heated one. And it’s all too easy to also imagine them talking about American independence with little idea of what was about to go down less than a year later (This was the beginning of August 1774) Then again, knowing what a diva Dr J could be, and seeing as he calls the Bishop ‘civil’ (Most likely a euphemism for an alright sort of chap but not my cup of tea,) possibly suggests they didn’t have that conversation… It is still interesting to speculate however.

(Courtesey of Castlewales.com)

The next stop on the tour is Dinbych and our small group visits the castle. It’s worth noting here that the castle was only abandoned in 1660 after the restoration of the monarchy so it stands to reason that the ruins seen by Dr Johnson and the Thrale’s would have perhaps been a little more substantial than they are today. And there’s even an intriguing hint that this is the case in the text. Dr J mentions that there are extensive vaults underneath the castle ‘which small boys sometimes find their way into.’ Now if they still existed underneath the ruins that would be phenomenal. However, it’s possible that in the intervening two hundred and forty years they’ve either collapsed or been exposed. There’s plenty of pictures of the castle here (and you can see the Chapel of St Hilary which is also mentioned by Johnson in the picture to the left). Finding them, if they were still underground, wouldn’t be too much of a problem as a small Ground Penetrating Radar survey could easily find them. I doubt there would be much left under there these days however. If there were tunnels or the likelihood is that they would have collapsed or been uncovered over the last two hundred and fifty years but unfortunately I can’t find any evidence for this discovery. This leads me to two conclusions (based on the fact that these may not have been uncovered). The first is that the vaults were just something of a local rumour that Dr J picked up on and that rumour has since been lost to history (perhaps because the vaults never existed?) or that they are still under there and nobody knows about them. (perhaps because again they’ve been forgotten about?). It’s certainly an intriguing idea regardless of whether those vaults have ever or even still exist.

Following Dinbych Dr J makes mention of visiting various churches such as the Chapel of Lleweney and Dinbych Parish Church, which he claims is about a mile from the town. This church, so my research tells me, is a called Llanfarchell (or alternatively St Marcella’s.) It is actually about one and a half miles from the Dinbych of Dr Johnson’s day but In our modern era it is not so far, being only a matter of 0.14 miles. This is due to the fact that they built a large suburban sprawl on the edge of town at some point during the latter part of the twentieth century. They look to me (using Street View) like they might have been built in the seventies or perhaps the sixties. They’re certainly no earlier than that at the very least. Despite this, however, the church itself is still quite rural and must have been even more rural back in the time of Dr Johnson. And that fact does make one wonder why it was built so far from the town. If it was because there was already a church in the town then why wasn’t that the Parish church? Why was there a need to build one a mile and a half away? Besides which, I can’t find record of an earlier church in the area around Dinbich. The only thing I can think of is if Llanfarchell has any sort of origins as an early medieval mother church which were sometimes (though not always) located outside the main setlement. An example would be not far from Dinbych at Rhuthun where the mother church of St Meugan is located about a mile away. Alas, I can’t find any evidence for it being a mother church, just an ordinary parish one.

But saying that it might actually be a Sir-Ddynbych thing to locate the local church some distance from the settlement as Dr J and the Thrales next visit yet another church, this time the church of Tremerchion (labeled in the text as Dymerchion). As with the churches at Rhuthun and Dynbych this is some distance outside the main area of settlement, in this case half a mile. I’m trying to think of anywhere else I know in Britain where this is the case (There are a few in remote areas of the highlands I think but that seems to be all). It’s a more common sight on the continent than it is in Britain so to have at least three of them in such a small area as Sir Ddynbych is truly remarkable. There may even be more.

And that is, I think, where we shall leave our travellers for the time being. Next time they’ll be pottering along to Trefynnon and then continuing their journey westwards towards the place I call home…


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