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MYTHS AND PHOTOGRAPHS

For Alex Cox

 

Alice was awake long, long after midnight

on the last day of that last summer

the family spent at the house on the shore.

She watched the moon rise above Penmaenmawr,

and silver the Conwy estuary,

all the way to the tumbled castle

and the walled town. The light lit the warren

in the sand dunes.  She imagined, lost somewhere

in the marram grass, a pocket watch glinting.

 

***

 

Henry Liddell was Dean of Christ Church, Oxford,

when he and his family first met Charles Dodgson/

Lewis Carroll in the cathedral church.

Dodo was photographing the white

perpendiculars of the Gothic nave.

All of the Liddells, but particularly

the children, immediately liked the tall,

willowy, slightly chesty Mathematics don

with his northern vowels and his stutter.

 

The Liddells spent one summer in Llandudno

at the newly opened St George’s Hotel,

with its hydraulic lift and water closets –

where, in time, Prince Otto Von Bismarck,

and Elizabeth of Austria would stay.

The Dean bought a large plot of land out of town

on the West Shore at the foot of the Great Orme,

not far from where copper had been mined

since the Bronze Age. A miner’s path rose,

at a gentle angle, up the steep slope

to an adit, out of which a spring,

from deep within the tunnels of the mine,

flowed down through the broom to form boggy ground

on the littoral, before seeping

into the sea – Pen Morfa, the place, ‘marsh hill’.

The Liddells took the name for their house.

 

Unusually for the time even among

the well-off all but one of the children

survived beyond infancy, so the Dean

designed the five storey holiday home

to be capacious enough for his growing

family of eleven with attendant

servants. (The gabled house would have graced

anywhere on the Woodstock Road, North Oxford).

They spent each summer and Christmas there –

until the Dean became Vice Chancellor,

and Alice and her sisters did the Grand Tour.

 

Alice was much photographed – as a child,

of course, by Dodo, as an adolescent

and a young woman, with her sisters,

by Julia Cameron, and later

as Mrs Alice Hargreaves, society

hostess and president of the Women’s

Institute. Her husband was a cricketer,

a magistrate, independently wealthy.

She spent all her married life and widowhood

near the New Forest, hunting land acquired

by William the Conqueror. She had three sons,

two of whom were killed in the Great War.

 

Henry Liddell first let then sold ‘Pen Morfa’.

It became ‘Gogarth Abbey Hotel’ –

“an hotel” the Liddells would have called it –

though the nearest (ruined) abbey was

at least a good fifty miles away.

The connection with Alice in Wonderland

was promoted so successfully locally

and nationally that it became accepted

Lewis Carroll had frequently stayed

with the family, and, during one

long vacation, had written the book

in the guest bedroom. On the public green

between the hotel and the pebbly beach

– where dunes and warren had been cleared away –

a marble statue of the White Rabbit

next to the rabbit hole was unveiled

by former prime minister, David Lloyd-George.

 

***

 

In the Gogarth’s dining room was a painting

of the Walrus and the Carpenter

on a strand swept clean, all the oysters eaten.

Sunrise would light the corridor connecting

the hotel’s two wings. In its metallic light

flock wallpaper and patterned carpet aged –

as the wrecking ball hit the kitchens below.

But recession left the demolition

half done, like some illusion from Wonderland,

like something half-glimpsed in a pier glass:

myths and photographs, reputations

and gossip, anticipation, love, loss –

that great wheel, gone down the coppery

galleries, rolling through the tunnels,

bouncing and bumping like a child’s ball.

 

 

Note: See Alex Cox’s THE GOGARTH ABBEY

© Copyright David Selzer
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