The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
North Wales in the footsteps of Gerard Manley Hopkins
25th July 2017
TalkingLocationWith…. author Simon Edge, whose novel The Hopkins Conundrum is a tragic comedy about Gerard Manley Hopkins and five shipwrecked nuns, and is set in North Wales.
On a good day, the North Wales Expressway is a remarkable thing: speeding travellers from England to the holiday beaches of Anglesey or the Lleyn Peninsula in a fraction of the time it took when I was a child.
I grew up in Chester, and my mother came from Porthmadog, which meant my family spent half its life going back and forth between Cheshire and Snowdonia. In the early days, when crossing the Denbigh Moors was an adventure, my father used to make the trip in an open-topped Morgan three-wheeler which sat so low on the road that he claimed once to have driven it clean under a lorry. It took me years to realise this could not have happened.
Going fast or slow, the Vale of Clwyd, which meets the coast at Rhyl, was not a place we ever stopped. I was familiar with landmarks like the towering Marble Church near St Asaph, a tiny “city” which was famous for its cathedral (and I thought this might be it), but I don’t remember ever getting out of the car. My mother was a daughter of the mountains and she regarded this lower-lying landscape as Wales-lite.
That has long been the reaction of other travellers too. For the English, the big surprise is how lush and pastoral the valley is: like Devon or Oxfordshire, with only the distant purple of Snowdonia to remind you where you are. That was also the first impression of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who came to study in the Jesuit seminary of St Beuno’s – Beuno is a Welsh name which rhymes with ‘rhino’ – near Tremeirchion in the early 1870s. He spent some of the happiest years of his not notably happy life here.
The valley is the setting for my novel The Hopkins Conundrum, which takes us into Hopkins’ world as he composes his masterwork The Wreck of the Deutschland. It also has a present-day strand, featuring an unscrupulous English pub-owner in a local village who hatches a hare-brained money-making scheme to convince gullible tourists that the secrets of the Holy Grail are buried in Hopkins’ notoriously difficult poetry.
The family home in Chester had been sold by the time I was writing the book, so for my research trip I booked myself into the residential Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden. This sandstone Jacobethan mansion, opened in 1902, is Britain’s only prime ministerial library, as well as the national memorial to the great Victorian statesman, who lived at nearby Hawarden Castle. After the mullioned windows and crennelated parapet of the exterior, it was a surprise to find a pink foam mallet with a smiley face on it in my room. It turned out the room was dedicated to a late clergyman called Michael Mallett, whose son Timmy, the Eighties TV star, was once famous for his zany toy mallets.
I went to an open day hosted by the Hopkins Society at St Beuno’s, which remains a Jesuit retreat. Amid the modern institutional furniture, the spirit of Hopkins was elusive. But afterwards I found a footpath up the hill behind the college, where Hopkins himself often walked. It might have been here that he saw the kestrel he immortalised in his poem The Windhover. Away to the north I could see a ribbon of blue sea, with horizontal banks of clouds stacked in parallel above it. (Hopkins loved describing clouds – it was a challenge, to see if he could render visual sights into words.) I rather liked the offshore windfarm, but I fear the Luddite conservative in Hopkins would have hated it.
In St Asaph – population 3,400 – I discovered that the actual cathedral is a stubby little structure, begun in the 13th century, with a square tower made partly of limestone, partly of sandstone, that looks as if it has cut off in its prime. It’s the smallest cathedral in Britain, and it looks like a compact parish church.
Two of the most distinguished literary women in Georgian Britain lived in grand style locally. The diarist Hester Thrale, a close friend of Samuel Johnson, built herself a large house called Brynbella (the gardens of which are now open to the public) after scandalising society by taking a penniless Italian fiddler as her second husband. And in Hopkins’ day a few elderly locals were reputed to remember Felicia Hemans, a celebrated poet in her lifetime who lived at Bronwylfa Hall outside St Asaph. Her best-known work is Casablanca, which opens with the line “The boy stood on the burning deck”. If you can’t hear those words without thinking of Eric Morecambe, join the club. To complete the sense of grandeur tumbling bathetically to earth, Bronwylfa was in recent times owned by the area’s most notorious gangster, a man said to “run” Rhyl, before it briefly became a cannabis farm.
On the other side of the Clwydian Range, in what was a brisk morning’s walk for Hopkins, came the biggest surprise for me: the sprawling village of Holywell, overlooking the Dee Estuary, is built around a shrine that Catholics still regard as the Welsh version of Lourdes. The oldest continually visited pilgrimage site in Britain, it somehow escaped the ravages of Henry VIII. Hopkins, who thought hot springs were Nature’s ultimate proof of the existence of God, loved the place. The faithful still come to bathe in the star-shaped pool, set into the hillside and surrounded by a vault of delicate 16th-century Gothic columns, as the rest of the traffic thunders past, oblivious, on the nearby A55. For godless folk like me, it’s still an architectural gem.
In my novel, my modern character Tim hopes to generate a form of Hopkins mania which will see tourists flocking to the Clwyd Valley. His plan is entirely cynical, and I can promise you that there are no Holy Grail riches buried here. But it’s a gently beautiful place, and I would be delighted if my novel stimulates at least part of the interest in the area that Tim wanted to create.
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