In 1774 Dr Johnson, ‘arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history', visited North Wales with his friend, Hester Thrale in 1774. While Johnson was eager to travel, something he had not been in a position to do in his younger years for want of time and especially money, he had intended to tour Italy. This was put on hold, so that Mrs Thrale, who had intended to visit Italy with him, could visit Bachegraig Hall at Tremeirchion which she had recently inherited. Johnson agreed to join Mrs Thrale, who was excited at the possibility of introducing Johnson to the wonders of North Wales, where she had been born. Johnson was somewhat reluctant from the beginning, and his diary entries for the journey are not particularly flattering of the places he visited, much to Hester’s disappointment.
However, despite some less than flattering remarks about the place, Johnson’s visit to Gwaenynog Hall did bring him into the company of John Myddleton, who had once been mayor of nearby Denbigh and was known for his likeable personality, excellent manners and for being impressively polite. Johnson was not known for making firm friends, but the two got on well enough. ‘Middleton is the only man who in Wales has talked to me of literature… I wish he were truly zealous.’
While staying at Gwaenynog, Johnson walked by the River Ystrad, enjoying himself by reciting poetry. Myddleton was flattered to have this titan of literature in his house, and decided to raise a memorial to his visit. It took the form of a Grecian urn, which it seems disturbed Johnson to some degree,
‘Mr Myddleton’s erection of an urn looks like an invention to bury me alive; I would as willingly see my friend, however benevolent and hospitable, quietly inured. Let him think, for the present, of some more acceptable memorial.’
Letter to Mrs Thrale (1777)
The inscription on the urn declares,
‘This spot was often dignified by the presence of
SAMUEL JOHNSON L.L.D.
whose Moral Writings, exactly comfortable to the
Precepts of Christianity,
gave Ardour to Virtue, and Confidence to Truth.’
Restored in 1975 and surrounded by rusted railings, it remains a beautiful spot, perhaps to remember Johnson’s rather curmudgeonly visit.
The beautiful walk along the River Ystrad is also enlivened by a visit to the ruin of, ‘Johnson’s Cottage’ (although he never stayed there, as far as we know). The motto which once stood above the door is now at Gwaenynog Hall and reads,
‘Around this homely Cot, this humble shed
If Health if Competence, and Virtue tread;
Though no proud Column grace the gaudy Door,
Where sculptur’d Elegance parades it O’er,
Nor Pomp without Pageantry within,
Nor splendid show, nor Ornament is seen;
The swain shall look with Pity on the Great,
Nor barter Quiet for a King’s Estate.’