Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Following our Founders' Footsteps in Barmouth

On Saturday, I came across one of the strangest sights I've seen on my travels around the Welsh Coast.  

On a rugged and gorse-covered hillside hundreds of feet above the roofs and chimneys of Barmouth were a group of Victorian ladies and gentlemen enjoying an afternoon tea.

L-R: Fanny Talbot, Robert Hunter, Octavia Hill and Hardwicke Rawnsley

In an imaginative play on the concept of 'open-air sitting rooms', my colleagues in Snowdonia had staged the event at Dinas Oleu as part of this month's celebrations of the life of a remarkable woman who was a driving force behind the founding of the National Trust. 

Octavia Hill, social reformer and champion of open spaces for the benefit of the public, had visited Barmouth on at least one occasion.  She had travelled there to meet her friend and fellow-philanthropist, Fanny Talbot, who had kick-started the fledgling National Trust by donating the hillside above the town as its first acquisition.

In a letter that was written in 1911, only a year before she died, Octavia Hill wrote:
 I visited in the spring the cliff at Barmouth, which was the first possession of the National Trust.  It was given by Mrs Talbot, a great friend of Mr Ruskin’s.  It is steep and wild, the path along its face is cut in the rock high above town and sea; at one place the path is widened, a semi-circular seat is hewn in the face of the cliff, and above the seat is an inscription telling of its dedication to the people for ever.  As we stood there the rain clouds suddenly parted and cleared off; the sun broke out and lighted up the whole magnificent view of sea, and bay, and headland; and one felt what an abiding possession such a view was for the townspeople, and the many visitors from all parts of England.
This Saturday turned out to be a similar day.  It had rained in the morning, but after enjoying some of the celebrations in the town - including a re-enactment of a meeting between Mrs Talbot and the Trust's three founders and talks about Octavia Hill and the town's history - a group of us walked up in sunshine to admire the 'magnificent view of sea, and bay and headland'.  

L to R: Rhodri Wigley (Area Ranger), Dame Fiona Reynolds (Director General) Vanessa Griffiths (Wales Countryside Assistant Director of Operations) with her children Quinn & Róisín, Jane Richardson (Wales Head of Membership & Supporter Services) and Trystan Edwards (General Manager, Snowdonia & Llyn). At the cairn built in 1995 to commemorate the centenary of the Trust's founding. 
I was reminded of the day we unveiled the centenary viewpoint cairn 17 years ago when I took a photo of Fiona's predecessor, Martin Drury, together with the Trust's Chairman, Wales Chairman and Wales Director, sheltering from the wind on the same spot.

Perhaps it should be made obligatory for every Director General to pay a pilgrimage to Dinas Oleu.  I'll suggest that our new Director General, Dame Helen Ghosh visits in her familiarisation tour.  

But I can't guarantee that there will be a sofa and tea to greet her when she arrives. 

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