12th May 2013
If we are leaving the impression we rather liked Llangollen, you’d be right. For, on the next day, we were there again. We had booked a Sunday Lunch cruise with “Jones the Boats” to cross the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct but spent the morning at “Plas Newydd”, the home of the “Ladies of Llangollen” – and what a find that was. The house and garden were an attraction in their own right, but it was the history of the “Ladies” that made it such a fascinating place. Courtesy Wikipedia, this is part of their story and, given the surname of one of the ladies, perhaps our interest will come as no surprise!!
Eleanor Charlotte Butler was a member of one of the dynastic families of Ireland, the Butlers, the Earls (and later Dukes) of Ormond. Eleanor was considered an over-educated bookworm by her family, who resided at the Butler family seat, Kilkenny Castle. Sarah Ponsonby lived with relatives in Woodstock, Ireland. Their families lived only two miles from each other. They met in 1768 and quickly became friends. Over the years they formulated a plan for a private rural retreat.
Rather than face the possibility of being forced into unwanted marriages, they left their hometown together in April 1778. Their families hunted them down and forcefully tried to make them give up their plans – in vain. They decided to move to England but ended up in Wales, and set up home at Plas Newydd, in 1780. They proceeded to live according to their self-devised system though they could rely on only a modest income from intolerant relatives. Still, they restructured Plas Newydd to the Gothic style with draperies, arches and glass windows.
They devoted their time to seclusion, private studies of literature and languages and improving their estate. They did not actively socialise and were uninterested in fashion. Llangollen people simply referred to them as “the ladies”. After a couple of years, their life attracted the interest of the outside world. Their house became a haven for all manner of visitors, mostly writers, but also the military leader Duke of Wellington, who came to visit, too.
The ladies were known throughout Britain, but have been said to have led “a rather unexciting life”. They lived together for the rest of their lives, over 50 years, Eleanor Butler dying in 1829 and Sarah Ponsonby two years later.
It was with some reluctance that we dragged ourselves away to go cruising. And, anyway it was getting close to lunchtime. We found our embarkation point with some difficulty but were welcomed warmly aboard our brightly coloured narrowboat “Eirlys”. Carrying as it does 50 passengers, it was something of a comfortable squeeze, but neither the number of passengers nor the minute galley seemed to faze our chef and his waitresses at all as they served us a very good Sunday roast lunch. This was accompanied by a very non-intrusive commentary about the history of the canal and the aqueduct we were to cross and, of course, the obligatory glass or two of red wine. Again being the chilly sort of day we were becoming used to, we remained in the warmth of the cabin rather than brave the elements – and the height of the path across the aqueduct – as quite a number of passengers did. We did get a couple of photos though, one of which survived the lunch, the wine and the height:
But what about the aqueduct itself, you ask?
Well, here we go, again courtesy Wikipedia:
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a navigable aqueduct that carries the Llangollen Canal over the valley of the River Dee in Wrexham County Borough in north-east Wales. Built by Thomas Telford and William Jessop, the aqueduct is 1,007 ft. (307 m) long, 11 ft. (3.4 m) wide and 5.25 ft. (1.60 m) deep. It consists of a cast iron trough supported 126 ft. (38 m) above the river on iron arched ribs carried on nineteen hollow masonry piers (pillars). Each span is 53 ft. (16 m) wide. Completed in 1805, it is the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain, a Grade I Listed Building and a World Heritage Site.
And, on the next day, guess what? Rain again. Still full of steadfastness, however, we were off, again, first to Shrewsbury, where we walked to the Castle before realising we’d been there before – in 2006. Duh!
So, only slightly deterred by Norm’s amnesia and the weather, we headed off to Powys Castle & Garden, another National Trust treasure. It was too wet and cold to view the garden, but we spent an informative hour or two touring the house, and later, I suspect to our surprise the really fascinating collection exhibited in the “Clive of India” Museum. That the collection is here arises from the fact that in 1784, Lord Clive, son and heir of Clive of India, married into the Powys Herbert family, whose family seat is this very castle, bringing the Clives’ vast fortune and art collections with him.
On our last day in the Shropshire area, we went all industrial, visiting the Blists Hill Victorian Town at Ironbridge.
This too was a memorable place and not only because Norm tried to leave the little café where we had had a couple of cups of unremarkable coffee without paying. He was chased down, successfully, by an irate waitress who really was convinced he was doing a “runner”!!
But I digress; we will remember our visits to the Bank where we bought a set of old coins and the Pharmacy with its amazing array of wicked-looking instruments and medicines. One of the items on display was a tin of Zam-Buck that cure-all ointment, which Norm remembered from his youth both as a salve and as a name to describe ambulance-men and first-aid officers in NZ. Doubtless, Derek will also recall the name being used in that way.
Another part of the pharmacy was set up as a Dentist’s surgery of yesteryear, a photo of which Carol sent to our dentist in Sydney!! It was, as you’ll see, equipped with a treadle drill – an instrument of torture that some of you may remember. We also watched what we assumed were enthusiastic volunteers put an old working steam engine through its paces – if that’s the right term.
We enjoyed the visit thoroughly. Proof of Norm’s on-going amnesia was further evidenced by an attempt to visit Chirk Castle for the second time. Neither of us can remember when the first one was but it would have been some time in the last five days!!! Needless to say, we didn’t stay.
As was the case at so many of the places we had stayed, it was with reluctance that we left the “White House” and the warmth of the hospitality Ross and Isobel had shown us – to say nothing of the food, glorious food we had enjoyed!
Today was our last touring day but we managed, as planned, to call into Speke Hall on our way “home’ to Didsbury. Speke Hall is a rare Tudor timber-framed manor house in a most unusual setting on the banks of the River Mersey, not far from the centre of Liverpool. Restored and brought back to life in the 19th century, it is a unique and beautiful mixture of Tudor simplicity and Victorian Arts and Crafts’ aesthetics. We first had a costumed guide for a sneak preview and, later tour of the whole house on our own. This would have been fine but for the unsolicited offers of information by a literal swarm of guides who clearly felt we needed their help! We later escaped to the gardens to wander through and get photos of the first real swathes of bluebells we had seen anywhere on our travels.
We were, fortunately, able to beat the Manchester “rush hour” and arrive back at our Didsbury “home” to find that we had scored a just delightful light and airy loft-style room with skylight windows. Perhaps not surprisingly we spent the next couple of days regrouping and preparing ourselves for the pleasures of barging in Brittany. We walked into Didsbury village each day both to stretch our legs, do any necessary shopping and indulge in a coffee at our favourite coffee shop, Costas.
We usually walked through Didsbury Park as being a more peaceful alternative than busy Wilmslow Road and on the Friday discovered there the chain-saw sculpture entitled “The Owl and her babies”.
And here they are:
On the Saturday evening before our flight to Brittany on the next morning, we enjoyed a convivial and “Yummy” dinner with Roger and Denise at one of our joint favourite eating places “Café Rouge”. It was all you would expect of a dinner with old and dear friends – and provided us with the opportunity to bid them “bon voyage” for their trip to Sicily which left the following morning.
…and what was to follow was just a great way to end what had already been a wonderful tour.