There are places in this country that I’ve never been to, and yet know. They are spaces defined and shaded by others; by the trip my grandparents took there, by my father’s stories, by my mother’s words, and Llandudno is one of them. My grandparents came here on holiday, making the short trip down from Manchester to the edge of Wales; a slim, neck of land before the swell of the Grea Orme and the great beyond of the sea. They went to many other seaside resorts: Weston, Torquay, Llandudno, but for some reason I connect Llandudno with them, quite intensely. The town was a space of gentle holidays, of chips and of sea and of the piers, and it was a space that my grandparents visited often. They were not alone in this. Llandudno flared to life in the Victorian times and was designed specifically as a holiday resort. You can see the appeal of the site; a flat, long length of land, with sea bordering both edges and a climate so hot and still that I burnt within seconds of being there. But I wasn’t just in Llandudno for my grandparents, though they provided a strange marker of the space for me – a footprint, maybe, pressed into the sand and tide-washed away.
I was there for a girl called Alice.
Alice Pleasance Liddell was born in 1852 in Westminster. She was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford; and had several siblings. It was through her friendship with Lewis Carroll, that the book ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ came to be.
The Llandudno connection comes between 1862 and 1871. It was during those years that Alice and her family spent long summers on the West Shore of the town. Initially they stayed in a hotel – which, incidentally, now has an ‘Alice Suite’ – before moving to the West Shore where the Dean had built ‘Penmorfa’; a holiday home, inched on the last curve of the shore, just as it twists away and heads round the headland of the Great Orme.
The town has commemorated those holidays through the creation of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ trail. Markers throughout the town or a white rabbit signify the route and a map can be purchased from the tourist office which details each stop and provides some further information (£2.99). There are also two apps available related to to the tour – the White Rabbit app and Alice’s Looking Glass at £1.99 each. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to test the apps so I can’t comment as to their effectiveness.
One thing to note about the map though is that it isn’t wholly accurate anymore; one statue had been removed and had not been replaced and another stop was inaccessible due to being closed. It’s worthwhile noting as well that the map itself is fascinatingly tenuous at points and creates an oddly constructed narrative which composes of Llandudno’s tourist sites, Alice’s time there and the narrative constructed in the books of Lewis Carroll. One example of this is the entry for the ‘The Pool of Tears’ which is the boating lake on the West Shore: “This boating lake was built in 1896 …. when Alice’s holiday home Penmorfa was knocked down the lake was christened locally as the pool of tears when a protestor remarked ‘If Alice Liddell could see what they have done to her house, she would have cried and filled this pool with tears herself'”. This odd side-effect of the map and tour itself continues throughout the town; a ‘teacher’s chair’ is located in a garden and the ‘teacher’s chair and … outdoor classroom is a fitting tribute one might say'”.
We completed the trail in a day and a half; splitting the shores accordingly, and it’s an easy enough task to do. There are several points where it’s unclear where to go next, particularly up in the Haulfre Gardens area, and it’s easy enough to become confused as to where you’re meant to go. Whenever this occurred, we were lucky enough to find ourselves eventually on the right track but this was quite genuinely through luck. Should you be interested in doing it, I’d recommend sturdy shoes (and sunscreen!) for the section which takes you past the ‘zig-zag path’ and the ‘rabbit hole’.
Whilst this isn’t the place or time to comment on the odd, odd convergence of Alice Liddell with her fictional doppelganger, it is the place however to comment on the literary experience that is Llandudno because it’s those issues that are at the heart of my PhD research. And, in a way, I’m still not sure what they are. Literary tourism is to me a space of potential. It’s an extension, if you will, of that moment of reading. It’s a greedy, selfish act but one that’s also replete with joy and imagination. It comes, for me, because I want more of a text. I want more of a world that I’m not ready to let go of. I am a greedy, selfish and hungry reader but I am one who will never, ever view the book as the edge of that experience. And that’s what literary tourism is – it’s the space beyond. It’s the wilderness of the uncontrolled word.
Llandudno is full of that wilderness. It’s perhaps spectacularly tenuous at points and the expression on some of the statues remain unerringly terrifying, but it is a full and frank evocation of that moment that exists beyond the book. And I love it. I love the contrasts; I love the tackiness of the conceit, the weirdly hideous waymarkers, the cornflower blue of the butterflies on the hillside, the bit of land that looks vaguely like a crocodile and that Alice might have looked at and might have told her friend at home all about who he then might have decided to write a poem, and the rock that might just be this bit in the book if you squint and close one eye and look at it in the dark at low tide, I love it all so much. I love my subject, I love my research, and I love that somebody decided to commission a wooden sculpture of a cupcake and shove it in the woods and now it’s a feature of a point on an oddly-priced map.
But god, I do wish the statues were a bit less … terrifying.