Castle of light

November 25, 2022 0 Comments

Barmouth and utopia make an unlikely combination.  But for a brief period the town, best known for its donkeys, candy-floss and Brummies, was the home of an idealistic social experiment, and an historic act of generosity.

Fanny Talbot was born in Somerset in 1824, the youngest daughter of John and Mary Bowne.  Her father was a merchant in Bridgwater. (He seems to have been responsible for discovering a fine Bronze Age penannular gold ring, which Fanny later donated to the British Museum.)  At the age of twenty-six she married George Tertius Talbot, a surgeon.  The couple lived mainly in Bridgwater until he died in 1873.  Fanny used part of her inheritance to buy a house, Tŷ’n-y-ffynnon, on the steep slope above the town of Barmouth, together with a parcel of land containing several cottages. 

Fanny Talbot

Why she came to Wales isn’t clear, although by now Barmouth, accessible via the Cambrian Railway since 1867, had already developed from a shipping port into an established watering-place for tourists, and no doubt she and George were familiar with its holiday charms.  Once established in the town, Fanny began to put into action some of her social ideas.

Fanny was well connected with progressive figures of the time.  She corresponded with John Ruskin, whose ideas on alternative, communal ways of living appealed to her.  In 1874 she approached him to offer land and twelve or thirteen cottages near Tŷ’n-y-ffynnon to serve the aims of Ruskin’s ‘St George’s Company’.  Three years earlier he had set up the Company, which still exists today as the Guild of St George, to counter industrial capitalism and establish communities built on craft-based work and social justice.  The two became close friends after Fanny’s donation – they would play games of chess by correspondence – and she became responsible for administering the Barmouth experiment in living.

Auguste Guyard

Fanny let out the cottages to poor people at a low rent.  One of the people she settled was a French refugee and socialist called Auguste Guyard.  He had set up his own ‘model commune’ in his native village, Frotey-lès-Vesoul, Franche-Comté, complete with college, evening classes, library, surgery and chemist.  The venture encountered fierce opposition from the Church and survived for only two years.  At the time of the Franco-Prussian War and the failure of the Paris Commune in 1871 he fled France and came to Barmouth to live in 2 Rock Terrace.  There was a family connection: Fanny’s son George knew Guyard’s daughter, an art teacher (and later married her).  Guyard spent his time in Barmouth ‘doctoring his poor neighbours, teaching Welsh peasant women to make vegetable soups, and trying by experiments to discover which herbs and trees would grow best in his rocky mountain ground.’  He died in 1882 and was buried in the ‘Frenchman’s Grave’ above his cottage, with an inscription that begins:

Ci-git un Semeur qui
Sema jusqu’au tombeau
Le Vrai, le Bien, le Beau

Here lies the sower who
Sowed right up to his grave,
Truth, Goodness and Beauty

Another resident, later on, was Blanche Atkinson, known as a novelist and writer of books for children.  She was the daughter of a Liverpool soap manufacturer, became concerned about the slum conditions of industrial workers, and, like Fanny, came to support Ruskin’s communitarian ideas.  In 1900 she published a pamphlet, illustrated by A.J. Hewins (who lived in the cottage previously occupied by Auguste Guyard), giving a short account of the ‘social experiment at Barmouth’. In large part it consists of a eulogy of M. Guyard. She gives a vivid picture of the miniature village:

Steep steps, often cut in the rock itself, or narrow twisty passages, lead from one ledge to another.  One terrace may hold two low gabled cottages.  Another may find room for a little group of three or four; or perhaps one cottage has its tiny plateau to itself.  Often there are two – one on top of the other – with the entrances at different levels; and from each one could drop a stone down the chimney of the cottage immediately below.  Picturesque beyond questions are these curious little eyries – the rock breaking out all about in hoary crags with clumps of heather and gorse, glacial markings, and white quartz veinings, and rising up and up for 1,000 feet …

Fanny continued to give to good causes in Barmouth.  She gave money to the Sailors’ Institute (still in being today), and in 1901, with her friends Blanche Atkinson and Frances Power Cobbe, she set up a public library in the town.  Cobbe was a strong and unusual character: a philosopher and strong supporter of women’s (and animal) rights, who lived from 1884 with her partner, the Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd in Hengwrt, near Dolgellau: the two are buried in the churchyard at Llanelltyd.

Fanny also continued to support the varied causes of John Ruskin, and got to know many of his followers.  One of them was Canon Harwicke Rawnsley, one of the three founders of the National Trust, along with Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter.  They set up the Trust in January 1895 to protect land for public enjoyment (in its earliest period the Trust was a more radical body than the establishment bastion it later became).  Rawnsley visited Tŷ’n-y-ffynnon and Fanny suggested to him that she might offer to the new Trust the cliff top above, known as Dinas Oleu (castle of light), the name of an Iron Age enclosure at its highest point:

I have long wanted to secure to the public for ever the enjoyment of Dinas Oleu, but I wish to put it into the custody of some society that will never vulgarize it, or prevent wild Nature from having its own way.  I have no objection to grassy paths or stone seats in proper places but I wish to avoid the abomination of asphalt paths and the cast-iron seats of serpent design which disfigure so largely our public parks, and it appears to me that your association has been born in the nick of time.

The gift, of four acres, was duly made on 3 May 1895, a few days before the Trust’s first annual meeting.  It was the first donation of land ever given to the National Trust.  A panel was carved with an inscription that the site would be ‘kept and guarded for the enjoyment of the people of Barmouth for ever’.  In return, Fanny was enrolled as a life member of the Trust.

In old age Fanny retreated from public life, dismayed by the early deaths of her son and daughter and most of her old friends, and died at her home in 1917, aged 93.  Though the Guild’s cottages were sold to the local council in 1972, Barmouth still remembers her well – Talbot Square is named after her – and so does the National Trust, but she deserves a wider recognition for her practical concern for social justice and nature conservation.

Rock Terrace

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