In the tranquillity of a parkland setting, high above the town of Llangollen, the charming black and white cottage-style house attracts as many visitors for the appreciation of its architecture as it does for satisfying a curiosity about the former occupants. Indeed, one can imagine the society tongues wagging some 200 years ago with the shocking revelation that two ladies, openly showing their love for each other, had chosen to live inseparably in this quiet little town.
Lady Eleanor Butler was the daughter of a wealthy landowner, educated in a French convent, and lived at Kilkenny Castle in Ireland. Sarah Ponsonby was less fortunate, having been orphaned as a young child and left without an inheritance. The two women first met in Kilkenny when Sarah was only 13 and Eleanor was 29 but, despite their age difference, they developed a close friendship which led to their decision to elope to England and spend their lives together. Ten years later, after one failed attempt to escape from Ireland, they arrived in Wales to search for a home that would afford them the seclusion they desired.
In the summer of 1780 they rented a little cottage called Pen-y-Maes, and remained there for the next 50 years. Affectionately known as 'the ladies of Llangollen', the two women received a great deal of attention throughout their lives, and entertained many influential visitors, all carefully recorded in their diaries. One very famous and frequent visitor was the Duke of Wellington, and the ladies carved their initials and the year 1814 in the wooden fireplace mantle in his memory. As avid readers, their guests also included several notable names from the literary world including William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and Richard Sheridan.
Not only did they change the name of the house to Plas Newydd, which simply means 'new hall', but they transformed the building into a fantasy of timber and stained glass, and created some delightful grounds. Much altered by successive owners, Plas Newydd today represents the ladies quite eccentric gothicisation incorporated into an extended and further embellished late 19th century home. With a passion for oak carving, Eleanor and Sarah filled the cottage with all sorts of elaborately worked panels, many of them brought as gifts by visiting friends.
The front porch, supported by two early 17th century bedposts, was particularly special to them and they christened this amazing creation by holding a 'porch-warming' party for a selective group of friends. Although the house contents were sold after the deaths of the ladies, it is well documented that most of the furniture pieces were also of heavy, dark oak, and this extraordinary amount of woodwork in the confined areas of the cottage must have created an overwhelming gloominess. The Local Authority are endeavouring to trace some of the original items to reinstate them alongside the diaries, letters, newspaper articles and personal possessions of the two ladies, which are currently on display.
Revered by the local community, written about in the gossip columns of newspapers, and immortalised by poets of the day, the ladies of Llangollen dressed in their strange masculine clothes hold a romantic fascination that appears not to have lessened with time.