Queen Victoria’s visit to North Wales in 1889

The Queen at Acton Park, Wrexham: here the Town Clerk reads the address of the Corporation. The Mayor, Mr. Evan Morris, was knighted on this occasion. The Queen's escort was provided by the Denbighshire Hussars, and the guard of honour formed by the Welsh Fusiliers.

This first article is from The Illustrated London News of 24 August 1889, during the week in which Queen Victoria was staying in North Wales.

Her Majesty, accompanied by Prince and Princess Henry of Battenberg, during a sojourn of five days, from Friday morning, Aug. 23, in the neighbourhood of Bala, Merionethshire, would visit some places on the banks of the Dee, in North Wales, which are scarcely less interesting than those of the Deeside in Scotland, where her favourite residence of Balmoral is situated.

The Welsh scenery, though its mountains are not so sublime, is to many lovers of picturesque landscape beauty more attractive than that of the Scottish Highlands. It is enriched, in some places, with delightful woodlands, and its hills present varied groupings of the most graceful forms, probably unequalled in their harmony of aspect by those of any other district in Great Britain. The names and local traditions, the historical and legendary associations, of many places in Wales are equally romantic with those of the wilder parts of Scotland, though not so familiar to readers of English literature in the present age. If a genius like Sir Walter Scott had been born at Chester or Shrewsbury, and had devoted his imaginative industry to similar works of poetry and fiction, dealing with the stirring incidents of past ages on the Welsh Border and amid the mountain strongholds of West Britain, we cannot doubt that the country would have been invested with that kind of renown which has been, within about seventy years, bestowed on the North of Britain. Welsh history, romance, and poetry, however, remain comparatively obscure to the majority of English people, not for their lack of intrinsic interest, but for want of a great English-writing author to make them widely known.

The actual occasion, being the Queen’s present movements along the Dee between Bala and Llangollen, will restrict our observations to a district which has long been admired; and our Artist’s sketches, reproduced in Engravings presented this week, do justice to some of its characteristic features. Mr. Ralph Darlington, of Llangollen, the author of a series of good tourist hand-books to North Wales, has been allowed to prefix to one of his publications, “The Vale of Llangollen and the Course of the Dee,” letters from several eminent persons – Ruskin, Browning, Sir Theodore Martin, and the late American Minister, Mr. Phelps – testifying that this region, in its “gentle wildness,” is one of the loveliest on earth. Mr. Ruskin says of it:

“Our Westmoreland vales are mere clefts between disorderly humps of rock, but the Vale of Llangollen is a true valley between ranges of grandly formed hills – peculiar above Valle Crucis is the golden mosaic of gorse on their emerald turf – where we have nothing but heath and ling. The Dee itself is a quite perfect mountain stream, and the village of Llangollen, when I first knew it – fifty years ago – one of the most beautiful and delightful in Wales, or anywhere else.”

River Dee at Llangollen 1889
River Dee at Llangollen 1889

And Mr. Robert Browning speaks of the “clear pre-eminence” of Llangollen, where, he says,

“I received an impression of the beauty around me, which continued ineffaceable during all subsequent experiences of varied foreign scenery – mountain, valley and river.”

Llangollen – the name must be pronounced “Thlangothlen” – is situated in Denbighshire, on the fine road made by Telford from Chester to Holyhead, and on a branch of the Great Western Railway. It may be called village or town, having nearly three thousand inhabitants. The basin of the Dee, which rises far in the south-west above Bala Lake, with all its tributary streams, is separated from that of the waters flowing into the Severn by ranges of high moorland hills extending some thirty miles or more, rising centrally in the Berwyns, south of Corwen, to the heights of 2,500 ft. and 2700 ft. The last of these ranges, to the north-east, approaching the river at Llangollen, is confronted by the southern face of the Eglwyseg Rocks, a great rampart of limestone cliffs shutting in the Dee Valley, which is here entered by a narrow portal. In ancient times this must have been a pass of some military importance; while along the Welsh Border, farther to the south, England required the artificial protection of Watt’s Dyke and Offa’s Dyke, passing on the west side of Chirk and Oswestry.

In fact, the Dee valley above Llangollen was the stronghold of Owen Glendower, whose surname, in proper Welsh, is a contraction of “Glyndyfrdwy,” the Glen of the Dee, the river being called Dyfrdwy above Bala Lake to this day. It flows through Llyn Tegid, or Bala Lake, a sheet of water three miles and a half long and half a mile broad; from Bala, continuing a north-easterly course, it passes Llanfor and Llandderfel, and traverses the vale of Edeyrnion to Corwen, ten miles and a half from Llangollen; but its course below Corwen is nearly due east, and here are the most beautiful parts, the vale of Glyndyfrdwy and Llantysilio, within a few miles above Llangollen.

The house engaged for the Queen’s sojourn in this region is nearly twenty miles from Llangollen, and not far from Bala. It is at Llandderfel, a village and railway station preserving the name of St. Derfel, a hermit or holy man of the sixth century, whose wooden image, with that of a stag miraculously tamed and taught by him, used to be kept for pious veneration in the parish church.

The late Mr. Henry Robertson, the able engineer of the great Dee railway viaduct five miles from Llangollen, who was also, for some time, M.P. for Merionethshire, built the mansion of Palé, and it is worthy to be the Queen’s lodging. It has received, among other private guests, John Bright and Henry Fawcett, when they enjoyed the sport of angling in the Dee. Here the banks of the winding river are beautifully wooded, and rise in verdant knolls of charming various aspects.

Bala, which is, like Llangollen, a small market town, and is situated at the lower end of its lake, has no particular attractions except its convenience for tourists. It is the junction for railway branches to the Vale of Festiniog, in one direction, to Dolgelly and Barmouth in another, and for the roads crossing the Berwyns and other hill ranges southward to the Vyrnwy district, where the Liverpool Corporation Waterworks are constructing a reservoir-lake much bigger than the Lake of Bala. The mountains overlooking Bala Lake, and better seen from a boat than from either shore, are grand enough. There is Arenig Fawr, on the one hand, 2000 ft. high; Aran Benllyn and Aran Mawddwy, nearly 3000 ft., on the other; but they are distant, and scarcely belong to the Deeside scenery.

Corwen, twelve miles from Bala, has some claim to historical importance as the headquarters of Owen Glendower, the brave leader of the Welsh nation in their last struggle for independence, in the reign of King Henry IV. He was the feudal lord and chieftain of the most powerful clan in this region; he claimed descent from Llewellyn, the last reigning native Prince of Wales. Being taken to London as a hostage, he had been educated as a knight, and had studied law, history, science, and philosophy, till the country-folk believed him to be a magician. Shakspeare does not make him a very heroic figure; but English national prejudices may have distorted the character of Owen Glendower as well as that of Joan of Arc. At a much earlier period, nearly three centuries before, Corwen had witnessed a more successful resistance to the English, when the invading army of Henry II. was defeated by Owen Gwynedd in 1165.

Coming on down the river’s course towards Llangollen with the Royal visitors this summer, we see a reputed memorial of the Welsh hero in “Owen Glendower’s Mound,” four miles from Corwen: a fir-crowned hill upon which he could take his stand, monarch of all he surveyed. Here lies the Vale of Glyndyfrdwy, near Llangollen, some romantic scenes in which are delineated in our Artist’s Sketches. Approaching three or four miles nearer Llangollen, we find the local features to interesting as to claim a more particular description.

The Dee at Berwyn Station, near Bryntisilio, the residence of Sir Theodore Martin
The Dee at Berwyn Station, near Bryntisilio, the residence of Sir Theodore Martin

The Berwyn railway-station, within two miles of the pretty little town of Llangollen, is the point where the special beauties of this neighbourhood are fully revealed, and from which they can be minutely explored by short and easy walks. Llantysilio, or Llantisilio as it is sometimes written, is a delightful place; here the Dee is crossed by a chain-bridge, close to which is a small inn; and Sir Theodore Martin, well known to everybody as an accomplished literary scholar, a confidential servant of Her Majesty, and Clerk to her Privy Council, with his accomplished wife, whom thousands of play-goers have admired as Miss Helen Faucit, possess their summer residence called Bryntisilio, looking down on the charming valley. The foaming river, flowing over a stony bed, with high banks of rock, grassy hills, and rich woodlands, has been checked by a semicircular weir, forming a little artificial cascade, the “Horse-shoe Falls” constructed by the engineer Telford to supply water to the Ellesmere or Shropshire Union Canal. The village churchyard is adorned with large old yew-trees; the park of Llantysilio Hall spreads wide beyond; and vales and dells of inviting aspect seem to offer no end of pleasant rambles.

One object of such a little excursion is to see the ruined Abbey of Valle Crucis, the finest in North Wales, though not so fine as Tintern Abbey. It was a Cistercian monastery, built six hundred years ago by Prince Madoc ap-Griffith, grandson of Owen Gwynedd, and destroyed like most others by order of King Henry VIII. The Early English or Gothic style of Pointed architecture – whichever you please to call a noble style, which was neither peculiarly English nor properly Gothic, that of the thirteenth century – is exemplified in the few remaining windows and other fragments of this building. In a meadow near it stands an ancient stone pillar, which some antiquaries fancy to have been part of a stone cross, and to have given Valle Crucis its name. Others regard it as a Roman column, perhaps a trophy carried away by the ancient West Britons, after destroying some Roman stations. It is called the Pillar of Eliseg, who was a chieftain of the land of Powys in the times of prolonged strife and turmoil after the Romans left Britain.

In and about Llangollen there are many more sights worthy of note than the Queen could have time to see. The old Welsh stronghold or castle of Dinas Bran, possibly named after a stream called the Bran, but which Englishmen, learning that “bran” means also a crow, have translated into “Crow Castle,” is most conspicuous. It is on the top of a singular conical hill, 910 ft. high, commanding a vast panoramic view as far as Snowdon, and northward to the sea, and eastward over the plains of Shropshire. It is said to have been inhabited by Prince Eliseg, the Lord of Powys, and by his son and grandson and descendants to the thirteenth century, when one of them, the founder of Valle Crucis Abbey, betrayed his nation to the English King. The view from Moel-y-Geraint, or Barber’s Hill, which rises 1000 ft. above the Dee, is still more extensive on the Welsh side.

Plas Newydd, Llangollen 1889
Plas Newydd, Llangollen 1889

Plas Newydd – that is to say, in plain English, “New Place” – is a quaint, fantastic, curious, and pretty house at Llangollen, filled with rich old oak carvings, antique furniture, stained glass, ivory, bronzes, china, toys, and artistic decorations of various styles and periods, a museum rather than a mansion. But it was the residence of those two famous old ladies whose memory is associated with Llangollen: Lady Eleanor Butler and her friend, the Hon. Miss Ponsonby, who lived here together from their youth to extreme old age, one dying at the age of ninety in 1829. They were very odd in their fashion of dress, wearing hats, neckcloths, and coats like those of men, but were intelligent and benevolent women, much esteemed by their poorer neighbours, and they were visited by many persons of rank and note. General Yorke, C.B., is the present owner of Plas Newydd, and preserves their collections of curiosities in the former state.

The second article appeared in the Illustrated London News of 31 August 1889, but unfortunately the extract to hand is incomplete, missing the text from the beginning to the point where the following transcript now begins.

. . . In the neighbourhood are the noble wooded parks of Erddig Hall, and other fine mansions, and the site of a famous ancient monastery, Bangor Iscoed, on the Dee.

Ruabon, from which Wrexham is distant five miles to the northeast, is the Great Western Railway junction for the branch line to Llangollen and Barmouth. It is twenty-four miles from Shrewsbury, and sixteen miles from Chester. The collieries, ironworks, brick and terra-cotta works, support a rather scattered population of 15,000. Close to the village is Wynnstay Park, the seat of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, Bart., with one of the grandest avenues of oaks and elms in the kingdom. A few miles to the south, on the line to Oswestry, is Chirk Castle, in the Valley of the Ceiriog, which affords a beautiful view. The railway viaduct over the Dee, constructed by the late Mr. Robertson, father of the present owner of Palé, and Telford’s aqueduct, erected between 1795 and 1803, are great engineering works, and of imposing aspect.

The Royal party, leaving Palé at half-past three in the afternoon, travelled by train to Ruabon, where the railway-station had been decorated with flags and carpets and exotic flowers. Colonel Cornwallis West, M.P., Lord Lieutenant of Denbighshire, in military uniform, met the Queen here. Her Majesty and the party entered carriages, in which they drove by the high road to Wrexham. There was a beautiful triumphal arch at Ruabon, formed of laurels and heather, with bosses of marigolds, dahlias, and other flowers, and many festive decorations, arranged by Mr. Owen Stanley Wynne and a local committee.

The town of Wrexham gave Her Majesty a splendid reception. The streets from end to end were adorned with Venetian masts and flags and floral festoons. The Mayor of Wrexham, Mr. Evan Morris, had invited to his house, Roseneath, a large party of ladies and gentlemen, among whom were the Lords Lieutenant of Merionethshire, Carnarvonshire, and Anglesea, the High Sheriffs, the Marquis of Anglesey, the Bishops of Bangor, Shrewsbury and St. Asaph, Lord and Lady Trevor, Lord Mostyn, Lord Kenyon, several members of Parliament, and the Chairmen of County Councils and Mayors of towns in North Wales.

The Queen at Acton Park, Wrexham: here the Town Clerk reads the address of the Corporation. The Mayor, Mr. Evan Morris, was knighted on this occasion. The Queen's escort was provided by the Denbighshire Hussars, and the guard of honour formed by the Welsh Fus
The Queen at Acton Park, Wrexham: here the Town Clerk reads the address of the Corporation. The Mayor, Mr. Evan Morris, was knighted on this occasion. The Queen’s escort was provided by the Denbighshire Hussars, and the guard of honour formed by the Welsh Fusiliers.

After luncheon, they went to Acton Park, the seat of Sir Robert Cunliffe, Bart., in whose delightful grounds the Queen was to be met. The Welsh Fusiliers, with their white goat having gilt horns, formed a guard of honour, and an escort was furnished by the Denbighshire Hussars. Her Majesty entered the park in a carriage-and-four. “God Save the Queen” was sung, and the Lord Lieutenant of the county presented an address; to which were added one from the clergy of the diocese of St. Asaph, presented by the Bishop, with Dean Owen and Canon Howell; and one from the Non-conformist ministers, presented by the Rev. Dr. David Roberts. The address of the Mayor and Corporation of Wrexham was then read by the Town Clerk. The Mayor presented a gold medal, specially manufactured by Mr. Edwin Owens, jeweller and medallist, of Wrexham; and Mrs. Morris presented a loyal ode, written by the poet Mr. Lewis Morris. Many ladies and gentlemen had the honour of being presented to the Queen. The assembled choirs sang “The Men of Harlech” and other Welsh national songs. The Mayor of Wrexham has been knighted.

Her Majesty, on Monday afternoon, Aug. 26, went by railway to Llangollen, and visited Bryntisilio, the residence of Sir Theodore and Lady Martin, with whom she took tea. At Llangollen, and also at Corwen, the local authorities and chief residents offered the customary tokens of homage and welcome. Princess Beatrice, with her husband, in the morning visited a colliery at Ruabon, descending into the pit and “firing a shot” to blast the coal. Her Royal Highness went next day to Barmouth, to lay the foundation-stone of a new church; and in the evening the Royal visitors left for Balmoral.

Princess Beatrice, visited Wynnstay Colliery at Ruabon.
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