The Ladies of Llangollen

I was doing the crossword in the Times Literary Supplement this morning and one of the clues triggered only a distant memory which I had to check via the fount of all wisdom that is Google. The clue referred to a “Vale of Friendship” which I’d vaguely remembered seeing in a poem by William Wordsworth. Anyway, I was right in remembering the origin of the phrase, but I accidentally found out a lot more about the context as well and thought I’d share it here.

In fact there’s an entire wikipedia page devoted to the Ladies of Llangollen, so there’s no need to reproduce it all here. However, for the sake of you who haven’t heard of them, they were Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler and the Honourable Sarah Ponsonby. They were of Anglo-Irish extraction and had been brought up just a few miles from each other in Ireland. They met in 1768 and immediately hit it off together. They ran off together to avoid being forced into unwanted marriage, and moved to Wales in order to set up home  at Plas Newydd, near Llangollen in Denbighshire, in 1780.

They lived together for the best part of 50 years in Plas Newydd, in relative seclusion, devoting their time to private studies of literature and languages and improving their estate, comprehensively redesigning the house in a Gothic style, and adding a superb garden. They did not actively socialise and town-dwellers of Llangollen seem to have regarded them as eccentrics, simply referring to them as “The Ladies”.

Gradually, their life attracted the interest of the outside world. Their house became a haven for all manner of visitors, mostly writers such as Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Shelley, Byron and Scott, but also the military leader Duke of Wellington and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood; aristocratic novelist Caroline Lamb, who was born a Ponsonby, came to visit too. Even travellers from continental Europe had heard of the couple and came to visit them, for instance Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, the German nobleman and landscape designer who wrote admiringly about them.

The story of the “romantic friendship” between these two ladies is both charming and moving, but it’s also fascinating to learn how their lifestyle was accepted and even celebrated by wider society. One might have thought their relationship would have been regarded as scandalous by their contemporaries, rather than being widely admired as it turned out to be. One is tempted to assume that their  “marriage” had a sexual dimension, which it may well have done, but it could have been a platonic, yet still romantic, friendship. As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t really matter;  what I find inspiring about them is that they dared to be different.

Anyway, here is the beautiful sonnet that William Wordsworth wrote after meeting the Ladies of Llangollen in 1824, although I believe the Ladies took exception to the description of their magnificent house as a “low-roofed cot”!

A stream, to mingle with your favourite Dee,
Along the vale of meditation flows;
So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see
In Nature’s face the expression of repose;
Or haply there some pious hermit chose
To live and die, the peace of heaven his aim;
To whom the wild sequestered region owes
At this late day, its sanctifying name.
Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
In ours, the Vale of Friendship, let ‘this’ spot
Be named; where, faithful to a low-roofed Cot,
On Deva’s banks, ye have abode so long;
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb,
Even on this earth, above the reach of Time!


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21 Responses to “The Ladies of Llangollen”

  1. Small note, not that Wordsworth was wrong, but the modern spelling for Glyn Cafaillgaroch is Glyn Cyfeillgarwch.

  2. Actually, it seems William Wordsworth wasn’t too hot on the spelling of place names. Here is the text with which he prefaced the poem:

    TO THE LADY E. B. AND THE HON. MISS P.

    Composed in the Grounds of Plass Newidd, near Llangollen, 1824.

    In this Vale of Meditation my friend Jones resided, having been allowed by his diocesan to fix himself there without resigning his Living in Oxfordshire. He was with my wife and daughter and me when we visited these celebrated ladies who had retired, as one may say, into notice in this vale. Their cottage lay directly in the road between London and Dublin, and they were of course visited by their Irish friends as well as innumerable strangers. They took much delight in passing jokes on our friend Jones’s plumpness, ruddy cheeks, and smiling countenance, as little suited to a hermit living in the Vale of Meditation. We all thought there was ample room for retort on his part, so curious was the appearance of these ladies, so elaborately sentimental about themselves and their ‘Caro Albergo’, as they named it in an inscription on a tree that stood opposite, the endearing epithet being preceded by the word ECCO! calling upon the saunterer to look about him. So oddly was one of these ladies attired that we took her, at a little distance, for a Roman Catholic priest, with a crucifix and relics hung at his neck. They were without caps, their hair bushy and white as snow, which contributed to the mistake.

    So you see he didn’t get Plas Newydd right either…

  3. And in this printed version he didn’t get Llangollen right either.

    • I wonder when and if the Welsh language went through the process of standardizing its spelling? That happened comparitively recently with English; poets such as Keats used different spellings of the same word in the same poem on occasions and people were even more relaxed about spelling earlier than that.

    • The historical contribution in standardizing the written form of Welsh came with the release of the Welsh Bible by William Morgan in 1588. Remembering that at this time most of the population would have been illiterate, anybody learning to read would have use the orthography set by William Morgan.

      In 1803 D Owen Pughe published the Welsh Great Dictionary with his own alterations, which opened a can of worms as other grammarians began adding their own flavours.

      The establishing of Welsh academic institutions that later led to the University of Wales, brought together academics to give some sort of concerted voice for establishing a more ‘correct’ orthography. A report was published in 1893 called Welsh Orthography. This was later clarified by John Morris Jones in 1928 in a book called Orgraff yr Iaith Gymraeg (Orthography of the Welsh Language).

      A orthographic feature introduced by William Morgan was the double of many consonants such as t in Bettws or p in Goppa (meaning a church in a wood and summit respectively). Early establishments of an orthography were not easy as some preferred to emphasize the pronunciation – which is why we have an easy phonetic setup today – whilst others preferred to construct spelling showing its derivation, such as a Latin or Greek root.

      Standardization has led to the removal of almost all double letters, excluding the digraphs e.g. dd, ch etc. The exceptions are ‘nn’ and ‘rr’, which are used when vowels either side have short stresses. I.e. Gyrru, which means ‘to drive’ has the ‘y’ and ‘u’ pronounced quickly. It’s not Gyyyru and not gyruuuu. Another example is to preserve the importance of a circumflex. Ton is wave and tôn is tone. Adding ‘au’ to the end of both words makes them plural. Ton becomes tonnau and tôn become tonau. The lack of the ‘nn; means that the stresses on either side of ‘nn’ are not quick, meaning that we hear that elongated ‘o’ noise from the circumflex.

      The banning of Welsh in any official capacity such as the law courts and government has prevented a linguistic dichotomy from happening such as in the Greek. Until the 60s/70s the type of written Greek used for the law courts and government was so formal and archaic it pretty much resembled Ancient Greek, while that spoked on the street was modern Greek. What we see in Welsh is the absence of a ‘formal platform’ has led to the orthography and language remaining in the domain of the community. This could be attributed to the difficulty of bringing Welsh into very technical fields such as research Cosmology. The use of Latin words as a root to modern Welsh words once again raises the topic of orthography! The establishment of a more national level of government in the form of the Assembly has been warmly welcomed by most Welsh speakers as it gives the language the opportunity to develop on a ‘formal platform’.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Llangollen is 40 minutes from me by road and a couple of days by canal. This spur off the Shropshire Union canal runs within 400 yards of my cottage, then through the small town of Ellesmere, then crosses the border into Wales and over the spectacular Pontcysyllte aqueduct and so to Llangollen. It was intended to run all the way to Ellesmere Port which was named in anticipation, but the concern ran out of money at Llangollen and while they were raising more funds the railways were invented so the canal never got finished. That is why it ends in a non-industrial town and is a popular canal boat holiday today.
    Anton

  5. I drive through Llangollen every day, it’s a really beautiful place, I’d recommend a visit if you ever get the chance. First week of July is the International Eisteddfod and there is usually a hot air balloon festival in the summer as far as events there go.

  6. Although it’s not as tall a building, the style of the house at Plas Newydd reminds me a bit of Gregynog Hall, conference centre for the University of Wales.

  7. Llangollen and the surrounding countryside are indeed beautiful.

    I’ve never been to Plas Newydd, though from pictures it does look an interesting building. It is operated as a museum and is open to the public.

    Anton has explained two mysteries for me: whether there was any connection between Ellesmere and Ellesmere Port, and why the Llangollen canal in its present form would appear to have had little economic use in the 19th century. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is an astonishing thing: a minimalist construction that takes the canal across a broad valley. It is even more astonishing when it is remembered that the aqueduct was completed in the year 1805.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bryn: I’m glad that you have heard of Ellesmere. At 3000 persons it seems to be just too small for most people to be aware of. The handsome house in the town in which Thomas Telford lived while engineering the canal is still in private hands. It must have been great to be an engineer in those days.

    The waterway conveyed by the Pontcysyllyte aqueduct is only just wider than a standard canal narrowboat, and crossing it by boat you have the towpath on one side of the boat and a 125 foot drop on the other, which you can peer over.

    The Industrial Revolution started in south-east Shropshire in the 18th century, where five things came together: iron ore, coal, limestone (to leach the impurities out of the iron in the blast furnace process), an arterial river for transport of materials and goods and to power the blast furnace bellows (the river Severn), and know-how. The breakthrough was Abraham Darby’s discovery that coal, if heated in partial confinement, would blow off its impurities to leave carbon (‘coke’) sufficiently pure for use in blast furnaces. Before then, all attempts to use mined coal in blast furnaces led to iron of no strength – the impurities in coal were not of a type that left the iron for the limestone – and charcoal had to be used, obtained by letting wood smoulder for weeks under a blanket of soil. This greatly limited the amount of iron that could be produced. Darby overcame that limitation just over 300 years ago.

    Most people think that the Industrial Revolution started in the late 18th century (false!) with the invention of the blast furnace (false!) and associate it with Manchester – which was simply the first city of the Industrial Revolution. Its first port was Liverpool.. But it all started in rural SE Shropshire, where today the Coalbrookdale/Ironbridge area is a shrine of the modern world, with many museums and exhibits.

    Anton

  9. While we’re on about matters geographical I was wondering about the statement in Wordsworth’s preface about Llangollen being on the main road between London and Dublin. Presumably the road concerned goes to Holyhead?

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes, that’s the A5, formerly known as Watling Street and paved by the Romans so as to run from London to the major Roman city of Wroxeter/Uriconium (which is quite close to Ironbridge, in fact).

    “Today the Roman and his troubles/ Are ashes under Uricon” – AE Housman, “On Wenlock Edge” (from A Shropshire Lad).

  11. I can assure Anton that I had heard of Ellesmere, although I have never been there. One reason for being aware it may have been because of the Llangollen Canal.

    “The road between London and Dublin” did indeed pass via Shrewsbury, through Llangollen, and on to Holyhead. A large-scale project was put in place following the union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801 to improve the road between London and Holyhead, with Thomas Telford leading the work. His Pontcysyllte Aqueduct lies a short way north of his new road, a few miles east of Llangollen. His road passed through Llangollen itself, and would have recently been completed, or close to completion when Wordsworth visited Llangollen in 1824. In circumstances similar to those Anton described in Ellesmere, Telford lived in a very large house overlooking the Menai Straits while he constructed the Menai Suspension Bridge, although from memory, it may have been a hotel at the time.

  12. Devika Raman Says:

    Hello

    I’m doing research for a documentary and we are interested in covering this poem. Would it be possible to point me in the direction of where you found this poem on the internet? A site reference or a reference to a book would be great. Please reply to this message or email me on Devika.Raman@bbc.co.uk

    Many thanks,
    Devika

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