It’s a pleasure to announce the appearance of a new Curious Travellers publication in the latest issue of Romanticism. This article, titled ‘A Kind of Geological Novel’: Wales and Travel Writing, 1783–1819’, is a particularly project-based piece that started out as a paper for our ‘Layered Landscapes’ symposium in Cardiff in 2015, which commemorated the bicentenary of William Smith’s pioneering geological map of (mainly) England and Wales. I became fascinated with Smith’s work, which is part map of the mainland ‘underscape’ and part pure work of art; it was all too easy to get lost in the colours and shapes running across the beautiful and somewhat epic object on display in the National Museum of Wales.
The map itself contains a compelling and long-running story that represents travel as much as any of the other texts we’ve been working with on the project. It became the starting point for an exploration of Welsh travel writing as a particularly sedimentary genre, a form in which material (research, first-hand observation, chance happenings) piles up and settles down in the course of a tour committed to paper. The title comes from Charles Darwin, who made some of his first geological observations in Wales, and who saw – as did Thomas Pennant before him – far-reaching narratives stored away in Snowdonia’s rocky landscapes.
The article is open-access and freely available to read here.
You can read other recent articles from the project via the following links:
We are delighted to welcome Professor Debarati Bandyopadhyay (Department of English, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India) who is currently on a month-long Visiting Fellowship in Glasgow working with the Curious Travellers team (July 6th-3rd August 2018). Debarati’s research is concerned with the intersection of ecocriticism and geocriticism, with a special emphasis on Thomas Pennant and the 18th century origins of the ‘New’ Nature Writing. She was a Post-Doctoral Fellow in India (2010-11), and an International Visiting Fellow at the University of Essex (2017): her invitation to Glasgow was extended by Prof Leask on behalf of the whole Curious Travellers team. She is currently in Special Collections at Glasgow University Library poring over early editions of Thomas Pennant’s works, in search of signs of ‘New’ Nature Writing in this extensive collection. Debarati may be contacted here for academic discussions – we look forward to her further collaborations with the project, and wish her the best for her research on Thomas Pennant.
When Pennant was in his late twenties he wrote to the Cornish antiquarian, William Borlase, rector of Ludgvan near Penzance, to ask a favour. They had met, he reminded the older man, during Pennant’s student ‘ramble’ in Cornwall some four years earlier; first at the residence of Sir John St Aubyn, and then at Borlase’s own home, where he was received ‘in a most obliging manner’. It was Borlase’s generosity in passing on a few choice specimens, indeed, which had sparked Pennant’s interest in mineralogy:
“I have applied myself very assiduously to the study of the mineral Kingdom; and have made a very large collection of the different kinds, which I have gathered together by the assistance of my Friends.”
Finding himself ‘still very deficient in the article of Tin oras, and the minerals usually attending it’, he had remembered Borlase’s previous kindness. A gentleman who had recently leased one of the Downing-owned collieries from Pennant’s father was running ships from there to Plymouth: ‘if we engage in a sort of mineral commerce’, he wrote, offering treasures from Flintshire by return, ‘we have a ready means of conveyance’. A list of wished-for specimens is—optimistically—appended. Borlase agreed, and the two men began a correspondence which would extend over two decades, and take them from the discussion and exchange of ores and minerals to ‘Druid stones’ and other antiquities, marine plants and creatures, and sea-birds.
The letters Pennant wrote to his Cornish mentor were preserved in Borlase’s letter-book, now held in the Morrab Library in Penzance. This small, independent subscription library celebrates its bicentenary this year: it must surely be one of the loveliest archives to work in. A Victorian mansion set in amazing subtropical public gardens (and, for once, with weather to match…), it has housed the library’s rich collection of books, photographs and manuscripts since 1888 when the building was acquired by the Corporation of Penzance. I was lucky enough to spend a day there reading through the Pennant correspondence, and listening in to one half of a conversation between two fascinating, obsessive, eighteenth-century scholars. (The replies from Borlase, which will have to wait for another time, are housed with much of the Pennant archive in Warwickshire Country Record Office).
In 1753, when Pennant initiated the correspondence, Borlase was preparing his Antiquities of Cornwall, which would be published the following year. Two letters written after Pennant returned from a tour of Ireland in the summer of 1754, show, rather touchingly, how the younger man used Borlase’s descriptions of Cornish standing stones, cairns, hill-forts and caves to make sense of a similar Irish landscape. He had, he admits, been too much a casualty of Hibernian hospitality to see most of the antiquities he had hoped for:
“But not to disappoint you entirely I shall give you a short account of such things as I had an opportunity of seeing, and also of others which I was informed of. I shall follow the order you place the druidical monuments in your Book without offering to make any reflections on them after your performance.”
Pennant also relates how the ‘native Irish’ use ancient arrow heads (‘Elf-shots’) and ‘magical gems’ to prevent disease in cattle. Turning from material antiquities to anthropology, he suggests that the keening of the ‘Modern Hibernian Howlers’ which he witnessed at a funeral in Kerry might itself be a ‘relique of Paganism’.
As the correspondence progresses, plant and animal life come more to the fore, although this does not stop the exchange of (and anxious enquiries after) carefully packed boxes of specimens, now arriving by a more efficient sea-route on tin-ships into St Ives. ‘Walking on our shore, picking up whatever had either oddity, or novelty, to recommend it’, Pennant finds and identifies sea sponges, shells and anemones, all minutely referenced and described. Borlase is also kept informed of the progress and set-backs involved in the publication of his British Zoology, and there is much discussion of the best way to accurately represent different species of birds. The identification of the ‘Soland Goose’ as the ‘Cornish Gannet’ is an especially satisfying moment, and there are further requests for specimens from the obliging Borlase: ‘Should any sure bird fall into your hands, I should be glad to have it well dried & preserved if of a moderate size in an oven; if large to be flayed and stuffed’.
The final letter in the collection dates from 1761 and marks a new episode in Pennant’s life. Recently married to Elizabeth Falconer, and having already lost a baby boy the previous year, he writes with some relief of ‘the satisfaction of seeing Mrs Pennant safe in Bed; and of being Father to a fine Healthy Girl’. Fatherhood, however, has not dulled his passion for collecting: ‘you wld promote my design greatly’, he writes, ‘by procuring these Birds well preserved stuffed or dried, being not found on our coasts: Cornish Wagel, Tarrock, Curwillet or Towillee, Turnstone or Sea Dotrel, Petrel’.
The Curwillet is probably a sanderling; the Tarrock is a young kittiwake, and the Wagel is a type of grey gull. It is noted in one of Pennant’s favourite books (the work, he claimed in his autobiography, which first made him a naturalist), the 1678 Ornithology of Francis Willughby and John Ray, who describe it, rather entertainingly, thus:
“The Cornish men related to us for a certain truth, that this Bird is wont to persecute and terrifie the Sea-Swallows, and other small Gulls so long, till they mute for fear; and then catches their excrements before they fall into the water, and greedily devours them as a great dainty: This some of them affirmed themselves to have seen.”
Whether the patient rector of Ludgvan managed to ‘procure’, stuff and parcel up a specimen for his friend is not revealed, but the Wagel did make an appearance in the pages of the British Zoology some years later.
Many thanks to staff at the Morrab Library; to Nick and Ann Round for hospitality in Penzance, and to Oliver Padel and Isobel Harvey for their enthusiastic identification of Cornish sea-birds.
Further Reading: P.A.S. Pool, William Borlase (Truro: Royal Institution of Cornwall, 1986)
Our project panel will be held on Saturday 21st July, 10.45-12.15.
Curious Travellers: Thomas Pennant’s Scottish Tours and Networks
Chair: Gerry Carruthers (Glasgow)
Nigel Leask (Glasgow), ‘Ossianic Networks: Pennant, Dr Johnson, and Donald MacQueen of Kilmuir’
Alex Deans (Glasgow), ‘Authority, Locality and History in Thomas Pennant’s Scottish Networks’
Kirsty McHugh (U. of Wales/NLS), ‘In the Footsteps of Pennant and Johnson: Reverend James Bailey’s 1787 Highland Tour’
“To prevent all disputes about the place and time of my birth, be it known that I was born on June 14th, 1726, old style, in the room now called the Yellow Room; that the celebrated Mrs Clayton, of Shrewsbury, ushered me into the world, and delivered me to Miss Jenny Parry, of Merton, in the parish; who to her dying day never failed telling me. ‘Ah, you rogue! I remember you when you had not a shirt to your back’”.
Pennant, The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell (1796)
To see where Pennant spent his birthday in 1772 go to:
The research team has been focused for the last few months on preparing selections of letters and tours for online publication. We are planning to launch the first batch of these at a conference to be held this November in the Linnaean Society in London (details below). Getting texts ready for digital publication has proved to be quite a challenge, involving technical aspects (such as tagging names) that go well beyond the usual editorial tasks. But this will make it possible to search the material in many different ways: it should lead to some interesting new angles on Pennant’s correspondence, and will help us to understand how later writers and travellers used his work. We are, as ever, hugely grateful to our technical team, Luca Guariento and Vivien Williams, for having made this complex process as easy as possible for us.
Exhibition and Events October-December 2018
The project is in its final year of funding, and we plan to celebrate four very busy years with a series of events in London, centred on a three-month exhibition to be held in the wonderful setting of the Dr Johnson House Museum. Working with Curator Celine Luppo McDaid, we will explore the famous Highland tour made by Johnson and Boswell in 1775 and its relation to Pennant’s own tours. The letters and tour diaries of Hester Piozzi – Johnson’s close friend and Pennant’s neighbour and relation – will also be included. Various events are planned during the course of the exhibition: please note the following dates!
4 October: Exhibition Opens: Curious Travellers: Dr Johnson and Thomas Pennant on Tour
30 October: Dr Mary-Ann Constantine will give a lecture to the Cymmrodorion Society
15 November (evening event): Professor Murray Pittock and Professor Nigel Leask will give talks on Johnson and Pennant.
16 November: Day conference and launch of digital texts in the Linnaean Society, Burlington House
14 December: An evening of poetry and music at the Dr Johnson House with Scottish and Welsh writers Alec Finlay and Ifor ap Glyn.
Our colleague from Oxford University’s Early Modern Letters Online, Dr Miranda Lewis, gives an account of a transcribing workshop organized for History students at the University of the West of England, Bristol, in March this year. Many thanks to her, and to Dr Sarah Ward of UWE, for making this event happen!