Thursday, 22 June 2017

Woman of Action

An elderly woman sat down at her desk in a solidly-built stone cottage high above Cardigan Bay and took out a small black-edged pad of writing paper.  She dipped her pen into the pot of ink, gazed for a moment through the window at the far horizon and then wrote these words.  “Dear Canon Rawnsley, I write to you as secretary of the ‘National Trust for places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty’ to say that I am anxious to hand over to the Trust the face of the cliff above the town of Barmouth, that it may be preserved in its natural state for the enjoyment of future generations.” 

The date was the 23rd of October 1894 and the woman was Fanny Talbot, the wealthy widow of Somerset surgeon George Talbot.  With these few words, written in a neat but vigorously purposeful hand that belies her 70 years, she established her place in history as the donor of the National Trust’s first property, Dinas Oleu at Barmouth.  This year marks the centenary of this remarkable woman’s death and we celebrated her life with a service and blessing of her newly-restored gravestone at the ancient church of St Mary’s Llanaber on the 21st of June. 

A photo of Fanny Talbot's offer letter, held at the NT archives.
But who was Mrs Talbot, and what inspired her generosity to an embryonic organisation, then going through the final stages of its founding in faraway London? 

The daughter of a wealthy Bridgewater merchant, the young Fanny Browne had the sort of middle class upbringing that enabled her to occupy her considerable intellect in the finer things in life.  But until her husband’s untimely death she seems to have lived a relatively quiet and conventional life as wife and mother. All this changed when she moved to Barmouth following George’s death and she reinvented herself as an independent and strong-willed philanthropist.  She made friends with some of the leading thinkers of her time and played an active role in the life of the town at a critical period in its development. From her eyrie high above the sand dunes at the mouth of the Mawddach she witnessed the rapid transformation of the small but industrious Welsh seafaring village of Abermaw into the modern English Midlands tourist resort of Barmouth. 

Perhaps it was the shocking rapidity of this change, with virtually every piece of the once wild dunes being built upon – and a lack of public amenities for the townspeople – that inspired her gift.  An impression of her inquisitive personality can be seen in this cameo of her in the writings of the great Victorian art critic and social thinker, John Ruskin.  She [is]…curious beyond any magpie that ever was, but always giving her spoons away instead of stealing them. Practically clever beyond most women; but if you answer one question she'll ask you six!  Such was her admiration for Ruskin’s ideas that she gifted a dozen cottages to his Guild of St George, which she then ran on his behalf as a sort of experiment, combining social housing with an artists’ commune.

Dinas Oleu, of course, remains in our care and we still manage it according to the wishes she set out when she made her seminal gift.  She stated that, “I have no objection to grassy paths or stone seats in proper places but I wish to avoid the abomination of asphalt paths and cast-iron seats of serpent design”. 

So if you’re thinking of taking a walk on the Welsh coast this summer why not follow the winding lanes up from Barmouth’s High Street and follow in the footsteps of this remarkable woman.

This column first appeared in Welsh Coastal Life, May 2017.

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