Major-General John Vaughan
Major-General John Vaughan

Phillip Vaughan Davies tells of the halcyon days when the last Vaughan was at Dolgellau’s old manor house.

The old manor house of Nannau stands solid as a fortress at an altitude of about 700 feet above sea level, in a beautiful mountain landscape on the Northern slopes of the Wnion Valley; about two miles north of Dolgellau. A little to the east stands Moel Offrwm (The Hill of Sacrifice). From the precipitous summit of which our ancient forebears hurled prisoners to their deaths: to this day the gateway to this place of execution is known as Porth yr Euog (The Gateway of the Guilty).

Above the house and a quarter of a mile to the west is Llyn Cynwch, a beautiful lake nestling in the hills between the valleys of Wnion and Mawddach. The water supply for Dolgellau was drawn from this lake and was part of my responsibilities during the 1950s. This brought me into contact with Nannau and the last Vaughan to live there, General John Vaughan.

The General was then in his 90s* and almost crippled with rheumatism but despite his age and frailty he still rode daily: each morning a groom mounted on a sturdy deer stalking pony, would bringing the General’s charger to the front door where there was a mounting block and he would be helped into the saddle.

Once mounted his disabilities seemed to vanish, his body and his mount seemed as one and once again he would be the superb horseman of his youth. The turnout of both riders and mounts was immaculate, as befitted his old regiment the 7th Hussars. My duties took me on frequent visits to the lake. In doing so I had to park my car by the stables behind the house and walk up a broad path through the woods to the lake. About half way up the path a tree had partly fallen across it. This presented no hindrance to the walker who could walk at full height below, but when the General and his groom rode by they had to bend low over their horses mane to pass under. Looking backwards from this path there were wonderful views of the valley below and the Cader Range. An ideal place for photography.

Almost invariably when I parked my car by the stables, the General’s butler Sylvanus would come to me and with dignified formality would say “Mae’r cadfridog yn anfon ei ayfarchion, os gwelwch yn dda wnewch chi alw arno pa ddychwelwch or llyn” (“The General sends his compliments, will you please call on him when you return from the lake”).

I would gladly comply and as we sat in comfortable wing chairs sipping sherry. It was apparent that all the General really wanted was a chat, mainly about the army. He would question me about Montgomery. As three pips were the most that I wore on my epaulettes, I could hardly say I was on hobnobbing terms with the Field Marshal, but I told him of my own limited experiences of seeing the great man. He would reminisce at length on his experience in the Boer War and of India.

Major General John Vaughan's Cavalry Sword
Major General John Vaughan’s Cavalry Sword

All in all the reminiscences were most interesting. He was full of praise for his adjutant in India “Doggie” Douglas Haig, he fulminated about the iniquities of Lloyd George and the Christ-like virtues of his lifelong friend Haig: opinions which were diametrically opposed to my own! As it was neither polite nor politic to disagree, I kept my opinions to myself! Whatever our differences I naturally treated him with great respect and in all my dealings with him I experienced the utmost courtesy. He was to me a fine old gentleman.

He was proud of his contacts with the Royal Family and had a high sense of morality, particularly in marital matters. He only barely concealed his disapproval of Edward VIII with whom he was friendly as Prince of Wales and his marriage to Simpson. He showed me the special toilet he had had installed for the visit of the present Queen to Nannau, presumably before her accession.

One fine summer day in the school holidays I took my two young daughters with me to the lake. The General had noticed this and on my next visit he told me to be careful not to let them play or dally near the half-fallen tree in case they got hurt. I reassured him and the tree became a minor joke between us. Whenever I was asked how it was at the lake I would tell him and always added that “the tree is still standing”.

He gave me an autographed copy of his memoirs, this I shall always treasure but in reading it, it would seem that the old cavalry regarded polo and hunting as almost as important as fighting the enemy. More often than not our chats would end with his resident nurse Sister Wilkinson, coming in to tell him that the horses awaited at the front door. She and I would then help him to mount.

Major General John Vaughan-Quaile - © Christopher Quaile
Major General John Vaughan Outside Maes-y-Bryner – © Christopher Quaile

Summer merged into Autumn and cold Winter set in, then tragedy struck; the General was knocked from the saddle and badly injured in passing under the tree. He was put to bed in Nannau and looked after by his faithful nurse; some days later I met her by chance in the street in Dolgellau. She told me that the General had passed away that morning; she had been given a lift down to attend to urgent business and would appreciate a lift back in due course. I told her to come to my office when ready. At the end of the afternoon we had a cup of tea, and she told me of the local superstition that when a Vaughan died it snowed.

I knew that when the last Vaughan died the burial at Llanfachreth Cemetery was delayed some days until Council workmen could clear a way through the drifts. The evening was upon us as I drove her back to Nannau. I turned the car to come back and large flakes of snow danced before the headlights. There followed very cold days. I had some work on the pipeline from the lake and I had to visit daily for a time. There was an emptiness about Nannau, although the house was still occupied. I missed dear old Sylvanus emerging to convey the General’s summons. There was a deep sense of sadness in my heart; the last Vaughan had gone.

One very cold afternoon I returned home from the lake down the path to Nannau, darkness as fallen and I was glad to get to the car to go home. That night although I seldom dream, I had a most disjointed and silly dream. In it I was parking the car at Nannau and Sylvanus came out to me with his old message from the General – “But”. I said, “the General has been dead these several weeks”. “Yes,” said Sylvanus, “but he is back!” I went in and there was the General sitting in his usual chair. “Too damn cold in that cemetery,” he said. I woke up and temporarily forgot what was an absurd improbable dream. The next morning was bright and bitterly cold. The Cader Range was white with snow and the Wnion Valley covered in a thick hoar frost; I had to go to the lake that morning and I decided to take my camera, the view from the path to the lake would be superb, a wonderful opportunity for a photograph.

On the path was a carpet of snow. I kept looking back at the view. I got the camera in my hands and paced slowly backwards trying to get the best composition in the viewfinder. Suddenly I felt as though I had been struck on the back of my legs, I collapsed backwards, the camera flew out of my hands and I lay on my back with my legs in the air. My feet were lying on top of a fallen tree. I picked myself up, I was shaken physically, but more so because the tree must have fallen that night, the very night of my dream.

* Correction: He was 84 when he died in 1956.

Text Courtesy of David Brown.