On the Trail of Dr Johnson: Treffynnon to Bangor

Last time Dr Johnson and his landlords/potential fellow sitcom stars the Thrales entered Wales and explored Sir Ddynbych where we discovered a rather curious anomaly about how parish churches in the county seem to be quite distant from their respective settlements. Now They’re back on the road again and headed for Treffynnon…

This section begins with a remark that in the coach to Treffynnon Dr J and Mrs Thrale had a conversation about ‘Flattery.’ Delving further it seems he was taking her to task for being overly polite when they visit places. In response to this (according to the book notes,) Mrs Thrale ‘was saucy’ and responded that she was being polite ‘for two.’ Now I’m not entirely sure but this sounds a lot like flirting. Now the evidence so far seems to suggest that Dr Johnson seems to suggest they were in some sort of relationship- He reffered to her as his mistress, lived in her house for nearly twenty years and wrote her poetry. He also got very upset when she married Gabriel Piozzi in 1784- and the flirting seems to add weight to this theory… And the whole thing does make me wonder. They were doing this in the coach to Treffynnon… Did Henry Thrale know ? (Assuming he visited Treffynon with them, which seems likely) He must have done… Or he must have suspected something at the very least. If he did know then that either hints at an animosity between himself and Dr J or he was totally fine with his wife carrying on with another man… If it was the former then why would he let Johnson stay in his house/ travel around with him? No doubt he’d be royally peed off. But there’s no evidence for that and it seems that he and Dr J were quite good friends. And besides, the whole menage a trois thing isn’t unusual… There are a few other examples in history.  Granted it’s more common to see a man living with two women (Duke of Devonshire, his wife Georgiana and her friend Elizabeth Foster) but there are a few examples of two men and a woman- Emma Hamilton, her husband William and Lord Nelson for instance. So it’s not unusual.

Henry Thrale- Who may or may not be the father of his own children. (Image is Public Domain, courtesy Wikimedia)

And whilst we’re here on the subject let’s just take a quick look at something Mrs Thrale wrote concerning her marriage in 1787 shall we: ‘Ours was a match of mere prudence; and common good liking, without the smallest pretensions to passion on either side.’ Now of course when we look at this in context she could just be referring to their initial courtship and as evidence for this we could point to the word ‘match.’ Why would she use match when she could have used marriage? But then we throw Dr Johnson into this mix and all the evidence for a relationship between the two. If this is just referring to the courtship then the addition of the possible Johnson relationship implies that this relationship could have perhaps been far more kinky than the sources let on… If not then things get a whole lot more interesting. The Thrales supposedly had twelve children together. Now if their marriage was ‘one of prudence’ then that increases the possibility of those children not actually being Mr Thrales in a biological sense (though definitely in a legal sense) increases… And the key suspect for the biological father is quite clear for all of us to see. Dr Johnson. However if we’re going to go with the kinky three way idea then the waters become a bit muddied and it signifies only a slight possibility of the children belonging to Dr J. I’m inclined to go with the latter as when the first Thrale child was born Dr J had yet to meet the family… But the paternity of the rest could be anybodies guess… And as an after thought there was one born on the Fourth of May 1775… Nine months after the journey to North Wales. So at some point in Late July/Early August either Henry Thrale or Dr Johnson got Mrs Thrale up the duff… Either way there was definitely some boning going on at some point during the trip.

Anyway they reach Treffynnon and visit the Holy Well of St Winefride, a popular sight of pilgrimage since the seventh century. The story goes that the son of a local Prince called Caradoc chopped of Winifrede’s head after she gave him the brush off and from where her head landed a well spring grew… And later on her uncle sewed her head back and she was fine (No… Really… I’m not making this one up!). The place is known as the Lordes of Wales and urban legend has that this is one of the places where Robert Catesby and chums formulated the Gunpowder plot. Dr J gives us a quick description of the well and the church but these are trivial, ordinary descriptions and what appears to concern him the most… The open and unisex nature of the well’s bathing pool. He mentions a woman who bathed ‘whilst we all looked on.’ As this was 1774 it’s safe to assume she was naked… And they all just stood there watching.

Following the entertainment at the well the next place Dr J visits are several metal works. First he goes prospecting for copper… Not gold… (Although Welsh Gold is highly valuable and has been prospected in the past… Just not near Treffynnon). Johnson says he didn’t take part in this and swiftly moves on to a brass works and then a copper works and then an Iron works (Touring the works, I think they call it.) He doesn’t say much but Johnson does go into a little bit of detail about the brass works, mentioning how they mix the lead with the copper. Then he moves on to the copper works and mentions that they get their copper from a smelting works at Warrington. Now it appears there were perhaps a number of copper works in and around Treffynon at the time (Some of them, though not necessarily the same ones that Dr J visited, have been preserved at the Dyffryn Maes Glas Heritage Park) but seemingly only one copper smelting works at Warrington. This belonged to the Cheadle Copper and Brass Company. Now to be fair the smelted copper could have been traded in but the company also owned a copper works and a brass wire manufactory at Maes Glas just outside Treffynon so the chances are good that the one Dr J visited was owned by the Cheadle Copper and Brass Company.

Parys Mountain today

Parys Mountain today

As for where the copper was coming from that is much clearer. It was most likely local (there were some small scale local quarries) or from either Anglesey or the Creuddyn Peninusula  at any rate… It’s probably a safe bet to assume that at least some of the copper came from  the Parys Mountain copper mines. Even though the modern workings had only been open for about ten years at the time the mines were already starting to dominate the european copper market (and would go on to lead the way for well over a century, perhaps even contributing a small portion of the copper that went into the crafting of the Statue of Liberty…). It’s quite certain that some of the copper from Parys Mountain was headed for Lancashire and that probably includes some going to the Warrington. From there it would only be a short trip back up the Mersey and across the Dee to Treffynnon (No doubt it went by water.) The Parys Mountain copper mines are no longer worked but they are definitely worth a visit (Mine is detailed here)   The Warrington copper works meanwhile were closed in 1782 following a series of unfortunate smelting accidents. No trace remains.

It should come as no surprise that Dr Johnson and The Thrales came across copper during their visit to North Wales. Today North Wales is known predominantly for slate although this didn’t really take off until Richard Pennant opened the Penrhyn Slate Quarry at Bethesda (Yes… THAT Bethesda) at some point during the 1770s. It may have already been opened by the time of this journey but then again it may not. It is interesting to note that it is still open and operating today however. In Dr J’s time if North Wales was known for anything it would have been copper. Copper has been mined in North Wales since prehistoric times and although the area may not be so synonymous with the industry today but the remnants of all the copper industry that Dr J would have known about can still be seen (and then some.) For a start there is Parys Mountain and the Dyffryn Maes Glass Heritage as mentioned above but there is also the, in 1774, unopened, Sygun Copper Mine (Where they filmed part of The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness with the uber-fit Ingrid Bergman pretending she’s a not so fit little cockney woman running about China) as well as the prehistoric/roman Pen-Y-Gogarth Copper mines (which had been re opened a century before). No doubt if Dr Johnson and The Thrales were visiting North Wales today they would probably take in one of these sights- Say the Pen-Y-Gogarth mines- and Dr J would gripe about everything from the tramway being expensive/rickety to how the mines are too claustrophobic.

The next day, after seeing the castle at Rhuthun (of which nothing very interesting is said… I can’t find much of interest concerning Rhuthun myself other than it is now a hotel) Dr J and the Thrales visit the house of a man called ‘Stapylton.’ It seems upon first impression that this man, Stapylton (or maybe Stapleton,) is one of those many individuals who have been more or less lost to history. His house however hasn’t been lost to history I would venture to say, however, that it isn’t very well known: Bodrhyddan Hall, situated halfway between Rhuddlan and Diserth. Today it is owned by Baron Langford and open for weddings and guided tours. Their website, however, makes very little mention of the history of the place. Further digging seems to bring up several family members- A Colonel James Russell Stapleton who died in 1743 and a number of daughters, one of whom married Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton of Combermere (previously visited). However, there is no trace of any male Stapletons/Stapyltons being around in 1774 so perhaps the Stapylton Dr Johnson refers to is the late James Russell. The house, it seems, passed into the Langford Baronetcy down the female line so either it was one of the daughters who occupied the house or it was empty/closed up at the time. Dr J mentions reluctantly going to see a cascade on the estate that was not turned on and this would seem to suggest the latter is true. In the late 1700’s people loved to show off and they never let anyone see the trickery behind the magic… Which is exactly what we see happening here. Surely if the house was in a good running order then someone would make sure the cascade was turned on before the visitors arrived… It sort of makes sense given the context of the times. Bodryhddan Hall, if it had a cascade, probably came complete with servants and if visitors were going to see the cascade those servants would have run ahead to turn the cascade on. So in all likelihood the house was probably empty.

Only this little girl knows who the real inspiration for Mr McGregor was… (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Moving on we come to a far more interesting place, (bypassing the house of Mr Lloyd which could be anywhere)… Gwaynynog, belonging to a Mr Myddleton. Whilst Dr J only dines here (and calls a monument erected by Mr Myddleton as an attempt to bury him) 120 years later the gardens of Gwaynynog became the inspiration for a classic of children’s literature. At that time it was owned by a man called Fred Burton. Fred had purchased it from the Myddleton family who had ran out of money and were living in the kitchen by this point, perhaps a far cry from what Dr Johnson saw when he described the place as being ‘a gentleman’s house, below the second rate, perhaps below the third. If Dr J thought that about it when in 1774 imagine what he might have said had he seen it a century later. Anyway… Fred Burton had a niece and that niece was none other than BEATRIX POTTER. I know she’s more associated with the Lake District but apparently it all started here at Gwaynynog. It was here that she was inspired to write a story about some rabbits called Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton Tail, Stew and Peter and it was the gardens at Gwaynynog that became Mr McGregor’s garden. No doubt Dr Johnson would have hated this connection, he would have regarded it as childish nonsense but it’s all too easy to imagine the old grump prowling the grounds of his lodgings in Stretham acting just like Mr McGregor… Though it was more likely that Fred Burton was the actual inspiration for Mr McGregor and not Dr J… Though it would be an amazing bit of trivia if he were.

What follows is another intriguing bit of information. Dr J mentions having a conversation with Myddleton about how to preserve the Welsh language and today that is exactly what has happened. The Welsh language is alive and flourishing more than it ever has in it’s entire history. If Dr J travelled to Wales today he would hear and see that all around him… The language is on the road signs and spoken in the streets (sometimes, especially around somewhere like Bangor, you’ll see/hear this delightful little thing where somebody will be having a conversation in English and suddenly switch to speaking Welsh.) It’s even taught in schools, has specially dedicated tv channels and appears in works of literature. It is everywhere. Dr Johnson would surely have approved of this, especially as he appeared to have some sort of appreciation for the Welsh Language. Later on when visiting the church at Bodfari (The local church for Lleweney, August 14th) to hear a church sermon he describes the Welsh language as ‘not unpleasant’ and coming from Dr J that is surely something of a huge compliment.

As for the rest of the intervening dates between the fifth and fourteenth Dr J has very little of interest to say. Apart from first visiting the church at Bodfari on the 7th and another stately home called ‘Maesmynnan,’ which is rumoured to be where Llewelyn Ein Llyw Olaf resided shortly before his death in 1282, Dr J seems to spend most of his time bumming around Lleweney and reading books on greek. Clearly by this point Dr J and the Thrales had exhausted all possible places to visit in Sir-Ddinbych. Evidently they spent a week and a half too long there… But anyway, they leave on the eighteenth and head along the coast, first visiting the coastal town of Abergele, which today is probably most famous for Gwrych Castle, the one you can see when you driving along the Gwibfordd Gogledd (that’s the A55 if you want to give it it’s official designation.) However, as little known as it is today, in the past it has been quite an important settlement, having as it did two iron age hill forts and a watchtower as well as a clas (Celtic Monastery but don’t use the term celtic because it means absolutely nothing as there were no such people) and someone called Prince Jonathon who died in the 9th century. Katherine Heigl once made a film there and Manchester City Council bought the local Sanitorium in 1914… Though lord only knows why. Dr Johnson calls the place ‘a mean town where little but Welsh is spoken.’ Abergele is not so ‘mean’ as it were in Dr J’s time, having been extended by numerous housing estates and suburbs since then (the most notable being Pensarn.’ Things are also slightly different on the Welsh language front with only 29% saying they have a significant knowledge of Welsh and 45% of people in the Pensarn suburb claiming to be English.

Moving on the group traverse the foot of Penmaen-Rhos (Not unplesant according to Dr J) and they come to cross the Conwy (with an Irish Gentlewoman, two maids and three children… One of whom was only a few months old…) Given that we’re on the major trunk road to Ireland here it’s probably safe to assume the Irish Gentlewoman was headed for Ireland, perhaps from somewhere like London. However we shall never know as the identity of that Irish Gentlewoman has been lost to history. Arriving in Conwy our own small tour group discover there is no room at any inn (due to it being race day… Though where they held those races I have no idea) so the group decide to pull an all nighter and at some point in the night proceed onwards, reaching the formidable Penmaenmawr by dawn (which isn’t that far from Conwy in all respects)

At various times Penmaenmawr has been called the most dangerous promontory in the whole of the United Kingdom. Boswell (Johnson’s biographer) was afraid of it, as were Dr J and the Thrales according to the diary entry. It wasn’t uncommon for people to die trying to cross it and some would even wait until low tide and then walk across the mud flats below rather than risk it. It was a truly majestic and frightening natural barrier, rising up from the see as an almost vertical wall. It was also notable for having one of the most important prehistoric sites in all of north Wales. But note the use of the word was. Penmaenmawr is no longer the demon it once was. The road onwards has been made far easier by way of a tunnel for a start and the closest people to come to danger is no more than on any other road. It no longer rises up from the sea as a vertical wall and that prehistoric site is now a thing of the past… It’s gone. The mountain is a shade of it’s former self, a barely noticeable stump on the side of the Gwibfordd Gogledd. The thing is that the reason Penmaenmawr was so formidable was that it was made up of some of the hardest granite in the world… And for this the moneymakers eyed it and they robbed the mountain of it’s glory. Much of Penmaenmawr as Dr Johnson knew it is now scattered across the world. It paved the roads of Manchester and it built towns and cities in Belgium and Holland. Today it is so small and so insignificant Dr J would most likely even mention it.

The Castle Hotel, Bangor (Image courtesy of Cycling North Wales)

And at last Dr J and the Thrale reach Bangor, that place which I call home. Dr J mentions having trouble finding lodgings but eventually found ‘mean inn’ where he shared a room with two other men. Unfortunately Dr J doesn’t mention where this Inn was As a man who has drunk in most of the pubs of Bangor I’m curious to know where this inn was and if it still exists today. The chances are it closed a long time ago and if it was one of these it may well have been ‘The Three Eagles’ which for a period was the principle inn of Bangor. The Three Eagles eventually became The Mitre  and latterly the Castle Hotel. The Castle Hotel was long gone by the time I arrived in Bangor and today the site is occupied by a modern ‘New Look’ store. But looking at the picture it doesn’t seem to me to be the type of place where three strange men would be forced into sharing a room with each other. There was an inn that predated the Penrhyn Arms Hotel (which would later go on to become the first building of my beloved alma mater,) so it may have been there.

But what if it still exists? Where then might Dr J have stayed? It won’t have been one of the pubs in upper Bangor (BV, Paddy’s, Menai, Y Glob etc.) because that part of the city was all fields at the time. The Harp (where Dickens is rumoured to have stayed) wasn’t built until the early years of the 19th century. If the present site of the Albion was a different inn before the Albion moved from further down the street (again, the original wasn’t built) it may have been there as the place is rather small. There is a place a little further along from the Castle which when I first arrived was called ‘O’Sheas’ and latterly the ‘Bangor Blues Sports Bar.’ Whatever It is called now I have no idea as the police kept shutting it down due to drugs and it kept changing it’s name… But a large carving on the top of building says ‘Kings Arms’ which suggests there has been a pub/inn on this site for a long time. It certainly looks like the sort of place where three strange men would be forced to share a room. Then you have The White Lion, which is certainly old enough (one of the oldest in Bangor) and small enough to be the place Dr J is talking about. The only other possibility I can see is the Waterloo… Which like the other two pubs looks old enough and of the right size to be described as ‘mean.’ However, the only problem is the name. It obviously wasn’t the Waterloo in 1774 (if it was it would be an absolutely astonishing bit of trivia) so if it was where Dr J stayed it would have had to have gone by another name… Which takes us back to the first argument that the inn where he stayed no longer exists (at least not as he knew it.).

And there, for now, we shall leave him. Next time the tour takes us across and down the Menai to Beaumaris, Caernarfon and the Llyn peninusla.

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