Monthly Archives: November 2016

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Liz Edwards

Edward Pugh, ‘Pont Cysyllty Aqueduct’ (1816), by permission of the National Library of Wales

Edward Pugh, ‘Pont Cysyllty Aqueduct’ (1816), by permission of the National Library of Wales

Soon after we regained the high road, we saw the immense aqueduct which is building over the Vale of Llangollen from the Ellesmere canal, when compleat [sic] it will be a very noble work, at present it is in a very unfinished state’ – Mary Anne Eade, 1802

Friday 4 November

I’ve not long come home from a lively, beautifully illustrated pair of talks at Oriel Sycharth, on the history (and the future) of the landscape of the Dee Valley. I collapse on the sofa with an end-of-the-week glass of wine, message a friend to thank her for coming along. It makes me want to go back over the aqueduct, comes the quick reply…me too, I think. And so we hatch a plan for the following Friday.

Friday 11 November

The kids dropped at school, I head round to collect Andrea. A few minutes southbound and we’re virtually there, winding along orange-strewn roads and through increasingly bare trees. We park up, pleasantly surprised to find no charge. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is, since 2009, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and generally a busy spot, though we have it to ourselves at a little after nine on a bitter November morning. Before we get quite to the aqueduct we find the canal crowded with empty barges; the place seems not yet properly awake.

We head on round to the aqueduct – a channel of water streaming out across the valley. It still seems so unlikely, this towering, elegant water-filled structure bridging the River Dee. I still can’t get my head around the leap of faith it needed, in 1795 (a year of famine and riots in Wales), to imagine the aqueduct spanning an empty landscape. It took more than ten years to complete.

2The towpath side is bordered by railings but at over a hundred feet above the river, looking down is disconcerting. Looking upstream is especially so, as there’s nothing at all between the canal edge and the drop. Gazing ahead and down, the aqueduct flows slowly to my left, at a right angle to the river powering downstream below. The competing directions, too, disorientate. Immediately across from where I’m standing, the low sun projects the railings behind me onto the lip of the canal: a fuzzy-edged miniature aqueduct.

3We walk on, talk on, stop to take photos, are passed by our first fellow visitor – another photographer. I’m snapping by phone, hoping for the best, but this guy looks like a pro.

Andrea and I are exchanging incomprehension over events in America this week, trying (failing) to imagine voting for someone who shows nothing but contempt for you, when the canal catches my eye. With no traffic or even wildlife to disturb it, the water is a black mirror, tipping the trees on the far bank upside down. A few leaves stick to the surface; others hang motionless within the water. We keep walking, colder now under the canopy of this part of the towpath.

4The canal veers left, and we try to get a view of the aqueduct from a little distance. Too many trees obstruct the view. We stop and smile at a notice asking visitors not to disturb the ducks. Health and safety information isn’t, after all, known for its humour.

5We turn back, keen to head down to the riverbank. Down here, the aqueduct, its massive feet planted in the Dee, seems more unlikely than ever. How do you even begin to build in these fierce waters?

6Looking up is masonry and iron on blue sky. Shadows of trees stretch across the pillars, something like a tangle of nerve endings.

8 7We walk a little way down the path towards Tŷ Mawr country park. Andrea crouches to photograph some leaves, but the path is also marked by grey-white feathers, then some spotted with blood, then a torn-off leg, still bright red at the top. We quickly look away, climb back up to the canal.

We’ve been wandering for the best part of a couple of hours, and by now the place is pretty busy, even in three-degree temperatures. The snack kiosk has opened and looks seriously tempting, but we’re suddenly conscious of all the other jobs awaiting us today: soup and cake will have to wait.

For more information on visiting the aqueduct, see

For a full account of the aqueduct’s history, see Peter Wakelin’s 2015 book.

And see Andrea’s November 2015 blogpost for Curious Travellers here.

Kirsty McHugh, ‘Manuscript Travel Accounts of Scotland and Wales’

Kirsty McHugh is a first-year doctoral research student at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies. She is part of the AHRC Curious Travellers project. Here, she adapts her paper from the inaugural CRECS Conference for our blog.

My research focuses on manuscript journals, diaries and letters recording the experiences of individuals and groups travelling in Scotland and Wales in the Romantic period. Since beginning my research degree in October 2015 I’ve become aware of the unique opportunities that exploring this topic affords, but also its challenges—in part, due to the nature of travel writing, but also because existing research has been largely based on published travel writing. Here I offer a brief overview of where my research has led me thus far.

Traditionally local and social historians have looked to travel accounts, especially tours of Britain, for evidence of what a particular place was like at a certain time. They can take at face-value that the descriptions given are real, up-to-date, and accurate; they rarely explore who generated the account and why.

Tours of Scotland and Wales offered tourists the possibility of exploring unfamiliar areas of Britain and encountering wild, sublime, or picturesque landscapes and their inhabitants. However, travel accounts are rarely uncomplicated evidence. Information was not always gathered from personal experience, but from books, local people or travelling companions – and sometimes written down long after the journey itself. Through comparison of a small number of travel accounts I hope to shed light on the extent to which individuals reacted uniquely to people and places, and how they were affected by the wider influences of the period.

I got particularly interested in multiple accounts of the same journey, An example in York Archives is the 1796 Scottish tour journals of 17-year-old Jonathan Gray and his father William. William’s entry for 15 August focuses on the distances involved, the quality of the inns and the cultivation of the country, particularly the variety of trees. His son writes in a much livelier and eclectic style, displaying great curiosity about a number of areas. An extract from his entry for the same day reads:

We now parted from the Scotch gentleman who had been our agreeable companion. If I were to judge the Scotch from him in should think them rather like the French, gay and debonair. We were informed that 2 quarts of strawberries which in York would probably cost 2/6, at Edinburgh would cost only 6d. This was rather mortifying to a lover of strawberries the season for which is now over. Eggs in Scotland are very cheap, & generally eaten at breakfast. A gentleman once desired that a pennyworth of eggs might be boiled for his breakfast; when nine & thirty were set on the table. As an instance among many others which might be mentioned of Scotch & Northumbrian curiosity, is the following. At the turnpike thro’ which we passed out of England into Scotland [our servant] Paul was asked are those English men? Were they ever in Scotland before? Have you ever been in Scotland? The Scotch men seem as curious as English women. No doubt we were very much pitied never to have been before in the finest country in the world.
—Travel Journals from a Tour of Scotland by Jonathan Gray (1796), York Archives GRF/6/2. With permission of Explore York Libraries and Archives

Once I began to read more about the study of travel writing I learned about post-colonial theory and a growing awareness that through describing encounters with the ‘other’ travel writing can record the writer negotiating and documenting their own identity. Understandably, however, much of the academic study of travel writing which has emerged in the last 30 or so years has focussed on published works. Although it has been argued that many authors of travel books were amateurs, the focus has also tended to be on travel works by well-known literary figures such as Wollstonecraft or Wordsworth, potentially providing an atypical picture of travel and its literary products in the period.

The manuscript tours I have located provide an opportunity to look at the travel of the middling sort, many of whom had no literary aspirations. Looking at handwritten material – I was struck by: the difficulty in ascertaining the reason behind the creation of the record and the physicality of the item and its form.

Travel Journal from a Tour of Scotland by Jonathan Gray (1796), York Archives GRF/6/2. With permission of Explore York Libraries and Archives

Sometimes the author kindly tells us why they are keeping a journal, Eliza Dawson for example writes in 1786:

It is natural to suppose a Girl of sixteen, who has never been above thirty miles from home, should form sanguine expectations from a journey of eight hundred. As for me who answer that description, I anticipate a prodigious deal of pleasure from it—and therefore have determin’d to set down every trifling circumstance, that affords me the least momentary entertainment.
—A Tour through part of England and of Scotland by Eliza Dawson in the year 1786, NLS Acc.12017

It can be assumed that in addressing a real or imagined audience travel journals like this are in some sense designed for sharing amongst a limited audience, probably friends and family.

Over the last 10 years or so research has convincingly shown that manuscript and print culture existed alongside each other in the 18th and early 19th century. Alongside a narrative, both published and unpublished records of travel can incorporate lists of inns, tables of distances, lists of dialect words, illustrations etc. However, this is often exaggerated in manuscript tours and some content can be dull, practical or only of interest to the author. Tourists might also attempt to capture their experiences by pasting in prints, making drawings, or enclosing momentos such as pressed flowers. So the physical artefact of the travel journal or diary can take on an additional significance to the words it contains.

Beamont prints

Prints of Glasgow pasted into William Beamont’s travel journal ‘My tour through some parts of Scotland and Ireland (1825), Warrington Library MS288

Beamont map

Hand-painted map of part of Argyllshire from Beamont’s travel journal, Warrington Library MS288

And in creating a record of that travel experience the author’s also created a record of one episode in their lives, meaning that travel writing is often also ‘life writing’. After the tour is over these travels can continue to exert influence on individual’s lives and their sense of personal identity. Richard Vaughan Yates of Liverpool, wrote rather poetically of this intention, in the journal of his 1805 tour of Wales:

When the admirer of nature gazes in rapture upon a scene remarkable for its beauty or grandeur, he says within himself “surely, I shall never forget this.” But memory is treacherous; when he returns to serious occupations, the landscapes which had been painted on his imagination in such lively colours, gradually fade away, and, as the morning tints vanish before the splendour of the sun, give place to more important objects. In order to preserve the remembrance of scenes, on which I intend to reflect in the intervals of business, I took the following notes as we were on our journey…
Memoranda of a tour in North & South Wales and parts of England & Ireland, 12th May to 22d June 1805, NLW MS 687b


Images and quotations from the collections of:

Further reading

  • Andrews, Malcolm, The Search for the picturesque: landscape, aesthetics and tourism in Britain, 1760–1800 (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1989).
  • Carruthers, Gerard, and Alan Rawes (eds), English Romanticism and the Celtic World (Cambridge: CUP, 2003).
  • Justice, George L. and Nathan Tinker (eds), Women’s Writing and the Circulation of Ideas: Manuscript Publication in England, 1550–1800 (Cambridge: CUP, 2002).
  • Kinsley, Zoë, Women writing the home tour, 1682–1812 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).
  • Thompson, Carl, Travel Writing (London and New York: Routledge, 2011).
  • Sublime Wales: early tourists in Wales [A website containing extracts from over 1200 published and manuscript accounts of tours of Wales, 1700–1900 compiled by Michael Freeman].

Original post here.

The Road from Llanymawddy to Bwlch-y-Groes

Adam Somerset

‘Bwlch-y-Groes’ from Thomas Compton's "The Northern Cambrian Mountains" (1818). Image from the National Library of Wales Landscape Collection /Casgliad Tirlun, by kind permission.

‘Bwlch-y-Groes’ from Thomas Compton’s “The Northern Cambrian Mountains” (1818). Image from the National Library of Wales Landscape Collection /Casgliad Tirlun, by kind permission [link].

It is the most tantalising of seasons. The first frost of the year is guaranteed to be a matter of weeks away. On a day in mid-October the weather might be anything from bright to drenching. This Thursday I have luck. In Llanymawddy early afternoon outside the church of St Tydecho the sky looks promising, enough cloud to protect against an excess of sun but of a shape and texture that suggest no rain. The oaks and limes on the valley floor are still thick with leaves.

It is a day that has worked out nicely. The morning has started in the Raven Inn in Llanarmon-yn-Ial, a village pub owned and run by the community with all the flavour which that status brings. The memory of a scintillating night at Mold’s Theatr Clwyd has been fresh in the mind and eight paragraphs for Theatre Wales, the critics’ hub founded by Aberystwyth’s Keith Morris, have flowed with ease. With the main task for the day done, the route to the coast, broken by a stroll around the architectural treasure store that is Ruthin, has brought me to the upper Dyfi all by the time of the one o’clock news.

I have been here before but not in a satisfactory way. The road from south of Bala to its highest point at Bwlch-y-Groes is narrow in ascent and precipitate in descent. The setting may be one of grandeur but in truth to be in command of a ton of metal means that the predominant emotion is anxiety. A vehicle may be coming from the opposite direction with all the manoeuvring on a tight mountain lane that such a meeting entails. Besides human perception is designed to work at its peak when passing through an environment at a speed of four miles an hour. “Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being” said Kierkegaard “I have walked myself into my best thoughts”. The best of travel’s pleasures are always serendipitous. With no obligation for hours this is the day for Bwlch-y-Groes.

With no map and a changeable climate it is also not a day for straying from a secure route. It makes small difference. The walk takes an hour and half. In that time a couple of four-wheel-drives go by. Otherwise it is me and the landscape. It was not always so. Human traffic has shifted to the low route via Dolgellau but this was once a main thoroughfare. Today the village may be a silent string of houses but in its past Llanymawddy was host to enough human traffic to support eight pubs.

The first suggestion of the clouds has of course been deceptive. The ascent from the floor of the Dyfi Valley means that the upper tree-line is soon passed and with it places of refuge from rain. The walker’s eye is tuned to the movement of clouds. The speed of change is dramatic; just minutes can pass between a sky with oblique shards of bright sunlight to black-grey clouds. Happily the wind at two thousand feet is just as swift in sending the rain clouds on to Cadair Idris.

It is not just the eye that is called upon to work harder. It is a rare place where all sound of human industry disappears. On a distant ridge a post is being worked on. On and off the thwack of mallet on post carries across the interval of two miles distance. But in its absence natural sound predominates. Lower down an on-off October breeze shakes the branches of the trees still thick with leaves. Higher up it is the sound of water, the many streams pouring down to become the Dyfi. The soundscape is not unlike that of earlier traveller-recorders. Thomas Pennant was here in 1781.

Just before the pass of Bwlch-y-Groes the road splits. The southern lane drops sharply to Efyrnwy, the arm to the north on and over to Llanuwchllyn and Bala. A memorial cross has been placed here in memory that this most now lonely of roads was once the direct route of pilgrimage from the north to Saint David’s. The purposes of place change. In that great piece of British cinema “A Canterbury Tale” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger fused their servicemen of 1944 with pilgrims of five centuries earlier.

To be at the top is good. The space is huge, the view stretching from Dyfi Valley to Cadair Idris to the Aran range with their distinctive covering of peat. The two peaks, Aran Fawddwy and Aran Benllyn, are surprisingly close, as a companion traveller from past time also noted. But Thomas Pennant did not warm to this summit. “The pass itself is a dreary, heathy flat…the descent on the other side…very tedious”. On the valley floor he changed tone, noting the “excellent quickset hedges” and concluding “there is a beauty in this vale.”

As for the walker of today there is the intrinsic satisfaction that it has all been achieved by leg and lung power rather than with feet on accelerator, clutch and brake. I am not an out-and-out Kierkegaardian but on the power of the walk he is quite correct. There is not another two-legged creature to be seen but the bracken is filled with life. The nearby circling red kite knows it well and is looking for it. Happy it is to be of the species of infinite specialisation of work. The human eye no longer has to scan a landscape for sources of sustenance. It can look for the unseen. That most eminent son of Llanuwchllyn, O. M. Edwards, said of Bro Aran: “Mangre dawel fynyddig ydyw, lle ardderchog i enaid ddal cymundeb a Dduw.” “This is a silent, mountainous retreat, an excellent place for communion with God”.

Last word on what it is all for goes to the best of today’s walker-writers of Wales.. For Jim Perrin to be out in the landscape “gives you something to question, pictures to create in your mind, purposes to unravel, the jigsaw of history to piece together from the disparate elements of fact, feature, literature, place, imagination and mood.”