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Updated: Apr 6

Can an Englishman experience hiraeth?

Hiraeth? What is hiraeth? No doubt some of you are asking this, especially those of you who have never travelled to the west of Offa's Dyke.

There is no direct English translation of this Welsh word whose etymology stems from either hir = long and aeth = grief, longing, pain, sorrow or, more probably, from hir with the addition of the nominal suffix -aeth which converts the adjective into an abstract noun.

Homesickness, longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness. Earnest desire. Grief or sadness after the lost or departed. All of these have been touted in an attempt to describe hiraeth.

Collins English Dictionary suggests it's "a nostalgic longing for a place which can never be revisited."

A blog post on FelinFach's website, tempting you to buy from their Hiraeth Collection, contains this quote:

One attempt to describe hiraeth in English says that it is “a longing to be where your spirit lives.” This description makes some sense out of the combination of words that describe this feeling. The place where your spirit feels most at home may be a physical location that you can return to at any time, or it may be more nostalgic of a home, not attached to a place, but a time from the past that you can only return to by revisiting old memories. Maybe your spirit's home could even be neither of the above, one from which you are not only separated by space.

Whether I can feel hiraeth or not – after all, friend Rhian has granted me honorary Welshman status, although I have to suspend this for about an hour and a half every year until the event at Twickenham or the Principality Stadium has run its course – I certainly feel something when I stand here.

This portico, from its southern elevation, is all that remains of the former Penrhyn Arms Hotel in Bangor.

Penrhyn Arms Hotel Bangor
Bangor's former Penrhyn Arms Hotel.

Whilst not the typical bygone boozer that appears in these pages it did have a tap room, which makes it a proper pub in my eyes and so worthy of inclusion. Also, it indirectly lead me to experience some pubs which have already appeared in these musings, as well as a number of others that sadly will feature at a later date.

Designed by Benjamin Wyatt, who went on to design Drury Lane's Theatre Royal, and built in 1799 as a coaching inn for the 1st Baron Penrhyn, Richard Pennant of Penrhyn Castle, the Penrhyn Arms was run for the bulk of the nineteenth century by three Warwickshire-born brothers – the Bicknells. Thomas was there by at least 1829...

Extract from Pigot's 1829 directory.

...and when he died in 1832 his brother Henry took over, as can be seen in the 1841 census. Richard Griffiths in the Tap Room gets a mention too.

Extract from the 1841 census.

Henry must've been a busy bloke for in 1844 he's running both the Penrhyn Arms and the Castle Hotel in the city...

Extract from Pigot's 1844 directory.

...and he's still running the pair of them in 1850.

Extract from Slater's 1850 directory.

Perhaps all this hard work wasn't too good for him, for Henry died later that year. This brought brother number three into play. Charles Bicknell crossed the Menai Straits from Anglesey, where he'd been in charge of the Bulkeley Arms in Beaumaris, to take over the Penrhyn which he proceeded to run for three decades. He certainly had an interesting couple of years to start his guardianship of the property.

The Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald and North and South Wales Independent contained this report in their edition of 6th March 1852:

On Saturday last, the 28th ult., about one o'clock p.m., much excitement was caused at Bangor by the report that the Penrhyn Arms Hotel was on fire. The alarm was first given by one, of the servant girls, who ran into the house, and after exclaiming there is something sadly wrong," fainted away. Mr. C. Bicknell, the landlord, rushed out, and by the bursting glass in one of the windows in the upper story, followed by a rush of smoke, was instantly aware of the danger which threatened the whole of his extensive establishment. The bellman was immediately sent about to proclaim the fact, and in a short space of time a large concourse of the inhabitants were brought together, all anxious to render every assistance in their power towards saving the furniture, and arresting the progress of the flames. The Penrhyn Castle fire-engine was soon upon the spot, and playing upon that part of the house where the destructive element raged, threatening the whole range of apartments which were situated on the leeward side of the wing where the fire broke out. A number of Col. Pennant's workmen from the adjoining quay also lent their exertions. With a view to supply the engine with water, the people promptly formed themselves into two ranks, extending from the river to where the engine was at work, the one transmitting the vessels filled with water, and the other conveying the empty ones back to be refilled in the river. An ample quantity of water was by this means procured to serve the engine. The fire broke out in the western portion of the house, just opposite the coachyard and stables; and by the effective means taken to arrest its progress, coupled with the time of day, and the early period it was discovered, its direct injurious effects were fortunately confined to the rooms that were in that portion. Shortly after the fire had been extinguished, a severe gale of wind commenced blowing from the westward. Had it come on whilst the fire continued, the utter destruction of the house with all its contents would have been almost inevitable. We have not heard whether the premises and furniture were or were not insured, nor have we heard any estimate made as to the amount of the actual loss. As before observed, however, the direct damage from the fire was confined to the western wing, still the injury done to the splendid new carpets, and other valuable furniture so lately provided tor the establishment, by the immense body of water that it required to stop the progress of the fire, and the injury that must necessarily attend a rough and rapid removal, by anxious but unscientific hands, could not but materially increase the amount of the damage they were exposed to. How the fire commenced has not as yet been satisfactorily explained. Some surmise that it originated in a small room known as the housemaid's room, others that it was owing to some defect in some flue. However at present there appears to be no correct information as to how the fire originated.

Later that same year the Penrhyn Arms hosted its most prestigious of guests. The event gets a mention in the seventh edition of M. L. Louis' Gleanings in North Wales, published in 1854. I bet they didn't visit the tap room.

We came to the Penrhyn Arms Hotel, kept by Mr Charles Bignell [sic], the most extensive establishment on the line from Birmingham to Holyhead.

Thursday, the 14th October, 1852, will be long remembered on account of Her Majesty's visit to the principality, and we never witnessed such multitudes assembled at every station to greet the best of Queens, whose condescending and majestic deportment has created in the already loyal breast of the Briton an additional token of grateful remembrance towards the Queen and her Consort, and the Prince of Wales. At Bangor the Royal Family stopped at the Penrhyn Arms Hotel, and on the morning the train started towards England, but the great speed of the Royal train prevented the loyal subjects greeting Her Majesty. We may easily guess the speed when in 45 minutes 37 miles were made, namely, from the Britannia Bridge to Prestatyn.

Charles continued to run the Penrhyn Arms until his death in August 1881, bringing to an end the era of the Bicknells. If it was the end of an era for the Bicknells it also spelled the end of an era for the Penrhyn Arms. The Penrhyn Estate agreed to lease the hotel to the new university college for £200 per year, and on the 18th October 1884 the college was officially opened.

The official opening of the university college on 18th October 1884.

The college's original fifty-eight students and ten members of staff and had grown a little by the time that Bangor photographer John Wickens took this picture of them gathered around, and on, the portico in about 1900.

Students and staff of the university college c1900.

This postcard of the University College from the early twentieth century shows the southern façade of the former Penrhyn Arms, complete with the famous portico, and Thomas Telford's original road passing under Pen-y-bryn bridge.

In 1911 a brand new building for the university was opened in a prominent position overlooking the city, but the Penrhyn Arms site continued to be used until 1926 and is shown as such on this Ordnance Survey map, which had been revised in 1913.

Increasing traffic levels meant that Telford's original road had become unable to deal with the number of vehicles entering the city, or simply needing to pass through on their way to the port of Holyhead. The rerouting of the A5 a little to the north resulted in the building's demolition in 1932, leaving just that portico which is now a Grade II listed structure.

So, back to the question posed earlier in this screed. Can an Englishman experience hiraeth? Personally, for me, an Englishman with that honorary Welshman status, a phrase from FelinFach's blog post quoted above describes perfectly what I feel: "...a time from the past that you can only return to by revisiting old memories." If that is hiraeth then I can feel hiraeth. Ninety years after the official opening of the University College I arrived in the city, and the college, for what were three of the most formative and happiest years of my life. I have returned to visit almost annually, often several times a year, ever since. I love this place. But returning always fills me with longing. For whilst I can return to this place I cannot return to that place. That place which existed over two-thirds of a lifetime ago. So much has gone. The British – gone. The Railway – gone. The Gwynedd – gone. The Bulkeley – gone. So many have gone. Mandy – gone. Ian – gone. Graham – gone. Jane – gone.

Ni ddaw doe byth yn ôl.

Of course yesterday will not return. But I will. I'll be returning again. Hopefully on many more occasions. To remember Mandy, Ian, Graham and Jane. Along with the British, the Railway, the Gwynedd, the Bulkeley and many more of the bygone boozers of the city of which I have memories, and to each of which I can never return.

The image of the Penrhyn Arms portico is copyright Eirian Evans and is reused under this licence. The map extract is copyright and is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under this one.

If you've read this far, then thank you. Possibly, like me, you may have some sort of interest in bygone boozers. Clicking here will take you to a searchable/sortable index which you can use to see if I've already featured any lost locals from your locality. You can also subscribe to ensure that you don't miss any future posts. Simply click here to return to the home page (opens in a new tab), follow the 'Subscribe' link and complete the form to receive an email notification of any future post. Or you could simply follow the link at the top of this page.

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