On The Trail of Dr Johnson | The Journey Home

Here we are then, the last dive into Dr Johnson’s ‘Journey into North Wales.’ It is finally time to say goodbye to Dr Johnson and his merry band of fellow travellers, travellers who include a woman he’s more than likely having it off with, Mrs Hester Thrale, her husband, Henry, their daughter, Queenie, and (most probably not) a priest bought by Dr Johnson in Pwllheli. I have to say I’m going to kind of miss the old grump and his pompous, over the top bitching about other people’s furniture but for now let us take one final trip together, the journey home…

“Dr J mentions how they again passed around Penmaenmawr, in his day still a mighty terror defiantly rising above the seas and in the modern era a piddling little nothing thanks to years of quarrying and a tunnel taking the road underneath it.”We begin with the travelling troop leaving Bangor. Mrs Thrale doesn’t say much of this part of the journey, only that they travelled to Gwaynynog (which was visited earlier in the journey) and were received by the owner, Mr Middleton. The troop stay here at Gwaynynog until the sixth September, largely revisiting places and people from earlier in their trip. Dr J, conversely, offers us a fair bit more detail of what went on during the journey between Bangor and Gwaynynog. This is unusual as it has, in the past, normally Mrs Thrale who provides more details. Dr J mentions how they again passed around Penmaenmawr, in his day still a mighty terror defiantly rising above the seas and in the modern era a piddling little nothing thanks to years of quarrying and a tunnel taking the road underneath it.

Then he arrives (for the second time) in Conwy and describes visiting the castle. He says it offered ‘nothing new’ and that it was bigger than Beumaris but not as big as Caernarfon. Johnson doesn’t seem all that impressed by it, lamenting that the castle was ‘difficult to reach’ thanks to its position atop a steep crag. Now I would be tempted to disagree with his impressions here. Conwy isn’t let down by its craggy outcrop, it is in fact enhanced by it in my view. It suits its position very nicely and in all honesty the way up to the entrance (which I am presuming was in the same place in 1774 as it is today) isn’t that difficult to climb. On that front Dr Johnson was most likely being his usual grumpy self.

St Giles, Wrecsam (Courtesy of the Daily Post)

Dr J then has very little of interest to say until leaving Gwaynynog for Wrecsam on the sixth of September. The Wrecsam entry is short with Johnson simply saying that it is ‘busy, extensive and well built with a magnificent church and a famous fair.’ Mrs Thrale says even less, only stating that their lodging was the best of the trip. The church which Dr J was referring too is the church of St Giles, often labelled as one of the ‘seven wonders of Wales.’ To myself, however, it is nowhere near as magnificent as it is claimed to be. It looks very similar to a lot of other churches in that area and the English Midlands, particularly with the brown but blackening stonework and the gothic features. For me it doesn’t stand out and it doesn’t look like a special church. If it looked like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or if it had a twisted spire like the church in Chesterfield, then maybe I would agree… The tower might be tall but tall doesn’t merit the term ‘magnificent’ in my book. As for the fair, I can’t find trace of that. It has doubtless been lost to history.

The day after this the troop visit Chirk Castle… Dr J mentions nothing of it but Mrs Thrale  appears smitten with the place. She describes it as ‘ancient and spacious, full of splendour and dignity yet with every possible convenience for obscurity and retirement.’ It looks a reasonable place, worth visiting but from what I can tell it has very little to separate it from many other stately homes of the period (like Chatsworth). There is nothing, particularly, that for me makes it stand out from the crowd. It has a dungeon which is one up on most stately homes but it still appears fairly bog standard when considered amongst the rest of the stately pantheon.

Oswestry today. (Courtesy of Oswestry.com)

September 8th brings the troop to Llanrhaeadr-Ym-Mochnant and the house of Dr Worthington. Dr Worthington was the vicar of the parish at this time and his house, therefore, was surely the vicarage. On the way Dr J mentions passing Oswestry and he remarks that he thinks the church is much too good for the place. This is the church of St Oswald and I do agree that it is a nice church. Oswestry itself I cannot comment upon.

Pistyll Rhaeadr, impressive but not impressive enough to be a wonder. (Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph)

The day after brings the troop to the waterfall of Pistyll Rhaeadr. Dr J mentions it as being ‘copious’ in the rain, which I shall assume means ‘dangerous.’ It is marked as another of the ‘Seven Wonders of Wales’ and whilst it is more impressive than the church of St Giles it isn’t the most impressive waterfall in Wales- The Devil’s Appendix and the falls at Abergwyngregyn are both more impressive in my view. It’s a good, spectacular waterfall but it doesn’t really warrant being called a ‘Wonder of Wales.’ I really don’t hold this listing in much regard anyway, not least because five of the other ‘wonders’ are in the north east and four out of those five are near or in Wrecsam. The only ‘wonder’ not in the north east is the mountain of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) but I’d not put that on a list of wonders either, not least because there are far more spectacular looking (if smaller) mountains just a stone’s throw away that are not so much of a tourist trap. The others include the Holy Well of Treffynnon, Llangollen Bridge, the bells of Gresford church and some old trees in a churchyard. The entire list is laughable. What would put on a list of Welsh wonders I hear you ask? The answer to that is for another day I think.

“Dr Johnson mentions that the inn at which they stayed was ‘not bad,’ which coming from him must surely be a compliment.”On the same day as visiting Pistyll Rhaeadr our eighteenth century band head for Shrewsbury where they stay for two nights. Dr Johnson mentions that the inn at which they stayed was ‘not bad,’ which coming from him must surely be a compliment. It must have been a very good inn for him to compliment it like that. He does however, seem slightly put out that the streets are ‘narrow.’ This is another occasion where Dr J and I must disagree with one another. I honestly prefer narrow streets over big wide open boulevards. They just feel better, look better… And for my money they feel a lot safer. You can see most of the people coming towards and around you. You can see what they’re up to. You can keep your wide open boulevards as far as I am concerned as in my opinion the narrow streets are better. HOWEVER, Looking around Shrewsbury by using our old friend street view we can see that Dr J is probably just making excuses for not liking the place as, although some of the streets are narrow, the main streets are not. In fact, some of them, which judging by the architecture were definitely around in Dr J’s day, are quite wide.

The Leaning Tower of Bridgnorth (Courtesy of Shropshirestar.com)

Leaving Shrewsbury the troop head for Worcester, passing through and climbing up Wenlock Edge. The nearby town of Much Wenlock, which Dr J describes as ‘a very mean place’ and Mrs Thrale mentions nothing of, was later to become known as the birthplace of the modern olympics. Mrs Thrale does mention the edge however, that they climbed until their feet were ‘very wet and dirty.’ They both move on quickly. In fact everything seems to speed up here. Mrs Thrale mentions staying at an Inn near Hartlebury (near Kidderminster) and Dr J mentions walking through Bridgnorth, giving a brief description of it. He mentions both the ‘high’ and ‘low’ towns, the river running through it and some ‘crooked tower.’ This is a part of the castle and is, in fact, known as the leaning tower of Bridgnorth. It ended up like this thanks to Cromwell’s attempts to destroy the castle during the Civil War. He then mentions a place called Kinver, which Dr J mentions as only having one street. It has a few more these days but what the place is most famous for is Kinver Edge- where there are two Iron Age Hillforts, Kinver Edge Hillfort and Drakelow Hill, and a series of Troglodyte rock dwellings, which were still very much occupied during this period. I don’t think the troop visited this but knowing Dr Johnson as I have come to he would have stuck his nose up at the Troglodytes and called them barbarians or something of that nature. They were inhabited up until the 1960s.

Ombersley Court (Courtesy of http://www.worcesterramblers.org.uk)

After staying the night at Hartlebury the travellers pass on to Ombersley and a friend of theirs, Edwin Lord Sandys. He was a great friend of the Thrales and they apparently had his picture on the wall at their home in Streatham. His house, Ombersley court, is not impressive in my view. It looks like your bog standard, square country manner. Dr J calls it large and mentions that the hall is ‘A very noble room’ but that is all. He does not, unusually for him, say what he thinks of the place. It is with the Sandy’s that they see Worcester, visiting the cathedral and a China factory. Neither Dr J or Mrs Thrale say much about the cathedral. Dr J says that it is ‘noble and has many fine monuments’ whilst Mrs Thrale remarks that it is ‘a very fine one.’ Neither mentions much about the China factory either, it may have been the Royal Worcester factory, and all Dr J says is that they went there.

Hagley Hall (Courtesy Hagley Historical and Field Society)

The troop next head for Birmingham, stopping for a few days at Lord Lyttleton’s home in Hagley where Dr J states that ‘all were offended.’ He specifically states that they were ‘disappointed of the respect and kindness that we expected.’ In other words their host William, a future Lord Lyttleton according to the notes, didn’t give them a very warm welcome. Mrs Thrale mentions that Lyttleton got a bit snippy (she uses the term ‘advertised’) at Dr Johnson when he doesn’t blow a candle out whilst walking about the room after reading. The only other thing she mentions is that on one night there she has something of a poor evening, finding the company of the Lyttleton ladies to be ‘disagreeable.’ Otherwise she makes no mention of any offence caused and unlike Dr Johnson she likes the house and the church (which his eternal grumpiness Dr J refers to as ‘mean.’). I’m with Dr J on the house front though- The place looks like an asylum.

They pass through another place following this, Halesowen, where they visit ‘The Leasowes.’ At first I thought that Leasowes were yet another well to do, semi-aristocratic family, more friends of Dr Johnson and the Thrales, but research has revealed this not to be the case. The Leasowes is in fact the estate and Dr J does not make clear that at the time it was owned by one Edward Horne. It had first been built by poet William Shenstone, of whom in his other writings Dr Johnson demonstrates no great admiration, and at the time of his visit the original house was in the process of being rebuilt by Horne. It would be completed two years later in 1776. Dr Johnson doesn’t mention the house, unsurprising seeing as it was incomplete, but he does say that they visited the waterfalls and that the estate is ‘the next place to Ham gardens.’ This surely means that he liked it, as did Mrs Thrale who says she wrote a poem whilst Dr Johnson and her husband explored one of the waterfalls:

“My truest praise I’ll pay;
And view with just contempt inspired
The Glitter of the Gay.
From Keddlestones offensive glare
From Chatsworth’s proud cascade
From artful Hagley I repair,
To thine and nature’s shade.
When Rubens thus too fiercely burns,
when Lucan glows with rage
The soul to softer Guido turns
and Virgil’s Pastoral Page.”

It is not the greatest piece of poetry every written  but it is at least a step above that of the late Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Essex.

“He does not come across as a man to suddenly declare his love for someone in even a platonic way, let alone a romantic one.”Following the visit to the Leasowes Dr J reports that they arrived at Birmingham and met with a Dr Wheeler, who was a friend from his youth. Mrs Thrale reveals his first name to be Hector. He was a local trader. Mrs Thrale reports, upon breakfasting with Wheeler the day after their arrival, that Dr Johnson commented on how he was ‘in love’ with Wheeler’s sister, who had made their breakfast. She makes no more mention than this (and Dr J makes no mention of it) so it is impossible to say if this ‘love’ was from his youth or as a result of their mornings breakfast. Also, we cannot be sure if he referred to a platonic love or a romantic love. Either way it is a comment that appears to be at odds with the Dr Johnson we have come to know. He certainly makes his dislikes known, and often very bluntly, but when he likes something he is always more muted. He never outright praises anything. He does not come across as a man to suddenly declare his love for someone in even a platonic way, let alone a romantic one. He isn’t someone you would expect to talk about his feelings. Given that he is not a man prone to sudden outbursts of affection I would suggest that he is saying that he loved her in his youth and that it was no more than a passing explanation for the benefits of the Thrales.

Wheeler, following breakfast, takes them to Clay’s paper manufactory, which (thanks to the notes in Mrs Thrale,) was on Newhall street. The building that stands today dates to the late 19th century and appears to contain a bar called ‘Bushwackers’ and a marketing/PR firm. It is surrounded by modern buildings of glass and concrete which would doubtless get up the goat of our erstwhile grump and not a trace of the original manufactory remains. The area is, in short, unrecognisable from what it was in the late eighteenth century.

Boulton’s factory at the time of Dr Johnson (Image is public domain, from Wikimedia)

They also visit Boulton’s factory. Neither Mrs Thrale or Dr Johnson say so but this would have been the factory of the famous Matthew Boulton, who along with James Watt is credited as a pioneer of the Industrial revolution, although that partnership would not begin until the following year. As with the paper manufactory this factory (The Soho manufactory) was demolished during the nineteenth century. On the site there now stands a road of terraced houses, a garage and what looks to be an abandoned warehouse. Only one visible trace of what once stood here remains and that is in the name of the street: Factory Road. It is hard now to believe that this place was once one of the crucial landmarks of industrial history. This factory once pioneered mass production and the assembly line, long before Henry Ford did so in America. It was the home to the first Boulton and Watt steam engine, an invention that went on to change the world as we know it. At the time of Dr Johnson, however, all of this was either yet to start or only just begun. Both his diary and that of Mrs Thrale do not go into any great detail on the factory but we know, from hindsight, that what they must surely have seen was somewhere that was very soon to reshape the world.

Dr Johnson’s next entry, for September 21st, is quite simply: ‘Wheeler came to us again. We came easily to Woodstock.’ Mrs Thrale mentions after saying how easy the journey way (in a way more detailed than Johnson does) a man called Seward (another acquaintance of the troop) and another man called King of whom they enquired as to how they might see Blenheim Palace. On the next day, though this is unclear from Mrs Thrale, they do exactly that. They see the park, at the time recently redesigned by ‘Capability’ Brown and very similar to what can be seen today, and the library. The only praise or criticism from either diarist comes from Mrs Thrale, who mentions that the lake is ‘the finest piece of made water in the world.’ According to Dr Johnson, but unmentioned by Mrs Thrale, The Duke of Marlborough (at the time the fourth) sent Mr Thrale a basket of fruit and some partridges.

It was either the Earl of Arundel or Phil Coulson… (Image is public domain, painted by Peter Paul Rubens, from Wikimedia)

Following Blenheim, they visit Oxford. Dr Johnson is again brief, saying that they visited a Mr Coulson (a senior fellow of University College and not Phil of SHIELD) whilst the ladies toured the university. Mrs Thrale mentions seeing the Bodlean and the Pomfret and Arundel Marbles, both collected by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, and both of which (now under the single name of the Arundel Marbles) are in the Ashmolean Museum. The troop dine with Coulson the next evening and Dr J briefly mentions a Professor of Law who has distemper, a Dr Robert Vansittart.

Mrs Thrale goes on for quite a while yet, mentioning again dining with Coulson and seeing more of Oxford, in particular New Inn Hall where Mr Thrale had once lived. She mentions moving onto Beaconsfield, now in Buckinghamshire, and a man by the name of Burke. Burke is undoubtedly Edmund Burke, the Irish writer and politician, who was a member of Johnson and the Thrale’s intellectual circle. At this point, mentioned by both Johnson and Mrs Thrale, parliament is heard to have been dissolved. Dr Johnson follows it up with a simple line: ‘We went home.’


Many of the places visited by Dr Johnson on his journey still stand and are still, today, tourist attractions. Conwy and Caernarfon castles are two of the most popular sites in North Wales. Likewise, visiting country houses and stately homes (of which our troop did so many times) is now something of a British institution. Weekends and summer holidays see thousands from Britain and beyond nosing around the drawing rooms of the old aristocracy. Chatsworth, visited early on, is one of the most popular attractions in the country. Some of those houses, like Chatsworth and Blenheim, are still standing and still tourist attractions but they are no longer homes in the same way that they were in Dr J’s day. Other houses are privately owned and others have gone entirely. Others have also come into being. Had he been journeying today Dr Johnson would have almost certainly visited Penrhyn Castle (built in the 1820s) on the outskirts of Bangor and he’d have likely described it in some kind of derogatory fashion. He’d have likely called it over the top.

Dr Johnson journeyed through a landscape that was on the cusp of an Industrial revolution and in places like Birmingham it had already begun. In the years that followed that revolution would gather steam (excuse the pun) and it would alter the landscape of North Wales and the Midlands irrevocably. And yet, today, we find ourselves at the very end of the industrial age. Most of Britain’s manufacturing and industry has gone, perhaps forever, and just as they did in 1774 we British find ourselves at the start of a new age that is, as yet, to be revealed to us. Our modern world would hardly be recognizable to the people of 1774, though parts of it would definitely be familiar,just as we ourselves should not recognize the world of 2258. Conwy and Caernarfon castles will still be tourist attractions. They’ll be a little more decayed but they’ll still be there in some form. The likes of Chatsworth and Blenheim may also still be visitor attractions but in what state it is impossible to say. These stately homes, however, were not built to survive the ravages of time. In 1774 both buildings were still modern, both less than a century old. Today they require vast sums just to maintain as they are and the costs shall only rise as the buildings age. It could be that in 2258 the buildings themselves are no more than shells and all the furniture placed in specially built museums, displayed in tableaux behind perspex with waxwork figures representing the old dukes and marquesses and well off. But that is all speculation.

I began my analysis of Dr Johnson’s Journey into North Wales in February 2013. Three years, seven chapters and over 24,000 words later I come to the end. It has been an interesting, enlightening exploration and I’ve grown fond of the grumpy, crotchety old man who wrote the pages I’ve been studying. I feel I’ve got to know him in a way. Now it is time to say goodbye and for me to move onto a new project. Will I miss the man I’ve come to know as Dr J? Indubitably. For what this journey has shown, beyond him simply being an inventor of the dictionary or the subject of an epic biography by James Boswell, is that he was one of history’s great characters, a man the likes of whom we shall never see again.


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