Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Penmorfa, Llandudno- By Dr. Michael Senior

© Copyright Margaret Clough

Llandudno is going through one of its periodic bouts of Alice-mania.  There is a body called Project Alice setting up trails and plaques.  Huge wooden statues of the characters from the Alice books are dotted around the town.  The rationale is that it is just possible that this was the site of origin of Alice in Wonderland.

It wasn't, of course.  My book Did Lewis Carroll Visit Llandudno? shows the unlikelihood of the author's ever having been there.  The origins of the book are well-attested, and located elsewhere.  Undoubtedly however Alice Liddell, the little eponym, did come to this embryo seaside town with her family as a child.  The only trouble, from Llandudno's point of view, is that there is nothing to show for this - now.

When the family first came they stayed in a boarding-house near the north shore of the town which was as a whole, in 1861, under construction.  It was while they were there on their Easter holiday that Alice's father conceived the idea of adding to the construction of the new town by building himself a holiday home there.  He was Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and so well-off and blessed with long vacations.

Surprisingly he chose the wild west shore, where no development had then taken place, and equally surprisingly he chose an off-the-peg design which he saw in an architect's window in Church Walks.  He commissioned a contractor and went back to Oxford.  Liddell had evidently scant knowledge of how things are done in north Wales.  When he came back that summer he found that nothing had happened, and by the end of another year he grew impatient, sacked the contractor and employed another firm.  The message got through, and by the summer of 1862 the house got finished.  It was, in its original form, a strange anomaly, on the West Shore.  Urban and Gothic in nature, it stood up sharply against the Great Orme as if it had got displaced from a major city.

Over the years Penmorfa was modified by random additions which, though architecturally irreverent, relieved its former mid-Victorian austerity.  It fitted better, as a slightly rambling amalgam, into the largely natural context.  As the Gogarth Abbey Hotel then it had a long and happy life, interrupted by the Second World War, during which it was commandeered as officers' accommodation for the local gunnery school, and the site of the Officers' Mess.  It was a family hotel, the beach being a few yards below it, the Orme above, and it had a wonderful view of the famous West Shore sunsets.  Then in due course it became less financially valid and came up for sale.

It was still the time when developers made easy money out of building flats, or, as they called them, apartments.  The site fell into the hands of one of those, and they sought to pull down the old and inconvenient building.  When the planning authority demurred they tried to incorporate the Liddell's house into a modern scheme, but this was made impracticable by its falling into disrepair.  Its new owners had taken the side off and the roof off so that it was totally exposed to the weather, and what had been only recently a substantial hotel was a sad, and, it was claimed, dangerous shell.

The local authority decided (too late) to get it listed.  It is remarkable that it had never been so.  Cadw claimed that it was not of architectural merit, and discounted the historic and cultural connections. The Council's weakness was a paranoia about being sued for compensation, after being obliged to put up public money to fight a long appeal case.  All the applicant has to do is imply that they can afford the best legal representation and will go for compensation if they win, and the planning authority goes weak. They could not safely spot-list the structure without the suport of Cadw, and Cadw declined to give it.  The result was that the holiday home of Alice's family came down, bringing down with it any valid connection to be seen now between Alice in Wonderland and Llandudno.

It is only a bitter comfort to note that the site is still vacant, a memorial, someone might say, to cynicism and greed.

© Copyright Matt Baines
-Written by Dr. Michael Senior

-Images used under this license. No changes were made to both of these images.

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