Monthly Archives: October 2015

Of Pennant, Piozzi and spitting Alpacas

Mary-Ann Constantine and Liz Edwards, 15th October 2015

Bachegraig

Bachegraig by Moses Griffith – from Pennant’s Extra Illustrated Tours, National Library of Wales.

Tremeirchion; home and final resting place of Hester Thrale Piozzi, Pennant’s lively and controversial kinswoman, and the daughter of John Salusbury, who gave him his first ever book on natural history. Caught between a staff photograph at work in Aberystwyth and a rendez-vous up in Holywell with the Thomas Pennant Society, we only had time for the most petit of petty tours, though it was not without incident. Tremeirchion gets a page or two in the Tour in Wales, and Piozzi featured in the talk I was due to give that evening and in a book Liz is writing, so it seemed appropriate to go and pay our respects.

Honey-coloured autumn sun had made the journey up feel like one long painting by Richard Wilson; but as we reached the celebrated Vale of Clwyd things were already greyer, more indistinct. We were underprepared; parked hesitantly at the end of a long straight lane down to where ‘half buried in woods, the singular house of Bachegraig’ sits tucked into a fold of the Clwydian hills. It is an extraordinary building, though perhaps less ‘singular’ since renovation than when first built by the Elizabethan merchant Sir Richard Clough (or, according to Pennant’s local informants, ‘by the devil, in one night’). The original Salusbury home,‘poor old Bachygraig’ was already much decayed by the time Hester Thrale and Dr Johnson visited in 1774; Hester’s second husband, the Italian musician Gabriele Piozzi, would spend a fortune doing it up. There’s something daunting about approaching buildings that sit looking at you from the end of a long straight lane, so we decided to start at the church, find the Salusbury vaults, and take it from there.

Tremeirchion_Cross_and_Church

Tremeirchion Cross and Church

 

Liz made me slow the car to a crawl and pointed out, on our left, glimpses of Brynbella, the Piozzis ‘elegant small villa’ – a tasteful response in cream to the red jumble of the ancestral pile down the road – built in 1794 after the couple’s Italian tour. Liz had already seen inside on a previous visit, and now was not the moment to try our luck, so we carried on, looping the steep-sloped village twice before we finally located the church at the top, flanked by a charming school and an equally charming pub (which, alas, we did not have time to investigate). The churchyard, shaded by ancient yews in the approved fashion, houses the recently-restored Tremeirchion cross ‘celebrated for its miracles’ and described in a Welsh poem of ca 1500; in Pennant’s time the structure of the cross was already ‘demolished, but the carved capital is now to be seen in a building adjoining to the church-yard’. Inside, near a tomb identified by Pennant (probably incorrectly) as that of the C14th ‘prophet and poet’ Dafydd Ddu Hiraddug, we found the plaque commemorating ‘Dr Johnson’s Mrs Thrale’, and wondered how she might have felt about that.

Hester Piozzi Memorial

Hester Piozzi Memorial

Our walk started just over the road from the church and took us across fields of cows. One had just given birth and stared at us anxiously, occasionally nudging her spindly, drunken, yellow-slimed calf, who fell over again and again. We looked anxiously back. Walked slowly. Hoped they would both be OK. The field sloped down steeply towards Brynbella – more glimpses of cream through the trees behind the solid estate wall – and we missed the stile onto the road, had to push our way through a gap in the edge into a sunken lane full of tangled branches. We headed down the road to the next foot-path sign, turning up left at a neat cottage whose owners were keen to make sure no walkers veered off the dotted line onto their property. Bright yellow signs made things extremely clear: THE CAVE IS NOT ON THE PUBLIC RIGHT OF WAY and WARNING! DO NOT FEED THE ALPACAS THEY MAY SPIT AT YOU OR BITE YOU.We hadn’t spotted the cave on the map, but sure enough, there it was across the dip, looking grotto-like, and mysterious, and suddenly rather inviting. And there too were the alpacas, grazing peaceably beneath the rocks under rapidly-greying skies. Constrained by time and good manners – and aware that Piozzi and Pennant had a long-drawn-out and surprisingly acrimonious dispute about boundaries and permissions to walk on land adjacent to part of the Downing Estate – we did not stray. The only thing that spat at us was rain.

DO NOT FEED THE ALPACAS

DO NOT FEED THE ALPACAS

We climbed on up the hill to look down beyond Brynbella, across the flat and fertile Vale of Clwyd over to Denbigh and the westerly mountains beyond. This is a Tory landscape, said Liz; it’s all about power and property, about dominion. In 1795, when war and bad harvests caused bread riots in Flintshire, Piozzi looked down from these heights towards Denbigh and trembled at the ‘strong Dispositions towards Rioting [..] they have threatened to stick poor Pennant’s Head upon a Pike – What Rascals! His Literature, his Virtue, his Piety, – his Charity & perpetual Almsgivings will not perhaps secure his Safety and his Peace.’ Pennant himself (presumably agreeing with his kinswoman that Literature and Virtue might not be an adequate insurance policy should push come to shove) was busy raising troops for the Flintshire militia and establishing the first Welsh branch of the ‘Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers’.

Above Brynbella, looking west across the Vale of Clwyd

Above Brynbella, looking west across the Vale of Clwyd

From the top of the hill with its pale grey limestone outcrops we crossed another field full of cows and cowpats. Back at the car, with the rain now gathering force, we removed damp jeans and slurried hiking-boots and became more-or-less respectable professional women again. The Committee of the Thomas Pennant Society gave us a grand welcome at the hotel; and later that evening sixty-odd engaged and attentive people came to hear about ‘Thomas Pennant’s Women’ in Holywell Public Library – a warm, hospitable place, a place of community and the exchange of ideas, still functioning in the cold face of austerity. We felt honoured to be there.

Thomas Pennant in North Wales: Fourth Day

October 16th (with a little bit of October 15th)

By Alison Craig

Beyond Gwytherin

Beyond Gwytherin

The last 24 hours have been really interesting, starting with a trip to Holywell last night to hear the Thomas Pennant Society’s 25th Anniversary Lecture: “Thomas Pennant’s Women”, given by none other than Mary-Ann Constantine. I found this an entertaining, informative and erudite account (and not just because she’s reading this blog) – Pennant and his associates emerged as real, living people. I could spend the rest of my life reading about them but I don’t have space in the house for any more books. The gentlefolk of the Pennant Society provided a courteous welcome, and I was delighted to meet a lady who actually possesses one of the famous linear maps by John Ogilby. I discover that they can still be purchased, but I don’t have space in the house for any more maps either.

Today’s Curious Travelling took me back to Gwytherin in the car. I made a deliberate decision to go beyond Thomas Pennant’s itinerary and drive along the Afon Cledwen, upstream towards the alleged site of S. Gwenfrewi’s convent. My friend, the owner of the church in Gwytherin, tells me that research suggests the religious foundation was probably on the site of the present churchyard. The story about the abbey being near Pennant township may have grown up after an 18th Century minister used the stones from the demolished chapel to build his own house up the valley. If so, perhaps the tale had not yet been told when Thomas Pennant visited Gwytherin: Mary-Ann, in her lecture, pointed out that he was an obsessive collector of facts – I’m sure he wouldn’t have missed a story like this if it had been current.

Old ford over the Cledwen

Old ford over the Cledwen

My non-authentic detour was, however, entirely worthwhile. The cwm is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I have ever seen. I have no intention of trying to describe it beyond saying that it is a tiny but fertile river valley, bordered with high, wooded hills, and completely silent apart from the sounds of the river and the ravens. It is not uninhabited, and the township (four or five farms) seems not to have changed since the O.S. map was published in 1840. Traces of old roads can be glimpsed, lichen hangs from the trees in the clear air, and the blackberries are delicious. I was so entranced, I forgot to do any drawing.

Lichen in the clean air

Lichen in the clean air

So, reluctantly, onwards and upwards to Llangernyw. (I know it’s downstream, but it doesn’t feel like it.) Having collected my new glasses today, I can make out a road along the ridge on the 1840 map; a combination of grime on the specs, cross-hatching on the downloaded image and pixelation on the computer screen made it difficult to distinguish beforehand. Was the road accessible in 1770? Did Pennant ride over the ridge and down along the Afon Gallen under the impression it was the Elwy, or did he take the more obvious route along the Cledwen, ditto ditto? No idea. I elected to take low road along the Cledwen, and I think it will be better to do it on foot with shortcuts along the paths. The single track lane weaves in and out and up and down and then takes a dog-leg to avoid a farmhouse, whereas the paths take a more direct route – some of the time.

Appropriately for this project, Llangernyw is the birthplace of a Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. Henry Jones, later knighted, provides a classic example of Victorian determination and triumph over adversity. He learned his father’s trade of shoemaking, studied after work to gain a scholarship and rose to be a respected promoter of higher education and a Companion of Honour. The conservative (small ‘c’) Pennant might not have approved?

Sir Henry Jones Shoemaker, Teacher, Citizen

Sir Henry Jones Shoemaker, Teacher, Citizen

Llangernyw is also famous for being the possessor of one of the oldest living things in Europe: a yew tree believed to be at least 4,000 years old. It would have been over 2,000 years old when the original church was built next to it. The present church is charming and contains some old grave slabs – in the gloom, I could make out a date of 1612 on one of them. Pennant would probably not have been impressed by anything so modern. Under the yew tree is an old gravestone reading simply “J ROBERTS SOLDIER”. Who? Was he visiting Llangernyw, perhaps with a recruiting party? – or merely passing through after one of the many European wars? Someone will know.

Someone will also know whether Hen Llys on the back road between Llangernyw and Llanfair is the one mentioned by Pennant as the “large moat” (motte? moat?) of Hedd Molwynog. My next door neighbour is a good source of local knowledge, and I shall ask him.

Another story

Another story

Thomas Pennant in North Wales: Third Day

Llansannan to Gwytherin – the (more or less) complete tour.

By Alison Craig

The wrong horrible cavern

The wrong horrible cavern

I rode down into Llansannan this morning (in the car) and then off and up along the road south.   Thomas Pennant is a bit sparing of the details of the route after his descent via Pen Aled to see the “horrible black cavern”. He mentions “Llyn yr ogo” (ogof? = cave), which isn’t on the modern map, but while writing this I have just found “Llyn yr Oror” much further upstream. It looks as if I identified the wrong horrible black cavern on my first visit. Curses, curses. I have known about the waterfalls on the Aled for a long time, but always assumed that the cataract at Felin Gadog was one of them. Pennant describes another waterfall further upstream “falling from a vast height, and dividing the naked glen”, so presumably he saw it himself. Llyn yr Oror and some of the several waterfalls on the river are now surrounded by Forestry Commission plantations, and difficult of access.

Comparing the 1840 O.S. map with the 1982 (1:25,000) version it is apparent that many of the 19th Century roads are now either lost or shrunken away to footpaths. Some of these might have been present in Pennant’s time, and he could well have taken a big loop to the south to regain the road to Gwytherin. If he had any sense he would have nipped back up to the high road as soon as possible. I did so, and although I couldn’t remember ever seeing the Forestry waterfalls from the road, I drove a little further towards Llyn Aled to make sure. They aren’t visible, and as the trees are being felled it would be extremely hazardous to explore further. I was a bit perturbed to see that Llyn Aled itself was two-thirds empty: it supplies our drinking water.

The view across the frith

The view across the frith

It’s remarkable how densely populated is the intermediate land (the “frith”) between the valley and the moor. Many of the farms marked on the 1840 map still exist, and surely some were present in 1770. Most of the enclosure on the moor is modern, judging by the military straight lines of the barbed wire fences. However, in some places there are still traces of the old “clawdd”: irregular banks of turfed stone running in pleasing curves along the contours of the land. One such enclosure marks the road towards Gwytherin, and the old map shows a road to Hafod (y) Gau just where the Pilgrims’ Way footpath branches off. I parked my car at the junction, and set off down a very respectable cart track.

After Hafod Gau, I confess again to being a bit confused about Pennant’s route. The modern footpath cuts straight across improved pasture, with fences and stiles, and takes in a scarily steep descent to ford the Afon Rhydlechog. I can’t imagine an 18th Century gentleman risking his horses there if he had an alternative. In 1840 there was apparently a road looping a bit northwards, coinciding with a rather oddly shaped boundary on the modern map, and perhaps Pennant went that way.

What I am sure about is that Pennant wouldn’t have ridden across the fields (moorland in his day?) beyond the next farm, past the barbecue site and the donkeys in the field on the right, to join the road into Gwytherin. He would have passed down the lane and travelled two sides of a triangle, which is what I did on the way back to the car after a brief sojourn in Gwytherin to use the facilities kindly provided by the community.

Inscribed stone at Gwytherin

Inscribed stone at Gwytherin

Short of a séance, or a look at Pennant’s actual manuscript notes, I think it’s impossible to reconstruct his exact route between Llansannan and Gwytherin. Some sections, including the descent past Pen Aled, are easy to identify. Others are completely untraceable, or unsafe. It would certainly be unwise to go looking for waterfalls in the middle of tree-felling operations. Still, I’ve followed the way as best I can and I did actually walk in Pennant’s footsteps down the steep, wooded dell to the river. Equally to the point, I have filled half a sketchbook with material to develop for the projected exhibition in 2016. With that in mind I shall have to get back into the studio in the next few days.

Thomas Pennant in North Wales: Second Day

Above the treeline

Above the treeline

Llansannan to Gwytherin – another day of gentle pottering.

The second day investigating Thomas Pennant’s journey from Llansannan to Gwytherin, with a bit of his onward journey to Llangernyw.

By Alison Craig

In the spirit of travelling with curiosity, I approached Gwytherin from the “wrong” side, mainly because I do my shopping in a small town immediately due west. Once again a road marked on the map turned out to be an exaggeration, and I had to do a long detour across another “black and heathy” moor. In Pennant’s day this would surely have been a trackless waste; even today it is extremely bleak, a haunt of Welsh black cattle, ravens and wind turbines. Grid reference SH 855. 599 or thereabouts. Although not actually very high – only just over 400 metres above sea level – the road runs well above the tree line, with a single tantalising glimpse into the beautiful secluded valley at Pennant, along the valley bottom from Gwytherin. This is allegedly the site of Santes Gwenfrewi’s convent, and I can only assume that Thomas P. hadn’t heard about it, as the combination of the antiquity of the site and the name of the township would surely have been irresistible.

The modern road drops steeply into Gwytherin, and enters another world where the sun is shining on beech and oak woods. The hanging woodlands of North Wales are a poor remnant of what they once were, but still numerous enough to give a particular character to the landscape. The weather is still good and it’s a little early for the full-on autumn spectacular, but the leaves are beginning to “turn” with the colder nights. Today’s factoid: the Welsh for Indian Summer is “Haf bach Mihangel”, – (Saint) Michael’s little Summer. Sounds much prettier, I think.

Riverside hanging woodland

Riverside hanging woodland

Gwytherin is well off the beaten track, even if you come the easy way down the B5384. It’s probably in a time warp, as it always takes much longer to arrive than it does to return. When I first came here there was still a village shop+post office and a busy pub: now there is no shop, and the pub has undergone many reincarnations. At the moment, it’s a “boutique B&B”, and it’s for sale.

The village church stands on a very ancient site, but the present building is Victorian and is now deconsecrated. It’s in private hands, the owner having bought it to save it from being unroofed and left desolate. She started the Gwenfrewi Project to keep it going and runs exhibitions and concerts among other things (www.thegwenfrewiproject.co.uk ). Santes Gwenfrewi (=St. Winifred) was buried in “the saints graveyard” on the site, in company with her aristocratic and holy relatives, but was later disinterred and carted off to Shrewsbury. For more details, see the Brother Cadfael stories by Ellis Peters.

I couldn’t find the “antient gravestone” examined by Pennant, but the “four rude upright stones” are still standing by the north wall of the church. One of them has a virtually illegible inscription in Latin which is supposed to be from the 5th or 6th Century.

Four rude upright stones

Four rude upright stones

Pottering on, I am a little puzzled as to Pennant’s exact route out of Gwytherin. I have re-read his account since my first post here, and he doesn’t actually mention going to Pandy Tudur. The Pilgrims’ Way passes through, but this may partly be to avoid walking on the roads. The quickest way to Llangernyw nowadays would be to take the B road which runs straight along the ridge. It doesn’t seem to be present on the 1840 Ordnance Survey map, and Pennant writes that he “followed the course of the Elwy by Havodynos.” Actually, sir, the river only becomes the Elwy once it flows beyond Llangernyw. So, did he ride over to Pandy Tudur and then along the Afon Dyffryn Gall, which becomes the Gallen, which joins the Cledwen and becomes the Elwy? Or did he meander along the valley of the Cledwen straight from Gwytherin? I had a meander there myself today, and the river runs alongside lanes and footpaths, most of which seem to be in good order and well marked. However, this route adds almost two miles to the journey which will make the logistics of getting home a bit tricky. In other words, I won’t be able to get from Gwytherin to Llangernyw in time to catch the bus.

I think I will continue to be a Curious rather than a Rushing-to-do-it-all-at-once Traveller, at least for the time being, and will carry on exploring. Tomorrow I will try to complete the Llansannan to Gwytherin stage across the dark and heathy mountain.

River Cledwen

River Cledwen

Thomas Pennant in North Wales: First Day

Reconnoitring the route – Llansannan to Gwytherin.

By Alison Craig

A black and heathy mountain

A black and heathy mountain

As my late father used to say, time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. Looking at the O.S. map in conjunction with Thomas Pennant’s text, it seems obvious that he took the high road south from Llansannan and rode along the ridge to the moors with a detour down to the River Aled on the way. Then he must have carried on to Gwytherin along what are now moorland tracks. With this in mind, I decided to drive into Llansannan, walk around a bit, and then drive as far as possible along the metalled road to inspect the likely footpaths.

Driving the three miles to Llansannan, I did at least keep to the old roads which have an appropriately 18th Century covering of muck in some places. Aptly, there was discussion about travelling on the car radio and Shearings Coach Tours were whizzing down the main road. I beat them to the village by driving very sedately down the old lane.

St. Sannan’s Church has been rebuilt since Pennant visited it, and I struggled to find any tombstones which might have been in the Churchyard in his day. I did find the grave of one aged lady who died in the 1850s and would have been a newborn baby in 1770. The memorials inside the Church are all post-1800. The current Visitors’ Book contains names of people from all over the world, including many who just record themselves as “pilgrims”, i.e. walking the North Wales Pilgrims’ Way. I duly adorned my sketchbook with the official Pilgrims’ Way stamp and set off on my wanderings.

St. Sannan's Church

St. Sannan’s Church

I have walked along the River Aled before, and know a good spot for lunch. I therefore planned to walk upstream and then ascend the “very steep wooded dell” to Pen Ared/Aled, in the opposite direction taken by Pennant. The “horrible black cavern, overshaded by oaks” is still there, but the right of way through the wooded dell seems to have vanished (although the lane is still marked on the O.S. map). The lane is straddled by the forecourt of Felin Gadog, an old watermill which Pennant doesn’t mention – perhaps it post-dates his tour. It’s now a private house, with a very large barking dog running around the garden. The river rushes past, down a rocky channel, and is a very fine sight.

A Digression upon The Sublime (cribbed from my B.A. Fine Art dissertation):

The Sublime: a fashionable preoccupation of intellectuals and artists from the mid 18th Century onwards, influencing writers and tour operators up to the present day.

Edmund Burke wrote the definitive account of The Sublime (note capital letters) in 1756, and identified it by its ability to cause extreme emotion in the onlooker, tantamount to a fear of sudden death. This he called “astonishment”, a word which has changed its meaning somewhat in the last 260 years. He actually meant “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror”. In other words: OMG.

Burke’s principal causes of Sublime emotions are: vastness (or vacuity), obscurity, silence, privation and darkness. The torrent flowing over the rocky bed of the River Aled certainly ticks 3 out of 5 boxes, and I humbly offer the roaring of the water as a sixth cause of suitably Sublime sensations.

Back to the present: feeling the privation due to lack of lunch, I unpacked my rucksack, and realised I had left my camera in the car.

However… after walking back to Llansannan, I picked up the car (plus camera) and drove along the high, straight road to Gwytherin taken by Pennant. The entrance to the lane down the steep wooded dell is quite plain, and bears a sign stating that it is unsuitable for motors. So: park the car on the verge, and wander nonchalantly down the lane carrying map and sketchbook. And camera. A gate bars the way at Pen Aled, and a farmer is doing something to a flock of sheep. We get into conversation; he knows about Thomas Pennant – and he opens the gate for me.

A very steep wooded dell

A very steep wooded dell

And, my word, the lane certainly is steep. It is also authentically unsurfaced and slippery. However, I am practically floating and pathetically proud that my efforts to (sort of) learn Welsh have paid off once more. Here I am, genuinely walking in Pennant’s footsteps, down towards the hanging woodland in the valley bottom and then slowly back up again into the 21st Century. The photographs really do not do justice to the declivity.

The final stage of today’s reconnaissance was almost as satisfying: the point I had identified as being a suitable place to leave the metalled road and walk across the “black and heathy mountains” to Gwytherin turns out to be an official Pilgrims’ Way path. This ought to mean that the way is accessible, and not blocked with barbed wire or new barns. The walk from Llansannan to Gwytherin will certainly be possible in one go.

Back uphill

Back uphill

Thomas Pennant in North Wales (but not exactly in Snowdonia) – A pre-blog blog

By Alison Craig

Walking Boots

Shiny and ready to go

Having “expressed an interest”, as the saying has it, in the possibility of taking part in an exhibition of artwork relating to Pennant’s travels in North Wales, I discovered to my delight that he actually passed through the village where I live. Further reading of Volume II reveals that he did a sort of circular ride passing through Llansannan 3 miles to my north, round through Gwytherin, Pandy Tudur and Llangernyw, before reaching LlanfairTalHaearn three quarters of a mile down the hill from my house. Perfect for a reconstruction of that part of the Tour.

I’m an artist, working mainly with paint and print, and a lot of my work derives from walks made in the area around my home.  I now realise that have travelled along sections of Pennant’s tour on many occasions; reference to the 1:25,000 O.S. map shows that it should be possible to retrace his steps fairly faithfully, allowing for the changes in spelling of place names.  The route of the country lanes cannot have changed very much in 200-odd years, allowing for some arbitrary decisions about which ones were surfaced with Tarmacadam.  Many of the unsurfaced green lanes are still in use as footpaths and farm tracks.  Interestingly, there is a route mapped from Llansannan to Llangernyw as part of the modern North Wales Pilgrims’ Way, and it can be walked in a day. Getting from Llangernyw to LlanfairTH might be the killer, though.  Literally so if I walk along the “new” road between the villages, which was made as recently as the 1920s but has no footpath.

So: some pre-planning is required, and I fancy it may not be possible to stick to a strict schedule, or even complete the journey in a single day, what with the weather and the reductions in the bus timetables. Given that Pennant rode around the country, I don’t feel that it would be cheating to use a car for some stages of the journey. Apart from anything else, I will not be walking at the regulation three miles an hour if I’m making drawings, taking photographs and collecting “found objects” (artspeak for attractive odds and ends/souvenirs/rubbish scavenged for future use and inspiration, and destined inevitably for the compost heap). Best to take a gentle pottering approach, I think.

The map is folded, the sketchbook is ready, the boots are polished, and tomorrow should be Day One.