There is no better walk than from Barmouth to Dolgellau, than Dolgellau to Barmouth!
One of the most quotable judgements on the beauty of the Mawddach estuary was made by John Ruskin, the eminent Victorian critic and polymath who was born exactly two hundred years ago today.
In his lifetime, his thought leading provocations won him the admiration of Gandhi, Proust and Tolstoy, but today, two centuries after his birth, we are also appreciating the brilliance of his foresight, the diversity of his creative instincts, and the strength of his commitment in putting into practice his ideas about the environment, work and society.
The Guild of St. George, which today we might describe as a not-for-profit organisation, was created by Ruskin to challenge the excesses of Victorian capitalism and the obsessive pursuit of money. With the simple aim of creating a more thoughtful society, The Guild attracted many followers, including one of Barmouth’s greatest philanthropists, Mrs Fanny Talbot who of course gifted Dinas Oleu to the National Trust.
Ruskin described Fanny “as a motherly, bright, black-eyed woman of fifty with a nice married son who is a superb chess player. She herself is a very good one, and it’s her greatest indulgence to have a written game with me. She’s an excellent nurse, and curious beyond any magpie that ever was….”
In 1872, Mrs Talbot gifted twelve cottages on Barmouth Rock to Ruskin’s Guild, and one of the first tenants was Auguste Guyard, known locally as the Frenchman. Guyard shared Ruskin’s views about sustainable communities and had himself tried to create a commune modele in France.
In the Guild’s rulebook for tenants can be found the standing instruction that on the Master’s birthday, cake was to be eaten, and so 200 years after his birth, we will be wishing him happy returns of the day and eating some appropriately polymathical cake, but our celebratory Mawddach walk from Barmouth to Dolgellau will have to await our return to the Rock.
It is fifty years to the day since I first saw the Mawddach glinting in the late Autumn sun. Our trusty blue Commer minibus, complete with transversal bench seating had successfully navigated the pass at Dinas Mawddwy and the hair-pin riffs of Fiddler’s Elbow, and with the aluminium catering trays of Mrs Watkins’ fried fish and baked-bean-splattered mash still skidding around our feet, had come to a temporary stop in Bontddu to pick up the milk. Shortly afterwards, we had arrived at the majestic but dangerously uneven main drive to Farchynys.
I hadn’t been lucky enough to visit during my first year at Queen Mary’s, but aged 12 and accelerated into the Alpha stream, I was one of a party of third formers visiting the Coach House under the charge of George Brudenell, our easy going Year Master and his Physics Department chum, the ever-wry Ernie Watson. One of them pointed out the two granite and slate buildings perched half hidden and forbidding on the hill to our left of the Dolgellau to Barmouth road. Then, with assorted bumps and skids-on-gravel, the minibus had made it up the drive, passed the rhododendrons of the Hall and stopped outside the Coach House.
No sooner had the front door been unlocked then I experienced the Coach House’s unique aroma: a mélange of damp, overcooked vegetable and burned carbon. As the more experienced hands raced upstairs to secure the best bunk positions in the dorm, others were pushing refectory tables together to make one giant table tennis court, while an enterprising Prefect was opening up the weekend tuck-shop, packed for travel in a large biscuit tin. This contained the Kit Kats, Mars Bars and Wagon Wheels necessary to maintain morale over the coming hours.
The darkness came, and for boys from an industrial town, this was a darkness absolute and rare -the kind that torches and fireworks are made for. But for now, it was time for supper and the return of the fried fish, mash and baked beans which like us had made it all the way from Sutton Road in Walsall.
It was later that evening, after the group had done the washing-up that I made the first strategic error of my Marian career. I casually let it be known that in the morning we should check the post-box as there might be something for me as it was my birthday. The possibility of receiving some extra spending money had clouded my better judgement and I soon discovered that sharing this piece of information was not conducive to either a peaceful or an undisturbed night’s sleep in the dorm. It was an unforgettable first night at Farchynys.
I am by now well accustomed to being asked questions prompted by the title of my book. “What exactly is the Mawddach? this is usually said in a brittle Anglo-Saxon fashion that makes it sound like a dark territory of Middle Earth rather than beautiful estuary in Merioneth, and so provides me with a perfect opportunity to deliver a short Welsh lesson followed by a quiz.
I am also frequently asked “What is a Marian?”, often with an equally puzzled expression. When I have explained that it is not a typographical error for Martian, but the name given to past and present students of Queen Mary’s Grammar School, I then have to explain that this Queen Mary, is not Mary, Queen of Scots, but in fact her cousin, Mary Tudor, our first queen regnant; and I soon find myself slipping into that familiar narrative by referring to her as ‘that Bloody Mary’, who burned all the Protestants at the stake and lost Calais – not a brilliant backstory, perhaps, for the Founder of our school.
But especially in July, when we celebrate our foundation, I think it’s time to cut Mary some slack and to loudly declaimVivatRegina! Incidentally, our school wasn’t her only foundation. In the educational ruins of the English Brexit from the Catholic Church, Mary also founded schools in Clitheroe, Leominster, Boston, Ripon and Basingstoke.
It was on Mary’s way to Winchester to marry Phillip, the Habsburg Prince of Spain, that two Walsall brothers, George and Nicholas Hawe, along with two other well-positioned notables with reputations at court, petitioned the Queen to let them build a school to fill the gap left by the destruction of local Chantry chapels. The result, was the granting on July 2ndof the Letters Patent which laid down a school“be created and established for the teaching, erudition and instruction of boys and youths…. which shall be called The Free Grammar School of Queen Mary at Walsall.”
So, was this the reputational high point of the only British monarch we call after a family name rather than a regnal number? David Fink, in his magisterial history of the school draws on Venetian ambassadorial dispatches to imagine a marvellous scene at the moment of signature and then adds:
“With the rest of Mary’s life, a Marian is in something of a quandary, not to say dilemma. He must be truthful and not gloss over distressing facts; at the same time, his gratitude must lead him to a favourable interpretation wherever possible.”
Sixty years after David Fink wrote these words, the dilemma has been made much easier to resolve by the fruits of recent scholarship. Three strong academic biographies and Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faithhave paved the way for a significant reappraisal of Mary and her reign. Duffy’s book includes a forensic re-examination of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, the famous account of the Protestant Martyrs, which through the centuries has caused the Marian regime so much reputational damage: much of which, today, we might well label as “fake news.”
Mary, far from being the inept and hopeless religious fundamentalist, appears for today’s scholars to be confident and decisive, full of courage as well as conviction, and possessing great political nous. She was also for a Tudor – and despite mistreatment by a quite appalling father – very likeable – she was generous to friends, fond of fine clothes (my favourite portrait is the 1544 by Master John), and apparently, addicted to gambling with cards and dice.
Mary’s personal motto was Veritas Temporis Filia– Truth is the daughter of time – which seems incredibly appropriate for a queen we are only now beginning to understand. Thanks for founding us, Mary, and starting all our journeys to the Mawddach.
Vivat Regina Maria! Floreat Reginae Schola Mariae!
July 2nd, 2018
The log notes that this was “the week the Gods smiled on us” and all activities were completed in the dry with reasonable temperatures and minimum moaning. The tremendous effort put in by the boys was rewarded with “lashings of pasta” and courgettes consumed in abundance.
As I’m dining soon with Monsieur et Madame Swain, this wonderful menu from a weekend in November, 1992 proved irresistible. Please note the witty addition at the foot of the page, the author of which was a regular correspondent in these logs.
“Would you like the bridge fried or boiled, Sir?”
“When Benjamin Piercy built the viaduct in 1867, there was a man over at Barmouth who promised that if they ever finished it, he would eat the first train to come over. The morning it was due, a table was laid outside Barmouth Station with a starched white cloth and best silver and as the train approached, the chairman of the railway turned to this fellow and said, ‘Here it comes now, do you want it fried or boiled, sir?’ ”
Quoted in Stopping Train Britain by Alexander Frater, 1983
1911: Mines excavated under The Coach House and at The Boat House cliffs
A Gothic Weekend
Farchynys early acquired a reputation for austerity. As The Marian noted in 1965, “A weekend at Farchynys is to a large extent getting by without it; ‘it’ being some of the luxuries of home and the delights of Babylon.” But I wonder what that writer would have made of the spectacular Gothic experiences shared by A- level English students at The Coach House in an appropriately spooky November 2011?
Taking the long view, Gothic experiences are nothing new on the Mawddach. In the early nineteenth century, the area was popular with many writers and artists. Samuel Taylor Coleridge climbed Cadair, Percy Bysshe Shelley visited in 1812 and perhaps inspired by this our latter day Goths were a party of A level sixth formers intent on days of “exploration and transgression” as one them recorded. A suitably sybaritic and uncanny programme included readings of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus in The Coach House, of Dracula in the Gazebo by torchlight served with popcorn and a performance of The Woman in Black in the suitably ghostly atmosphere of the Church of St. Mary and St. Bodfan, Llanber.
Snowdonia ( Eryri) is a mountainous region in north west Wales and a national park of 823 square miles (2,130 km2) in area. It was the first to be designated of the three national parks in Wales, in 1951.