This section is based on visits made by Sheila Ray and Stella Waring, whose explorations of Wales are recorded in Island to Abbey (GGBP, 2006, pp. 271 - 73) and in articles in AC 6, 1990 (pp.4-6) and AC 8, 1991 (pp.5-9).
Although EJO moved to London at the age of 2, she had been born in Southport, just north of Liverpool, an area that has always had strong links to North Wales. She and her family must have spent holidays there and some of her earliest books are set in the area stretching west from Bala to the Lleyn Peninsula, which can be explored by the EJO enthusiast in a few days This was one of the first areas we explored in the late 80s and early 90s. Part of the area lies in the Snowdonia National Park and although roads have improved, much of what EJO saw a hundred years ago is still there. It is a major tourist area and it is easy to find overnight accommodation. Any good Ordnance Survey map (on scale of 1:25000) of North-west Wales should enable you to find your way about the area.
One of the things that has changed since EJO’s is the railway. Although it is still possible to get by train to Pwllheli from London as Robin Brent did, the line that ran from Ruabon via Bala that she probably used closed some years ago. However the old line along the south side of Lake Bala has been restored as a tourist attraction. In the opening chapters of The School Torment (1920) much is made of the private halt on this railway. This is certainly where Llangower station was situated as traces of the jetty near the station platform can still be seen. A guide to North Wales published in 1855 that describes the GWR route to Barmouth mentions Glan Llyn, ‘one of the residences of Sir Watkin Williams Wynne, whose private station is run through without stopping’. Near Llangower station the land juts out into the lake and this may be the spot that EJO earmarked for the school. She describes the view that Dorothy and the Torment see as they look across the lake from their bedroom window and it appears to be the view that one could see today if one could hover over Llangower station and the adjacent peninsula. The second and third Torment books add little information although the site of the boatyard where Sadie’s family run their business is probably the same as the one that we found just to the west of Bala town. The walks and cycle rides that are described in the ‘Torment’ books are all along routes that can be identified and EJO undoubtedly based Tygwyn on Glan Llyn, the grandest house on the lake (it is now a centre for young people’s outdoor activities).
Driving from Bala to the Lleyn it is worth diverting to Beddgelert, a place to which most of the characters in the ‘modern’ books go and one can also take in Llyn Cwellyn to the north-west, the lake from which EJO took the surname of Quellyn for Robin’s godfather and Joy’s second husband.
The Lleyn Peninsula
This is a beautiful area with relatively unspoiled villages, wonderful views, tucked-away beaches, cut off from the rest of North Wales by the Snowdonian mountains. The five novels set in the Lleyn range over the whole area. There is always a point at which EJO leaves reality for an imaginary world and she sometimes telescoped distances – some of the walks, rides and even drives that she describes would take longer or be more demanding than she implies.
This is the centre of events in The Conquest of Christina (1909). Black Rock Sands, Llanstumdwy, Pwllheli, Llanbedrog, Llyn Mawr near Tan-y-Bwlch Station and Festiniog and Blaenau Festiniog, are all mentioned and EJO made no attempt to disguise them. Llanystumdwy which is described as ‘the small village with the very long name’ now houses the Lloyd George Museum and it seems likely that EJO’s family had some acquaintance with Lloyd George who made his remarkable rise to power in the early part of the twentieth century, just when they were probably making frequent visits to this part of Wales.
The Cambrian Coast railway terminates here and this is where Robin Brent, who first appears in The Girl Who Wouldn’t Make Friends (1909), and subsequently some of the younger Abbey girls, including Littlejan and Jansy, who spend holidays at the house that Robin inherits, arrive from London.
Beyond Pwllheli we visited Abersoch, now a little sailing village, from where Owen in The Girls of Gwynfa promises to borrow a horse and where Blaise Morgan in Mistress Nanciebel has a house. Both The Girls of Gwynfa (1924) and Sylvia of Sarn (1935) take place in the area between Sarn-Bach and Cilan Head.
We couldn’t get to Cilan Head, the site of the caves where the girls of Gwynfa take refuge, but we were able to stand on the beach of Porth Neigwl or Hell’s Mouth and look south to Cilan Head and to visit nearby Llanengan with its 15th century church at the foot of the hills, to which the girls of Gwynfa sometimes went on Sunday mornings.
Our visit revealed something we’d not anticipated – Robin’s Plas Quellyn and Madryn Castle in Mistress Nanciebel share the same site. The Castle was replaced by a romantic, baronial style house built around 1830 but all that remains is a gatehouse, now ruined and covered in plants and bushes. By 1990 it was a caravan park but the grounds were beautifully landscaped in the style of those of a stately home.
This is a village on the north coast of the Lleyn. It lies along the seashore and is best approached from the headland above, where, in 1990, we were able to park the car..It consists of a row of grey stone buildings, one of which is imposing enough to have inspired Moranedd, the ‘house by the sea’ that Robin gives to Gwyneth.
We had coffee and doughnuts in the nearby town of Nefyn, which used to be an important port, a fact that may have inspired EJO to send so many of her male characters to sea. It still dreams of its seafaring past and is mentioned in most of the EJO books set in this area. The events of Mistress Nanciebel take place around Nefyn, which would be the port where she, her father and brother were left to fend for themselves. We saw herds of black cows, just as Nanciebel does.
For pictures of locations see the Abbey Picture Gallery