On The Trail of Dr Johnson: Up the Menai

Where last we left Dr Johnson he was sharing a room with two men somewhere in my home city of Bangor. As we pick up the trail it is late August 1774 and Dr Johnson, along with his companions the Thrale family (his landlords… Oh and he was probably having it off with Mrs Thrale as well… And he may also have been the father of some of her children,) have finally reached the peak of their journey, Bangor and the Menai straits from where we pick up the trail. As as a side note I have also managed to get hold of Mrs Thrale’s diary of the trip so it should be far easier to add a little more flesh to the bones… Anyhow, ONWARDS!

To begin I’d like to refer back to the mysterious case of the Denbighshire/Sir-Ddinbych parish churches and why so many of them are and unusual distance from their respective settlements. As I discussed originally, this is a very odd situation in so far as Britain is concerned as most churches are located within or somewhere very close to their respective settlements. One suggestion I came across was that has something to do with a decrease in population but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially when we look at a place like Dinbych where the church is over a mile from the centre of the town. It could be said that this was to do with the Welsh not being allowed to live within the city walls but if that was the case then why are some parish churches like the one Conwy slap bang in the middle of the town? And that doesn’t explain how a parish church for a particular settlement would end up over a mile away. Certainly, villages and towns shrink and grow and change shape because of fluctuations in population but it’s very rare that a whole settlement migrates a whole mile up the road. And what of Dinbych? To my knowledge the town has never centred around that church so what could be going on?

Well… It could be something to do with sites of pre-Christian worship. In the early days of the Christian church, when they were trying to establish dominance over the earlier pagan religions, the missionaries would often utilize such sites in order to help establish their doctrine, often claiming that the holiness of the site came from the Abrahamic god rather than the multitude of spirits which the Pagans believed in. This is most certainly the case with Dinbych’s parish Church, Llanfarchell, which was originally established as a hermitage by St Marcella over the site of a holy well, which it is possible could have been a site of pre-Christian worship. Now the thing about pagans is that they had a deep respect for their holy spirits and so often lived at a discreet distance from their places of worship. So perhaps, in Sir-Ddinbych, this practice continued as a kind of hangover. But then the question still remains as to why? Why did it only seem to happen here in Sir-Ddinbich and almost nowhere else in the country?

The only other one I’ve found is St Peblig’s of Caernarfon which is about half a mile from the town but also next to the roman fort, which is telling. The church (and the roman settlement) were there long before the Edwardian town, now the centre, was constructed and it’s possible the pre-conquest population of Caernarfon lived near it, perhaps continuing the settlement established by the Romans. Of course, this might suggest there was a similar situation in Dinbych. Maybe there was also an earlier pre-Edwardian settlement at Dinbych, somewhere around the church. It is possible but there is no evidence for this and it wouldn’t explain the multitude of other in the area. I suppose it is an odd problem and one which you could write a whole thesis on so I think it’s time we put it to rest for now and pressed forwards.

The ferry at Garth Point would have been where the Pier stands today, seen at the top of the picture. Gorad Y Git would have been where those dark lines in the mud are towards base of the picture. (Picture courtesy of Menaicottage.demonweb.co.uk)

We catch up with Dr Johnson as he and his travelling companions ordain to catch a boat across the Menai Straits to Anglesey. Today getting across the Menai Straits is a piece of cake. There are two perfectly capable bridges and you can go across by foot, rail, bus car, bike, horse, unicycle… Any sort of transport you can think of. The only way you can’t seem to get across the Menai these days is by boat, a sharp contrast to the time of Dr J when it was the  only way to get across. (You can take boat rides up and down but there’s no water taxi service or anything like that) Dr J and the Thrales did not take the public ferry (The journal +Mrs Thrale recounts they borrowed a boat from Mr Roberts, Registrar of the Cathedral) but there were actually a few ‘public’ Menai ferries at the time, about nine on the mainland from what I can make out.  Two landing sites for the ferry were in the middle of the Lafan sands (the huge expanse of tidal mudflats at the northern end of the straits, if you didn’t know) and it’s certainly safe to assume Dr J would have given a good bitch had he been required to walk for a mile across a tidal estuary. There were three Ferries operational near Bangor at the time, the first being the ‘George Hotel’ ferry which had access for coaches and wheeled vehicles. At one stage this became the most important ferry on the whole of the Menai Strait and today the George Hotel sits as part of a near abandoned outpost of the university. The other two ferries were the Porthesgob ferries, so named because they were owned by the Bishop of Bangor. (Porthesgob translates into English as Bishop’s Gateway… Or Port… Or Portal. Google Translate doesn’t seem to have a strong idea as far as Welsh is concerned I’m afraid.)  These ferries departed from two places: Gorad Y Git and Garth Point. Garth Point is where the Pier stands today and Gorad Y Git is a little further along. The only trace of this on the ground are a few marks in the sand and a small road called Fordd Y Gorad. It’s probable, seeing as the boat used was owned by the Registrar of the cathedral, that Dr J would have used either a private landing stage or one of the Porthesgob stages. As I mentioned earlier, there are now no Menai Ferries in operation. There are boat rides from Caernarfon and Menai Bridge, certainly, but no passenger ferries. The last one closed in 1976 although plans are afoot to bring them back according to this news report.

Once across the Menai Straits the next stop for Dr J and the Thrales was Beaumaris, visiting the house of Lord Bulkely and the castle. The house of Lord Bulkely which he refers to is Baron Hill, located on the outskirts of Beaumaris. Supposedly Charles I was invited to set up court here during the Civil war but it never happened… When Parliament showed up the Bulkeley’s surrendered and lost their standing until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. They were also Jacobites which is very interesting as it has been said that Dr Johnson was also (apparently) a Jacobite. It’s not hard to imagine the two of them walking the grounds of Baron Hill (or even London where they had previously known one another) and dreaming up ways to usurp George III. Anyhow… In 1774 Baron Hill was the epitome of high culture on Anglesey, being most famous for it’s glorious views out over Beaumaris and the Straits as well as it’s vast library and the sumptuous parties that were held there. It appears, however, that Dr Johnson didn’t think much of the house (whereas his mistress thought it ‘beautiful’) but he did appear to like the gardens, referring to them as having a ‘pleasing coolness’ and a ‘solemn gloom.’

Baron Hill after the renovation of 1776. (Picture courtesy of Penmon.org)

The house was renovated by Samuel Wyatt in 1776 but the early twentieth century, like in many aristocratic families, brought high death duties and during the Second World War some Polish soldiers who were stationed there lit a fire for warmth… According to some sources they actually set fire to a part of the building for warmth but even if they weren’t as dense as that story makes them out to be they still managed to burn the place down. Then, like a lot of other stately homes visited on this tour, it was then abandoned. But unlike those others it has stood the test of time reasonably well, though still appears to be in something of a dilapidated state and a Google Image search reveals just what I am talking about. Today the place looks like something out of Tomb Raider (It’s very similar to that first level on Tomb Raider III,) or even COD. The place is now all overgrown now nothing more than a spectre lurking in the woods behind Beaumaris. Supposedly, a few years ago (about 2008,) the house was to be redeveloped into luxury apartments although what became of this scheme I’m not sure. This website has pictures from as late as 2012 so my guess is that is no longer happening. No doubt it was put on hold by the recession.

After Baron Hill our tour group visits Beaumaris castle, refered to as ‘A mighty pile’ before lapsing into a long description of the place. An interesting thing to note is that Dr J mentions that there is ‘rubbish in the area.’ I am assuming by this he means rubble and parts of debris for at this point the castle was still in crown hands and not the well maintained tourist attraction it is today. The crown had little use for it and in the 130 or so years between the civil war and Dr J’s visit the castle had been stripped of any useful material, some of which is rumoured to have ended up being used to build Beaumaris Gaol. The rubbish Dr J refers to was probably bits that had been left behind and collapsed when the castle was being looted for materials, chunks of unusable masonry and rotten wood, that sort of thing. Today you won’t see any of the ‘rubbish’ around as Beaumaris Castle is a designated world heritage site, as are Harlech, Conwy and Caernarfon. The claim about Beaumaris is that it is one of the finest castles in Wales, even Dr J calls it ‘the most complete castle of any (he) has seen,’ so far anyway. And whilst I would certainly agree that it’s significant in terms of military architecture, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is one of the finest or the best in Wales as so many claim it to be. For me it just lacks the same sort of style as befits the other Welsh castles. It doesn’t have the romantic, epic qualities of Caernarfon or Conwy. It doesn’t have the stark beauty of the pre-1282 castles (the Welsh really did know how to build them where they would get the most impact!). Even Harlech has the majesty of it’s positioning and location. going for it. Beaumaris, in comparison to the other castles, is dull. It has none of these things.

A loquacious, intelligent wanderer called Troughton? No... It couldn't be!

A loquacious, intelligent wanderer called Troughton? No… It couldn’t be! (Courtesy of BBC through Needcoffee.com)

Dr J and the Thrales next return to Bangor for the evening (According to Mrs Thrale they stayed with the registrar of the cathedral who had taken pity on them) but the following day they again take a boat and hot foot it down the Menai to Caernarfon, (passing by Plas Newydd in the days before it became the seat of the Marquess of Anglesey, according to Mrs T.) These days, as I mentioned earlier, you can’t go by boat but it’s probable that our travelling companions once again borrowed the boat of the registrar. At Caernarfon they hook up with three people. The first is Pascal Paoli, a famous Corsican General who had a hand in the constitution of the island… Also a prominent member of the Johnsonian circle and himself the subject of a biography by Boswell. According to Mrs Thrale he just happens to be in Caernarfon at the time… As to why, that shall probably remain a mystery but according to Mrs Thrale he and Dr Johnson ’embraced’ and it is highly probable that they had arranged to meet here before leaving London. The group also meet up with Sir Thomas Wynn (The local MP and later Baron Newborough) who is accompanying Paoli, and a fellow know only as Troughton, whom Johnson describes as ‘an intelligent and loquacious wanderer.’ According to the notes he was some sort of a Lieutenant in the royal navy and after being invited to dinner by Mr Thrale he accompanied them to the castle.

Dr J (And Mrs Thrale) were, it seems, greatly impressed by the castle, climbing the Eagle Tower (That’s the biggest one, if you weren’t aware) and looking at the dungeons. Having done a part of my undergrad dissertation on the place I can fully understand how anyone would be impressed by it but what baffles me is Dr Johnson’s statement that he didn’t think such buildings had existed. It baffles me because Dr Johnson was an intelligent, educated man and he had lived in London for nearly forty years so surely he must have seen the Tower of London at some stage? That’s even older. He had seen Beaumaris (which, although dull and not a patch on Caernarfon, would still have been an impressive looking structure) and he had visited Scotland and it’s recorded that on the 10th November 1773 that Dr Johnson, Boswell and a man called Nairn visited Edinburgh Castle and was later heard to remark that it would make a ‘great prison if it were in England.’ Edinburgh castle is about a century older than Caernarfon and it’s a fairly substantial fortress in it’s own right. It may not quite top Caernarfon on the fortification front but in terms of position it whoops it on the ass (As do most of the native Welsh and Scottish castles… In fact, now I come to think of it the Norman’s were a bit shit when it came to sighting castles. They may have looked impressive and terrifying but they were never in the most dominating of positions.  Most Non-Norman castles, you will find, are built in strong, high positions that dominate and make an impact on their landscape. Look at ones like Bran Castle in Romania or some of the ones in Japan… Himeji Castle for instance. I would also say Neuschawanstein but that was built much later.) A sensible, educated and well travelled man such as Dr Johnson should have been well aware that buildings such as Caernarfon castle existed. Why he didn’t shall probably always remain a mystery. Perhaps he was just being silly that day.

The remainder of Dr J’s stay in Caernarfon has very little of interest apart from a short mention that he ‘supped with Colonel Wynn’s lady’ who supposedly lived in one of the towers of the castle. This gives us something of an intriguing perspective as to the state and usage of the castle at the time. Unlike Beaumaris, which as we have seen was in something of a state at the time, Caernarfon was still in quite a decent condition. It had been scheduled for demolition in 1660 but for some reason that remains a mystery. Clearly as Colonel Wynn’s lady (She might have been the mother of Thomas Wynn as no Colonel Wynn is actually mentioned as being present) is living in the castle it was in some sort of decent, habitable condition. And perhaps, we can suppose, that she was not the only one to be living there. Perhaps there was a whole community of people living in different parts of the castle, very much like you see has been done with old Victorian mills today, used as apartments and luxury flats. It sounds odd as we don’t imagine a castle of the 18th century to be inhabited. We imagine it, by this stage, to be similar to the ruins we see today. We imagine them to be all disused and abandoned and perhaps filled with rubbish and debris like Dr J saw at Beaumaris… We don’t expect (unless they were one of the select number that had been remodeled into stately home or a grand manor like with Windosor or Alnwick or several others) them to be lived in or in use but if both Dr J and Mrs Thrale are to be believed (and we have little reason to doubt them) Caernarfon was still very much an inhabited building. Most guidebooks and websites neglect to mention this important piece of information, information that tells us the castle was in use right up until the industrial revolution and the early modern era at the very least. It is an extra layer to the history, a layer that tells us that once it’s job was done as a fortification and a means of subjugating the Welsh but before it became a modern tourist attraction it became a home, a place where people lived and entertained and dined and made mad passionate love… Or at least it was home to one person. And if there was one person living there the chances are that others were as well. They say that a man’s home is his castle… well in this case that was true as the castle became a home, perhaps to many people. And who knows if there weren’t similar situations in other castles across the country… Even today, people reconvert old buildings for new uses so who is to say they weren’t doing something similar back in the eighteenth century?

The next stop on the tour of Wales is the Llyn Peninsula and to get there our travelling band will once again be taking a boat… Because it’s quicker than going by land… But for now we shall leave them supping in Caernarfon castle and we shall return another time. I’ll admit we haven’t seen an awful lot on this portion of the trip, not so much as on other portions, but what we have seen has been very interesting I am sure you will agree.

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