Into the Maelor – A Sense of Isolation March 2013
Although my family were all from England, we lived close to the border with Wales, and had many connections with North Wales. One of my grandparents had been born in Gwynedd, today the most Welsh-speaking part of Wales, in Waenfawr, in the slate-quarrying district of what was then called Caernarfonshire. While she was born there in 1895, her father, a Methodist minister, died when she was an infant, and she, her mother and two brothers were dispersed. My grandmother was sent to live with her childless uncle and aunt in Wallasey; it was while she lived there that she met and married my grandfather. Her brothers had different fates. The middle son, Sam, was placed in an orphanage in the Waenfawr area, while Rowland, his elder brother, went to live with his mother and the widowed joiner, Edwin, whom she was to marry. Ted lived near to the railway between Wrexham and Ellesmere, which ran in and out of Wales in its short line, and he lived in Knolton Bryn, which was just inside the Welsh border. Knolton was in an odd part of Wales known as the Maelor Saesneg (literally, the English Maelor), that both protruded into Cheshire and Shropshire and, before 1974, formed a detached part of Flintshire. My relatives there never identified themselves as Welsh, and all spoke with North Shropshire accents. The Maelor had been added to Wales when its borders were settled, and in the 1880s the local population had expressed interest in joining Shropshire, although this did not happen.
My late father would spend most summer holidays in the 1930s, at Knolton Bryn, probably traveling there by the railway line from Wallasey to Wrexham and then by the separate line towards Ellesmere, to Trench halt, a station just inside England that served a hamlet in Wales, at the nearest point to Knolton. (I recall him pointing out the site of the halt, something that he rarely did for railways). There he would join a large household that comprised his grandmother, her stepsons Tom and Edwin, Uncle Rowland and his wife Aunt Amy, and their only son Ronald, then an infant. Their home was two small cottages joined together, with a large field let as a smallholding. Edwin worked as a gamekeeper, while Uncle Rowland had a cobbler’s shop in a creosoted wooden hut at which he would work every day; he dismissed any question of holidays. My father must have gone there until the war broke out, when he was 17. It was then a long way from Wallasey by train, or even by car, but there must have also been a social distance between my father, enjoying holidays from boarding at a minor public school in Nottinghamshire, and the country household, in what was then a depressed and seemingly remote rural area. If the relatives that I recall ever felt any resentment, I never saw any sign of it.
By the time that I got to know them, in the early 1960s, the household had dwindled to Uncle Rowland, Aunt Amy, and their bachelor son Ronald, then in his 30s. My father was insistent that we must always visit on Boxing Day, and I recall one journey when there was a strip of snow down the centre of the road south of Wrexham. We would visit at other times in the rest of the year, and my sisters and I would play on the “Bryn”, an area of common land flanked by a tin church (which my aunt looked after in later years) and a minor road. Much of this area was overgrown, and Uncle Rowland warned us, straight-faced, that lions and tigers roamed the undergrowth; on one occasion, he insisted that a fallen tree had been knocked down by an elephant. We rarely spent much time in the house, until teatime in the front room, with a log fire, where Aunt Amy served brackish strong tea. It was a world that we found strange, especially the two-hole earth closet that served the cottage. This was a fearful place, at the bottom of the garden, and the enjoyment of vegetables grown nearby was somewhat marred when Uncle Ron revealed that he cleared one half of the closet each year and dug the contents into the soil.
Later, after Uncle Rowland had died, an internal bathroom replaced the earth closet, his cobblers hut disappeared, and Aunt Amy and her son moved about a mile away, to a 1960s bungalow on the nearby main road to Ellesmere. This happened about the mid-1970s, and we were astonished to learn that they had sold the house for £12,000 and acquired the bungalow for £6,000. In 2009, much improved, the house would be offered for sale at £449,500, albeit with 3 acres of land and a timber stable block.
Driving around this area recently, I became aware of the changes that underlay this massive increase in property value. In my lifetime, most rural areas in Britain have become places where rich commuters and retirees live, and the Maelor is no exception. A large house that had been abandoned at Knolton had now been restored and is protected by security gates, while its outbuildings have been converted to a substantial house. Small houses on the Bryn, that my father had suggested might well soon be condemned under slum clearance legislation, have been enlarged and renovated, selling or letting for prices that would be massively out of the reach of the farm workers for whom they were built. Local farmhouses and dilapidated outbuildings have been converted into high-quality living accommodation. The small terraced cottages that form much of the nearby town of Overton have similarly been renovated. Even Aunt Amy’s modest bungalow has been partly demolished and extended.
If the social distance between middle-class urban Wallasey and the rural Maelor has been reduced, so has the distance in space. The railway has long gone, but the roads that we used to follow have been much improved, with dual carriageways all the way to the south of Wrexham. Sometimes our route home would involve crossing the seventeenth-century bridge at Bangor-on-Dee, with single line working controlled by traffic lights; this has long been bypassed. Commuting to Chester and Merseyside is now quite feasible, whereas even Chester would have involved a convoluted journey and delays.
My memories of long-lost relatives and their home can easily be evoked, but I have been struck at how difficult it is now to evoke the sense of remoteness involved in visits to Knolton. Some impressions may be provided by the limited occasions when Aunt Amy or Uncle Ron came to Wallasey, less than 50 miles away, in the 1970s. My Aunt knew only a very small area, mostly between Overton and Ellesmere, and was quite astonished when my father showed her the substantial (partly pre-war) council estate at Woodchurch, on the outskirts of Birkenhead, and the suburbs and centre of that town and Wallasey. She and her son seemed to be able to cope, but with a world that was greatly different to that which they knew. Uncle Ron, who worked for Shropshire Highways, knew a slightly wider area, visiting Wrexham sometimes and spending most Saturdays on a modest pub-crawl in Oswestry. Yet this was all by bus, Uncle Ron getting to Ellesmere by bicycle and then taking the bus to Oswestry. Rural buses have never been frequent or cheap, and their limitations helped to limit their experience of the world of country-dwellers like Aunt Amy and Uncle Ron. It was motor vehicles that opened up areas like the Maelor, and it was something of an irony that Uncle Ron spent much of his working life mending roads over which he never drove.
Much of this is my reconstruction, many years later, of impressions of an area viewed largely from the back seat of a car in the 1960s. Most of the area looks much the same today, if much less impoverished; indeed it is now an example of prosperous rural commuting country. If it is hard to recall today more than a feeling of that remoteness, indeed that otherness, I imagine that it will be almost impossible for a future person to envisage how it once felt. Maybe that does not matter, but a sentimentalised view, that the ready access and prosperity was always thus, may well prevail.