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 ABBEYAlice in WonderlandAlice LiddellCharles Dodgsoncopper minesDavid Lloyd-GeorgeElizabeth of AustriaGogarth Abbey HotelJulia CameronLewis CarrollPen MorfaPrince Otto Von BismarckWalrus and the CarpenterWest Shore LlandudnoWhite RabbitWilliam the Conqueror