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September 25th, 2009

Farewell to Wales (Sept 14)

Our last morning in Portmeirion, we breakfasted royally on smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, looking out over the changeable taffeta of the estuary with the tide either coming in or going out to the mist-wrapped hills beyond. At least the salmon was royal. The eggs, I regret to say, tasted like they'd come off a steam table, and were the only tourist-trap note in an otherwise very classy experience. Also, the British idea of wonderful ice cream is not ours. It was a bit too close to breakfast for me, but Ellen reported their famous ice cream as being chalky and over-sweet. Mileage, of course, varies in these things, but it was a disappointment.

After breakfast, we took the Shore Walk along the water and up through the woods, past a lovely little toy lighthouse with a brightly painted statue of Nelson in front of it, and then headed straight to the Portmeirion Seconds Shop, where I acquired four bowls, three luncheon plates, two bread&butters, two dinner plates, and a small serving bowl for about a third of what I could get it for here, even on Ebay. And now I can serve 12 for dinner even if it's not Passover (if they like each other, and two of them are left-handed). All I need now is a good recipe for sticky toffee pudding, and I'll be a thoroughly contented woman.

And then we headed back to Blaenau Ffestinog, which is where slate comes from--or came from: the tailings looked old and over-grown, the houses and works neglected and mostly empty--and from there through the downs of Snowdonia towards Llangollen.

I don't know how familiar you are with The Ladies of Llangollen. In their own time, they were celebrated as the beau ideal of female romantic friendship. There is no doubt that they loved each other intensely and exclusively. They themselves utterly denied loving each other sexually. The fact is, nobody knows, and nobody ever will, although that doesn't stop people arguing about it.

What anybody can know, simply by looking at the house, was that they passionately loved carved wood. Words can't do justice, so I'll direct you toa picture of the staircase at Plas Newydd for a hint. They bought (and were given) architectural salvage and old furniture, chopped it up, and repurposed it as panelling. There's many a medieval clothes press, Jacobean bed, choir screen, and reredos has gone into the Gothick-ising of Plas Newydd, as well as broken stained glass windows, crazy-quilted together into bright abstracts. We weren't allowed to take pictures of the interior, but there are some on-line, here and here. Go look at them. They're stunning.

The door guard took us to the attic to see the room where their faithful maid Mary had lived (frequently unpaid) after she had helped them elope. I was glad to see they'd given her a stained-glass window, too, and some choice bits of polished oak frieze. The whole house had a cozy feel, a sociable feel, as if it liked being admired and taken care of. It did now, however, feel in the least inhabited. It's not a real house any more. The original kitchen was Gothicked-up by a subsequent owner, and the extensions he built for the household offices have been razed. It's just a showplace now, but it is a lovely one, and I'm glad, all these years after having read The Ladies of Llangollen, to have seen where Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler created for themselves just exactly the life they wanted to live, in the face of parental and societal obstacles, and kept it up for 50 years.

We left Llangollen at tea-time, and drove and drove and drove across Denbighshire back into England again, to Derbyshire and the Manor Farm at Dethick. It wasn't a hard drive, just a long one, and ended in the lanes at dusk, not my favorite combination. We stopped in Matlock, the nearest town, for provisions, then drove to the farm for a cheese and oatcake and ready-roasted chicken dinner on plates in our sitting-room. And then we went to bed.

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