Magic is alive

in wonderland

Magic is alive

The woman across the aisle on the train from Llandudno turns to her friend. “The tide came in three times yesterday,” she whispers. “But it hasn’t come in once today.” Her friend shrugs. Curious things happen in Wonderland.

I’m on the way home after a short Lewis Carroll pilgrimage to mark the past year’s 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The obvious focus would have been Oxford, where Alice Liddell, the book’s inspiration, grew up and Carroll — aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson — studied and taught at Christ Church college for half a century.

But, to be a bit down-the-rabbit-hole, a bit through-the-looking-glass, I’m visiting Whitby and Llandudno, two seaside towns that have made the most, and a bit more, of their Alice associations.

Theme hotel

In Llandudno, I discover a virtual Mad Hatter and a real Alice. But first, after a glorious top-deck bus ride across the North York Moors, I check in to Whitby’s La Rosa hotel.

‘More Steptoe than Selfridges’ is how it describes its green, buy-second-hand ethos, and it’s right. Scattered around my room are, among much else, a miner’s safety lamp, a fragment of honeycomb and a selection of preserved moths. It’s the apotheosis of bric-a-brac, with Victorian anatomical charts on the wall.

The room is a tribute to Carroll, who stayed at the hotel several times between 1854 and 1871. “We have people coming from all over the world to stay here because he did,” says David Owen, head of housekeeping. “We’ve made it a bit of a Wonderland for the mind.”

No one is sure exactly which room Carroll occupied, but, like mine, it was at the front, with a grand view of the North Sea and the town’s gaunt abbey ruins beyond its wind-blasted clifftop churchyard. The author first came to Whitby to be tutored in maths. His earliest published works appeared in the Whitby Gazette — a poem called The Lady of the Ladle (no masterpiece) and a short story, describing the approach to the town along “headlong paths, dignified by the name of road.”

There’s still plenty that’s headlong about Whitby, with its narrow passageways and steep steps. It has a secretive, smugglerish atmosphere, particularly when brooding fogs seep in. I’ve come to meet Elizabeth Cheyne, a retired teacher who has devised the White Rabbit Trail, an engaging tour of the town “as Lewis Carroll might have seen it.” She describes how Carroll entertained children on the beach with his stories and suggests all sorts of potential links with episodes in the Alice books. The Caucus Race in Wonderland, she says, may have been inspired by races he organised to help picnicking children dry out after being drenched by a cloudburst.

“There’s excellent coffee at the Walrus and the Carpenter, but no mock turtle soup.” “And we’d like to think that The Walrus and the Carpenter was inspired by the beach,” she says, as we emerge from a narrow tunnel that could, at a pinch, be the rabbit hole down which Alice plummets. But surely a lot of this is supposition? Surely the books may just have blossomed out of Carroll’s imagination? “It’s difficult to say,” she says thoughtfully.

From Whitby, a rabbit hop, skip and 160-mile jump takes me to Llandudno, on the North Wales coast. Sheltering in the shadow of the Great Orme headland, the promenade sweeps round in a gracious curve of smart pastel-painted Victorian hotels. The resort has long exploited its links with Alice Liddell, whose family (and their five servants) spent their Easter holiday here in 1861 and were so taken with the place that they built a holiday home on the West Shore.

“But the Alice connection was slowly disappearing and nobody seemed bothered about it,” says businessman Simon Burrows. “It needed bringing into the 21st century.” So, together with his colleague Barry Mortlock, he has devised a digital Alice trail around the town. Described as an ‘Augmented Reality Experience’, it’s an app that takes you around two dozen sites with animated online images of some of the books’ characters. There’s also a print version for those of us who don’t want to be Mad Appers.

We set off, following bronze rabbit footprints on the pavement. The trail points out a White Rabbit weathervane here, a church with a commemorative Lewis Carroll font there, and various wooden sculptures of Alice and her chums lurking around the streets.

The main architectural link with Alice is the award-winning St Tudno Hotel, where the Liddells first stayed. It has a commemorative plaque by its front door and an Alice Suite, with a framed copy of one of Carroll’s photographs of her.

“We didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon,” says owner Martin Bland. “It’s very easy to become tacky.” The St Tudno isn’t tacky. Travel writer Bill Bryson got it right when he praised its “honeyed glow of Victorian elegance.”

‘Alice Day’ celebration

It’s time for afternoon tea with “Miss Alice”. Each May 1, Alice Day, the town council selects a local girl, between eight and 10 years old, to accompany the mayor to civic engagements dressed as the fictional Alice: blue dress, white pinafore, Alice band in her hair.

And here she is: Melissa Hall, 10, fully costumed and armed with an album of photographs of her various engagements. She is a great enthusiast for Wonderland. “It’s not like other books,” she says. “Alice is adventurous and playful and mischievous, and she falls into a dream and then — it just gets crazy, doesn’t it?”

Before leaving, I broach a delicate issue with Simon Burrows. I say I’ve read that Lewis Carroll himself never actually visited Llandudno. “That’s what some say,” says Burrows. “But they can’t say he didn’t come here. There are missing pages in his diaries.”
Curiouser and curiouser.

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