On the Trail of Dr Johnson | To the Llyn and Back Again

Where we left off last time, Dr Johnson was in Caernarfon with his travelling companions; the Thrale family along with a local politician called Colonel Wynne, an Italian by the name of Pascal Paoli and some naval chap called Troughton. So far they have travelled all the way from London, up to Derbyshire and then through Shropshire, Cheshire and along the North Wales coast before exploring the area around the Menai. Now it is August 22nd and the group are heading south towards Pen Llyn…

Dr J does not mention a great deal about how they got to the Llyn, initially just that they went to visit ‘Bodville’, the place where Mrs Thrale was born, and saw two churches, Tydweilliog and Llangwinodyl. It is thus up to Mrs Thrale to fill in the gaps as to how they got to the Llyn. She mentions that they travelled by road and stopped to dine at a place called ‘Llanug.’ It is clear that Dr Johnson disliked the place by the fact that he makes no mention of it whatsoever. Mrs Thrale provides us with the reason why, calling it a ‘poor cottage’ with no food fit for human consumption. Going by this description I would guess that it was most probably an isolated farmhouse inhabited by tennant farmers who were no doubt quite miffed by these strange travellers from far away Lun-Don turning up on the doorstep. Dr Johnson probably thought the tenants uncouth and uncivil, and to be honest I don’t blame them for being uncivil. I too would be miffed if a group of strangers came to my isolated farmhouse asking for food, especially if one of them was that notorious old grump Dr Johnson. Most likely being isolated and nothing more than a cottage, its location (and thus further information) has been lost to history. But we can still, based on information already provided, deduce where it might have been. We know that the party were travelling south from Caernarfon towards the Llyn so the logical route to take would have been along what is now the A499. On this road is a small village by the name of Clynnog Fawr. It is entirely possible that the name Llanug is a misnomer and was not the name at all. Clynnog and Llanug are very similar in so far as the Welsh language is concerned. The CL of Clynnog could have quite easilly been mistaken for an Ll sound (which is pronounced in a way that can sound very similar to CL.) And the Fawr, which is Welsh for ‘large’ or ‘greater,’ seems to suggest that there is (or was) a smaller Clynnog, Clynnog Bach, somewhere nearby, perhaps as a small collection of cottages or a farm a short way down the road.Though we can’t know for certain.

The cross shaped church at Llanaelhearn (Courtesy of Coflein/Royal Commision On The Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales)

Later on Dr J backtracks a bit and mentions visiting a cross shaped church at ‘Lanerk’ on the way to Brynodol. Though it isn’t concrete and probably not the same place as mentioned by Mrs Thrale, It is feasible that he might be reffering to Clynnog. The names given by Dr J and Mrs Thrale are not too far off each other and the village does have a cross shaped church. However, a spanner comes into the works further down the road at a place called Llanaelhaern. Here there is a cross shaped church which is even more cross shaped than the one at Clynnog and would certainly be a better candidate, in terms of architecture, for the one Dr J describes. Although how you get ‘Lanerk’ from Llanaelhaern I don’t know. It doesn’t much resemble Llanug either. Later on, on the return journey, the group once again dined at Llanug according to Mrs Thrale, though she mentions that she stayed in the coach. They probably thought her quite rude. I would.

Dr Johnson’s diary gets a bit muddled around this point, especially when contrasted with Mrs Thrale. Mrs Thrale immediately mentions visiting Brynodol, home of Mr and Mrs Hugh Griffith, sheriff of Caernarfon, but Dr Johnson gives us the impression that they first visited Bodville and the two churches mentioned above. However, it is only when skipping forwards that we can see this is not the case. Dr J later goes on to describe Bodville in some detail after detailing Brynodol where they stayed. Both he and Mrs Thrale appear to have liked the place with Mrs Thrale calling it excellent and commenting that the house was all ready for their arrival. She also likes the fact that it reminds her a little of a London house, though is put off by the extreme isolation. Dr Johnson refers to it as a ‘neat, new built house’ which is about as close a compliment as you’re going to get from Dr J. But as ever he can’t resist giving a small grump about the place and comments on the thickness of the walls, stating that the stones are not fitting enough to be strong without thickness.

Brynodol? (Courtesy of Wikimedia/Geograph.co.uk)

Now finding this place was somewhat tricky… It appears, from the descriptions, to have never been a major house but according to a search, Caernarfon Archives have estate papers from the ‘Llanfair and Brynodol Estate’ and these place the building somewhere near Tudweiliog, where one of the earlier mentioned churches was located, but do not tell us exactly where. A second search, honning in on Tudweiliog brings up a set of ‘Holiday cottages’ by the name of Bryn Odol. Now it would certainly be a coincidence for two places in the area to have similar names and this ‘holiday cottage’ certainly looks like it could be a Georgian built house, the same as once owned by the Griffith family. But as to where it is I hadn’t the foggiest… There is no address, not even a post code on any of those sites… One of them has a workable map but it placed everything in the middle of a field… And then a breakthrough came with Image search and this picture of a field. The map in the corner clearly identified a place called Brynodol but when I zoomed in to get a better look and the name changed to Bryn Nodol, which brought me to a list of listed buildings for the area and confirmation that it was where the map put it, a little outside Tudweiliog. And from the picture (right), as well as some from the above links, it looks like it was quite a nice place. I can’t quite see what Mrs Thrale was talking about when she called it a London house but then again I’m not an eighteenth century London society lady so what would I know?

Next day the travellers embark on a journey to the place of Mrs Thrale’s birth… Bodville, or as it is now termed, Bodfel. From Mrs Thrale’s description one might get the impression of it being quite a nostalgic trip. She mentions the pond there, now dry, and ‘looking upon it with pleasure.’ She also appears, from the tone of the writing, to have a whale of a time. She speaks to an old lady called Mrs Edwards about her father and has a good nose about the house, looking into all the various nooks and crannies she knew as a child. Dr Johnson, however, doesn’t seem to think she was that impressed. He regards her nostalgic pleasure as ‘melancholy’ and comments that ‘nothing was better.’ I think here he is basing his opinions on his own previous experiences of revisiting Lichfield in 1762, which he wasn’t very pleased with. But then again I might be inclined to both agree and disagree. Going back to a place after so many years away can be both thrilling and nostalgic (as Mrs Thrale seemed to find it) but it can also be alarming and disappointing.

I used to visit Llandudno a lot as a kid, always in the same little B&B, and a few years ago, whilst wandering Llandudno, I happened across the place… As soon as I saw it I recognized it, the little car park out front and the small cellary bit where the dining room used to be (might still be). And once I saw the name I knew it was the same…. The place was a bit further back from the sea front and a little further along the road than I recall but you know what they say about how the memory cheats. In contrast, what happened to my own childhood home is an abomination (according to Street view). It used to be down some right dive of a back street but now its been all suburbanized! There was this broken old wall to the side with all the rubble just left lying about which has been replaced by an ordinary brown fence. The patch of scrubby grass at the front had been replaced by gravel and the little conifer by the gate completely cut down. The overgrown passage to the side of the old rickety garage has been all cleaned up and even the garage itself has gone. The road outside, which used to be a dirt track, has also been paved over. But the biggest horror of all is the great concrete lump of an Air raid shelter in the back garden… It used to make quite a nice rockery as I recall. I can see from the road (thanks to the overgrown passage being cleaned up) that it has been torn down to make way for what looks like a fucking trampoline. What I’m trying to get at is that it is not the house I grew up in. It has changed beyond all recognition in the last twelve+ years and it is very disappointing to see it looking all glammed up and suburbianized, though I suspect that one day the National Trust may want to come along and restore it due to its famous literary connections. But anyway… I can very much see why Dr Johnson didn’t enjoy revisiting his childhood home in Lichfield, it had probably changed so much and in such a way that it must have come as something of a shock to him… Though clearly Mrs Thrale wasn’t so shocked by Bodfel as she still recognized all the nooks and crannies and met some familiar faces, despite the fact that a few things had still changed.

Mrs Thrale (Painting by Joshua Reynolds- Courtesy of Wikimedia)

But finding Bodfel in the modern era is a bit tricky…  The actual place isn’t marked out on Google Earth but some quick searching brings you to a bus stop outside an isolated collection of buildings and a place that kind of resembles a wild west frontier town. There isn’t much here… A couple of good looking houses, a rugged farm type place, a boat yard (over two miles from the sea and in the middle of nowhere????) and a very small camp site… Now it’s fair to say that any one of the buildings here could have been Mrs Thrale’s Bodville but like so many of the other places visited on that tour, Bodfel has not survived the ravages of time and now even very little information survives. The most I could find is this interesting piece detailing how the house was demolished at some time in the 18th century and how the only surviving building is the converted gatehouse. Now considering that Mrs Thrale and Dr Johnson were visiting Bodfel in the late eighteenth century it can’t have been too long after their visit that the house was pulled down. Perhaps if they had waited another few years Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale would have found nothing but a field in the place where the latter was born. Today they probably wouldn’t recognize the place at all.

Next on the journey the travelers visit the churches of Tudweilliog and Llangwnadl (labled as Langwinodyl). Both, according to Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale, were in a fairly neglected state- Mrs Thrale calling them ‘worse than one can easilly conceive’ with Dr J going into a fair ammount of detail, mentioning the lack of a pavement, the earth being full of holes and one of them as having a ‘breach in the roof.’ Dr J mentions that Mr Thrale intends to restore the churches. It is probably safe to say that this never happened, though churches stand in both parishes today. The church of Llangwnadl, the church of Gwynhoedl is most likely to be the church we are talking of, wasn’t rennovated until 1850 when an architect by the name of Henry Kennedy came along (and he appears to have renovated half the churches in the area by the look of things). The church of St Cwfan in Tudweiliog, meanwhile, appears to be a later building designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott to replace an earlier, 7th century church. So its probably fair to say that Mr Thrale never did renovate those churches. Then again it isn’t surprising that he never did seeing as he apparently almost bankrupted himself by trying to brew beer without hops or malt… Which apparently isn’t possible unless you’re trying to make something that isn’t, strictly speaking, beer.

And then, after visiting the widow of a friend, Mr Richard Lloyd, the travelling troop find themselves in Pwllheli, where Dr Johnson decides to buy a souvenir to remember the place by. Dr Johnson calls it ‘a mean old town’ and Mrs Thrale ‘piteous.’ Even today, they probably wouldn’t be impressed by Pwllheli as there isn’t a lot to say about the place without being rude. Plaid Cymru was founded here, making it the birthplace of Welsh nationalism, and this is about the only good thing to ever come out of the town. There was also a Butlins nearby, once upon a time… It is now a Haven campsite. But that isn’t anything to shout about unless spending a week in a metal box is your idea of fun. And considering that clear blue skies AND rain is not unusual in this part of the world you wouldn’t be doing much else! As for Dr Johnson’s memento… According to Mrs Thrale he bought a ‘primmer’. According to my research a primmer is actually a priest who reads at prime… Other than that I can’t actually find what else a primmer my be. So unless Dr Johnson actually bought a priest from Pwllheli, we’ll never know. For now we’ll assume it was the priest because the image is much funnier.

Dolbadarn Castle (Courtesy of National Geographic)

After only spending a few days on the Llyn, the travelling troop and Dr J’s newly acquired primmer return to Caernarfon on the 25th and the next day, the 26th, strike out east for Llanberis, rowing on the lakes (Padarn and Peris) and climbing up to see ‘ a large fort on the slopes of Snowdon.’ Now I know of no fort on the slopes of Snowdon, as such, but Mrs Thrale does briefly mention ‘examining an old castle’ on the edge of the lake.  This would firmly suggest that the castle in question is in fact Dolbadarn and Dr Johnson was quite wrong when he said it was on the slopes of Snowdon. It may be at the base of Snowdon but it is not, techinically, on Snowdon. Also I get the sense that he is being an old grump again as he complains that he was breathless by the time he reached the top. Although it is on a crag, Dolbadarn isn’t built that high up and I get the sense he’s either complaining about nothing or had all the lung capacity of a deflated balloon. These days the amount water in Peris is heavily regulated thanks to the Dinorwig Power Station on the shore opposite Dolbadarn (commonly known as’Electric Mountain.’). Old romantic paintings like those by Richard Wilson (Not that Richard Wilson) show the castle on the very edge of the lake but this photo from 1896 (before the power station) shows that isn’t true. The castle can be seen to the right (that blury splodge directly up from the building in the front) but the most striking thing is that the lake beside it appears to be lower today than it was back when the photo was taken.  You can also clearly see that the mound on which the castle stands is not very big at all, meaning that Dr J really was having a grump when he moaned that it was too high.

From there, following a night in Caernarfon, the long journey home begins and their first stop is Bangor where they visit the cathedral. This is not quite the cathedral we see today as much of it was rebuilt during the 19th century, in particular the crossing. The cathedral that our travellers would have seen would have been the same one as the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott described as ‘the most execrable gimcrack to ever disgrace a church.’ Today Bangor Cathedral doesn’t have the majesty or grandeur of Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s (Gilbert Scott’s planned renovations never came to full fruition) but it would have been even less grand in the18th century. Everything from the tower to the crossing would have been quite similar but everything else would have appeared different. It would have been crennelated on the gables, with no central tower or spire and the windows of the crossing were also much bigger. The presbytery at the back would have also been shorter, rounded and not square like it is today. Mrs Thrale mentions seeing the library which she described as ‘not mean’ and Dr J criticizes the service as not being very well read. Not having been there in person I once again cannot comment. Also, I have never been in the library as it is not open to the public, and probably being used as an office these days considering that most of the cathedral collection is now in the University up the hill… Which does indeed have an impressive library.

And there, once again, we must leave our travelling band for the time being. Their final leg now awaits them: The journey home.

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