Cymru Culture

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Emlyn Davies; Coed y Bleiddiau (English)

(March 01, 2016)

Cymraeg

Coed y Bleiddiau

coed y bleiddiau (hawlfraint y landmark trust)
Coed y Bleiddiau in the 1930s

(copyright The Landmark Trust)

Our attention this time is drawn to a secluded cottage in the shadow of Y Garnedd mountain in the Maentwrog area. Delving deeper into the building's history yields a remarkable insight into many fascinating personalities, some of them quite shady characters, to say the least.

Over the past few weeks the ‘Landmark Trust’ has launched an appeal which aims to raise £400,000 to repair and refurbish the cottage, and consequently it has become known far and wide. The main purpose of the trust is to renovate old, cherished buildings of special architectural or historic value, and turn them into holiday homes. Today, they have over 190 buildings across Britain, dating back to the Middle Ages and ranging from castles to farms; country houses to cottages; dwelling houses to mills; and even follies.

The name of the cottage is Coed y Bleiddiau, which translates as “Woods of the Wolves”, and never was any place more suitably named. It stands right alongside the Ffestiniog Railway, the narrow gauge railway which runs from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Amidst some of the most spectacular scenery in Snowdonia, it was built in 1863 for Henry Hovendon, the railway inspector at the time. Its condition has deteriorated rapidly over recent years, and no-one has lived there for at least a decade. As it is a listed building, its appeal as a home for local people is very restricted and, apart from anything else, it can only be reached by train, to all intents and purposes, although there is an extremely steep footpath leading to it from Maentwrog. But at least, it has to be the only cottage in Wales with its own private platform for the benefit of the residents.

The aim now is to secure funding to restore the building, and by February this year, 140,000 people had contributed generously, and half of the money needed is already in the coffers. More information about the appeal itself, and about the Landmark Trust’s plans, is their website: www.landmarktrust.org.uk

For those who are familiar with the cottage, the published history is somewhat incomplete. Our primary interest is in the tenants who have rented the cottage over the years. Among those who demand our attention is Granville Bantock (1868 -1946), the musician and prolific composer who was Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham. He founded the now famous Birmingham symphony orchestra, and such was the respect for him in his field of study that Sibelius's Third Symphony was dedicated to him. This was his summer house at that period, and subsequently the great and the good in the world of music, including Edward Elgar, used to frequent the location.

 

Coed y Bleiddiau yn y 1930au (hawlfraint y Landmark Trust)
Coed y Bleiddiau yn y 1930au
(hawlfraint y Landmark Trust)

Bantock’s tenancy was followed by a period when Coed y Bleiddiau became the holiday home of an intriguing personality, namely Harry St. John Philby, and the original document which executed that arrangement is available in the Gwynedd Archives. Philby was a civil servant, and an expert on the Arab world, born in the former British Ceylon, and was educated at Westminster School and Cambridge.

Today, we are probably more familiar with his notorious son, Kim Philby, the spy who sold secrets to the Soviet Union during the fifties and sixties of the last century. He had started his career as an MI6 agent in Washington, and was entrusted with the task of gathering evidence to prove that Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess were traitors, but unbeknown to the authorities, Kim and the other two were bosom pals and fellow-spies. Eventually, all three escaped to the Soviet Union to seek refuge with their masters. But before that dramatic finale to the spying adventures of this unabashed agent, he would be a regular visitor to Coed y Bleiddiau cottage, although there is no knowing who accompanied him there, or what abominable conspiracies and treacheries were hatched to the sounds of the Ffestiniog Light Railway in those days.

But the father also had a friend who was a real shady character. St. John Philby was a diehard socialist, who was very active in politics and who turned in the same circles as Oswald Mosley. In 1939 he stood as a candidate for the British People Party in a by-election in Hythe, Kent, and was repeatedly in trouble with the authorities because of his anti-war stance at a sensitive time. It is more than likely that his interest in these socialist and fascist factions sealed his friendship with a man named William Joyce, who became famous later on under the nickname Lord Haw-Haw.

  

William Joyce, Lord Haw-HawWilliam Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw

 

This is the man who would terrify people across Britain with his English language broadcasts from Germany during World War II. He used to praise the campaigns of the Third Reich, and he would belittle the efforts of the British army by declaring that these islands were about to be invaded. He had a memorable voice, and it was his aristocratic accent that caused him to be dubbed Lord Haw-Haw. It is little wonder that his broadcasts sent shivers down the spines of his listeners.

Joyce was a man of exceptional ability, with a first class degree from the University of London, and he was intent on a career in politics which led him to become a member of the Conservative Party. When Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists, Joyce supported the new organisation, and quickly made a name for himself as one of the main speakers. He lobbied to change the party's name to include the words "National Socialist", and was appointed a full-time official. His admiration for Hitler's successes in Germany was well-documented.

William Joyce was of American descent, born in New York where his father was a businessman, but the family moved to Britain when he was three years old. As he grew older, his ambition was to gain British citizenship, and so he applied for a British passport by falsely claiming that he was born in Galway, Ireland. Ironically, this was to prove a fatal mistake on his part. When he was caught at the end of the war he was prosecuted as a traitor because of the broadcasts from Germany, was found guilty and hanged at Wandsworth prison. Had he not owned a British passport, he might have avoided that fate.

But what is the connection between Joyce and Coed y Bleiddiau? At one time, there was no shortage of people who would testify, on oath if need be, that he was a regular visitor to the cottage. The local belief was that he, as a close friend of St. John Philby, enjoyed the tranquility and the beauty of the Ffestiniog area.

Among those who claimed that Joyce frequented the cottage were Bob and Babs Johnson, who lived at Coed y Bleiddiau during the latter years of the last century. Bob was one of four brothers who fought in World War II, and his father told him several times that he had heard Lord Haw-Haw asking during one of his broadcasts, "I wonder what became of the Johnson brothers now? When will they come to realise that they are fighting in vain?" And this is not the only family who was convinced that William Joyce had stayed at the cottage. Bessie and Wil Jones used to be in charge of Tan y Bwlch station, on the way to Penrhyndeudraeth, and they were repeatedly heard to say they had seen William Joyce walking along the railway track on his way to the village, but he did not have much to say. At least, his alleged visits to Coed y Bleiddiau would explain why he referred to places in the area such as Plas Tan y Bwlch and Dôl y Moch.

 

Bob a Babs Johnson
Bob a Babs Johnson

The fear arising from Lord Haw-Haw’s broadcasts extended far beyond Maentwrog. During the war years there was a factory producing parts for aircrafts located in the shadow of the slate quarry in Llanberis, owned by Necaco. It is said that some time in 1943, William Joyce claimed in his broadcast that he knew about the factory on the banks of Llyn Peris. "One of these nights," he said, "the German Luftwaffe will come and destroy this factory once and for all."

There were similar stories to be found all over Britain, although most areas did not have such an obvious explanation as to how Haw-Haw should have such detailed local knowledge. Yet, the Imperial War Museum maintains that Joyce never named any particular location in his broadcasts, and that his style was subtle hints, insinuations and suggestions culminating in preposterous claims. According to the journalist and author Nigel Farndale, who has written extensively about Joyce, the notion is very common in all parts of the British Isles that Joyce had made detailed references to their area, but there is no historical evidence for that at all.

So, was Joyce really at Coed y Bleiddiau? The stories are legion, but we do not know for sure whether they are factually correct. It is hard to believe there is no basis whatsoever for such claims, and the only thing we really know is that this belief has influenced people's lives just as if that were a historic fact. It is reminiscent of that famous quotation in one of John Ford’s great films about the Wild West: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Emlyn Davies, March 2016

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

     Billy Hughes; June 2016
Ynysyfelin; a lost community; March 2017
Laura Ashley
; December 2016
Adelina Patti
, September 2016
Billy Hughes
; June 2016

Betsi Cadwaladr; December 2015
Sir Thomas Artemus Jones; September 2015

The two redheads; June 2015
 

 

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan:
Caregos Cyf., 2016

 

 

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