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Unusual Places in North Wales
By Margaret Deefholts For Travel Writers' Tales.

Wales, unlike England it's rather staid neighbour, is a land of whimsy.

It is early spring in Llangollen, North Wales and hedgerows like dark eyebrows run along the edges of fields where mother sheep fuss over their newly arrived lambs. Our mini-bus drops our group off at Plas Newydd, a Tudor style house, with a façade resembling rows of black and white dominoes.

This was once the home of Lady Eleanor Butler and the Honourable Sarah Ponsonby-both born to minor nobility in Ireland-who, in order to avoid being forced into marriage, eloped to Wales and set up house here in 1780. Today this would hardly raise an eyebrow…but back then, what would the strait-laced society of the late 18th century have made of the "Ladies of Llangollen" as they came to be called?

There is no hard evidence to prove that they were lovers but a display of memorabilia at Plas Newydd speaks for itself-sketches of them dressed alike in men's waistcoats, skirts and top-hats, and lavishly affectionate notes addressing one another as "my sweet love" or "my beloved". Their dog was called Sappho, and in all the years they were together, they refused to spend a single night apart.

Notwithstanding this, their genteel lifestyle gave them the appearance of two maiden aunts, quietly engrossed in gardening, writing, and the study of literature. Lady Eleanor was a prolific correspondent and diarist, and Plas Newydd became the haunt of literati such as Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth, whose "Sonnet Composed at Plas Newydd" was penned in their garden. There were other notables too among their visitors including European royalty, the Duke of Wellington and Josiah Wedgwood. To supplement their slender income (their outraged families had refused to extend any financial help) at the Queen's request, King George III granted them a pension.

Plas Newydd has an intricate wood-carved entrance, and bas-relief panels decorate the walls along the interior stairway. Overall the rooms are small and rather dark, but in my imagination I see Miss Sarah as she tidies up the coverlet of their double bed, while Lady Eleanor writes in her journal by the window, exchanging perhaps a fond look and a smile with her dear companion.

Their relationship spanned over fifty years, until they passed away, Eleanor in 1829, Sarah two years later. The Ladies rest side-by-side in St. Collen's Churchyard in Llangollen, and Plas Newydd is now a museum run by the Denbighshire County Council.

In contrast to this tranquil country estate, is a wacky, but undeniably popular resort (perhaps a rare bit of Welsh drollery) in Snowdonia on the north-west coast of Wales. Portmeirion is the brain-child of a self-styled architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis who, undaunted by his failure to complete a degree in architecture, went on to create a fantastical world of buildings, statues and gardens. Dubbed by visitors as "zany" and "off-the-wall", one wonders whether Sir Clough was either a dotty eccentric, or had a prankish sense of humour. Or perhaps both.

Robin Llywelyn, Clough's grandson and Managing Director of Portmeirion, leads our group through a cobalt-blue painted archway and talks with great solemnity about the history of Portmeirion, but most of us aren't listening. We are peering at our surroundings: a Dali-esque world of buildings in the wildest of hues - turquoise, burnt umber, purple, pink, mauve, terra-cotta, ink-blue and bright yellow. The structures run the gamut of architectural styles from Jacobean to Art Deco. An Italian piazza lies below us, and on a hill to one side, a stone bell-tower that looks as though it was once featured in the movie Vertigo.

For the next half hour, we walk through the village, bemused. Portmeirion is the nearest thing I can imagine to a funky collection of DeMille-style Hollywood sets. Here an Athenian portico with pillared colonnades, there a mullioned-windowed Stratford-on-Avon cottage and just across the way a hacienda with a terracotta tile roof. In between, just for variety, are Ionic columns topped by bronze Burmese dancers, marble angels, and a stone Hercules hefting the globe. The group gathers for tea at what is probably the most elegant building on the property - the Hotel, with its airy tea room and tastefully appointed restaurant.

North Wales also has one-of-a-kind structures of Lilliputian size.

We are driving along the sea front between Penrhyn Bay and Colwyn Bay on a cool, blustery morning, when our driver pulls over in the little village of Rhos on Sea. We walk down a flight of stairs and all seven of us manage to squeeze into a miniscule stone church-the Chapel of St. Trillo, a true Welsh rare bit, it being the smallest church in Wales and indeed possibly in all of Britain.

A bulletin board at the entrance to the church displays timings for Sunday and weekday Eucharist and fresh flowers grace the altar and stained-glass window sills. Our guide draws back a wooden lid covering a holy well just in front of the altar, believed to date back to pre-Christian times and adds that the site (if not the chapel itself) has been a centre of worship for about 1500 years, remaining so right up to the present day.

On the beach front in Conwy, in the shadow of the Castle and town walls, is a bright red double storied house intended for very small people. At a width of 6 ft and a total height of 10 ft (both floors) it is the tiniest dwelling in the British Isles. The last occupant, Robert Jones, a tall 6 foot-plus fisherman outgrew his home (literally!) in 1900, but the building is still owned by his family. For a small fee visitors are welcome to explore the lower room (and peek at the upper floor from a step ladder) but we are out of luck. It's too early in the year, and the house is locked and empty. We console ourselves by posing by the front door for the benefit of our cameras, and taking in the scenic waterfront where small boats are at anchor, their masts criss-crossing the sky.

Discovering Welsh rare bits doesn't just apply to places. It about their unique signage too. In the village of Llangollen, I stop short before a sign that looks like a spill of Scrabble tiles: "Ysiopfachgardiauwrthybontdrosyrafonddyfrdwyynllangollen". It means, "The little shop that sells cards by the bridge that crosses the river Dee in Llangollen."

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If You Go:

Information on:

Where to stay:
Plas Newydd and Llangollen:
St. Trillo's Chapel:

Photos by Margaret Deefholts

1. Plas Newydd
2. Detail at entrance door to Plas Newydd
3. Wood panel detail at stairwell Plas Newydd
4. Entrance archway to Portmeirion
5. Portmeirion tower
6 Chapel of St. Trillo - smallest church in Britain
7. Smallest House in Britain - Conwy quay North Wales
8. Shop sign in Llangollen village

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit


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