The Ladies of Llangollen and Plas Newydd

On Monday just gone, 2013 04 29, on a dry, mostly sunny day, I went off on a bit of a day trip to Plas Newydd in Llangollen.


Castell Dinas Bran

Valle Crucis Abbey

This is Plas Newydd.

The ladies who lived there for almost fifty years, Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, loved carved oak decorations ...

So who were the Ladies of Llangollen?

Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were two upper class ladies in Irish society living in the 1700s. Lady Eleanor grew up in a home with an aspirational mother, who could only see two options for her daughter - marrying her off to some influential Catholic family or being packed off to some convent.

When the Ladies first met, there was a considerable age gap between them - Lady Eleanor was 29 and Miss Sarah 13 - but an enduring bond formed between them from the outset. They grew too close for their families' comfort, and so rather than be forced into dire situations neither of them wanted, they unsuccessfully eloped together in April 1778. They were caught and forced to live apart - but their love for one another was stronger than any measures their families could bring to bear against them so they were paid a sum of money and cast out of their homes and Ireland. Initially intending to make their way to England, they got stuck in Wales after a near-fatal accident, and with their money gone they moved into the building they renamed Plas Newydd; a lovely building within sight of Dinas Bran on the hill opposite.

They had to rely on handouts from sympathetic friends, and received many influential visitors, among them Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott; the Duke of Wellington and Josiah Wedgwood; and aristocratic novelist Caroline Lamb, who was born a Ponsonby. They devoted their lives to maintaining the gardens, basic household duties, reading and entertaining the occasional visitor, but they rarely left their home. Lady Eleanor Butler died in 1829, and Sarah Ponsonby two years later.

This visit was an enjoyable experience for me. It took place on a lovely, warm late April day. After the initial tour, I snagged a copy of the booklet and went off to read it. The place was smaller than I thought it'd be; cramped, narrow, very dark, with the oak carvings absorbing much of the ambient light. I surmised that the Ladies may have navigated through the corridors as much by touch as by sight, particularly at night. One of the visitors on the tour with me thought the darkness oppressive; I told him I would not be so limited, being somewhat more accustomed to the dark.

He called me a "creature of the night."

Towards the end, I found myself wandering in the gardens, following a steep path which headed down to a stream in a little wooded valley, with stone bridges and a font in an arch which had once been in Valle Crucis Abbey. I sat and enjoyed a last bit of lunch sitting on a stone bench across the river, reading Robert Greene's book Mastery, while the sun played hide and seek behind the clouds. The only sounds were the river chuckling in the valley, the wind in the trees and the birdsong.

And then there was the font.

The font itself had water in it, flowing into the bowl from a small fountain above it. As I touched the font, the sun came out and shone in and on me and the font. Nowhere else.

There was also a plaque attached to a tree nearby, which bore an inscription in French:- Simple et sans art, ma Muse fait me plaire, Et m'égayer autant qu'un bon vin vieux. Simple and without Art, my Muse strives to please me, And brightens me as a fine old wine. This was my first experience of Plas Newydd. It was an experience like no other, and a delightful beginning to the week.

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