Liz Edwards & Mary-Ann Constantine
It’s been some 18 months in the making, but our exhibition of artistic responses to Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Wales – ‘Movement, Landscape, Art’ – opens shortly. Here’s a brief preview of some of the works that will be on show at Oriel Sycharth, Glyndŵr University (10 October – 16 December; http://www.glyndwr.ac.uk/OrielSycharthGallery/), and some reflections on the ideas and processes that lie behind them.
The works comprising ‘Movement, Landscape, Art’ are striking, eclectic, moving, and thought-provoking. We had no idea how the thirteen artists would reply to Pennant, but the works inspired by him in the exhibition couldn’t range more widely – from painting and pottery to sound and film art. We’ve recently been working on the artists’ statements accompanying their work, and these have been no less a revelation to us than the works themselves. Key themes thread through these accounts: the slipperiness of the past, always just over that hill, disappearing from view. The thrill, nonetheless, of glimpsing hidden stories, places, scenes. The responsibility (obligation even) for telling forgotten histories of hardship and suffering. Or the enduring quality of the past – not necessarily lost, but sometimes only veiled. And always comprehensible, in one way or another, from a twenty-first-century perspective.
It’s been wonderful to see, in private conversations as well as in the works themselves, or the blogs that chart the process of creating them, how deeply Pennant has sunk into the thoughts and practice of some of the artists. Engaging with his travel writing has taken them to new places – geographically and conceptually – or else inspired them to see familiar ones with fresh eyes.
Every piece within the exhibition embodies these discoveries: here are just a few examples from the many within the show. Ali Lochhead’s prints, based on pigments ground from rock collected at Parys Mountain, evoke the traumatic history of mining, in highly dramatic (but natural) colours very different from her previous work on lead mines. Helen Pugh’s embroidery delicately captures Pennant the naturalist in springtime, in bright green thread and ash seedpods. Barbara Matthew’s shallow-space installations in slate and paint record, and confront, the changing nature of one particular landscape, now far less accessible than it was when Pennant travelled through it. Thomas Pennant himself peers out in miniature from a battered travelling case, surrounded (trapped?) by found objects – broken china, a feather – in the work of Stuart Evans.
These pieces, along with those of nine other exhibiting artists, are beautiful, and unsettling, as they overlay past and present, text and image. Created over the course of 2016, they bring history to life at an uncertain moment in our own time.
I wasn’t really sure where to start with following Thomas Pennant, he wrote so much about this region. The original plan was to look for references to sighthounds (as we have two) but this bit didn’t excite as much as I’d hoped. Further reading soon threw up some images that had us itching to get across to north-west Wales.
Pennant writes of Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach: ‘Our pains were fully repaid on attaining the summit. The area was covered with groups of columnar stones, of vast size, from ten to thirty feet long, lying in all directions’ (A Tour in Wales, vol. 2, p. 151).
He continues on the next page, ‘Many of the stones had, bedded in them, shells, and in their neighbourhood I found several pieces of lava. I would therefore rather consider this mountain to have been a sort of wreck of nature, formed and flung up by some mighty internal convulsion, which has given these vast groups of stones fortuitously such a strange disposition…’ (vol. 2, p. 152).
This alien landscape appealed to my partner, Andy and I, so the next day we set off on the drive to Snowdonia, along with our Kit-the-lurcher and Bonnie-the-Whippet. Photo diary below:
Being a meander around Pen Llŷn following Mr Pennant’s pen and Mr Griffith’s brush, beginning with an encounter with the Fairies at Penmorfa, and concluding amongst the Giants on Tre’r Ceiri.
“…Pwllheli, the best town in this country, and the magazine of good which supplies all this tract. It lies close on the shore, and has a tolerable harbour for vessels of about sixty tons. The entrance is by a high rock called the Gimlet, a mile from land, to which it is joined by a range of sand-hills.”
Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales, Volume 2
On his second tour of Wales in 1776, Thomas Pennant rode towards Pen Llŷn, following the coast, the sea lapping around his horse’s hooves, across the mouth of the Afon Erch, between the peaks of Crochan Berw, otherwise known as Gimblet Rock, along the beach, and into that best of towns, Pwllheli. He had ridden from Penmorfa where he had encountered Mary Bach, ‘a well proportioned fairy, of the height of three feet four,’ and her brother Dick, three feet eleven. It was as well that he was prepared for meeting fairies, for Pen Llŷn has more than its share.
I rode into Pwllheli on Thursday 23rd June 2016, not on horseback, but on Arriva Trains Wales, having also encountered the fairies on the way. On the platform at Dyfi Junction, famous for being home to more nesting ospreys than people, I bumped into the amiable curator of the Coleridge in Wales Project, Richard Parry, who was touring the country on his collapsible bicycle. He was on his way to the RS Thomas Festival in Aberdaron, so inevitably we fell into exchanging stories, concluding with the tale of a man who believed he had encountered the fairies as a boy on Ynys Môn, only to meet them again as a young soldier in Dunkirk in 1918, when he realised they were not fairies, but itinerant migrant workers. When Richard leaves the train at Barmouth, I know I am about to enter a fairytale.
At Pwllheli Station, I resolve to trace Pennant’s entry into Pen Llŷn over the ‘high rock called the Gimlet’. I walk out towards the sea, around the harbour where an eel has wrapped itself around a heron’s beak to avoid being swallowed, on through the council estate with its Bardic stone circle which doubles as goalposts, past a bench with a jar of flowers placed on it in memory of the names on its two plaques, past the Lifeboat House and the Boatyard, and on to the Gimblet Rock Holiday Park (Luxury Homes for Sale).
I walk around the back of the Park, turn and climb over the Rock to gain the full curious traveller experience. A couple are canoodling in the surrounding sand dunes, while speakers attached to an i-phone play selections from Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog. Well, alright, it probably isn’t Botwnnog’s finest, but everything on Pen Llŷn sounds like wild west Welsh alt-country if you’re in the mood. And the waves are dancing to the rhythm of ‘Ceffylau ar D’rannau.’
From the top of the Rock, the beach stretches out in a sublime curve towards Llanbedrog, the view that surely embraced Pennant as he entered the best damn town in the country. A memory returns, of the Golden Eagle who lived in one of the terraced houses on the Prom. It liked to sit on the gatepost hypnotising tourists with its yellow eye, lulling them into a false sense of cuteness, before it launched itself into the air with a terrifying explosion of feathers, and flew up and down the Prom followed by its owner’s large dog and a flock of small children.
I walk back into Pwllheli past a derelict shop at the back of the prom. I bought my comics here, tales of The Inferior Five, the adventures of a group of incompetent superheroes who thought they could save the world, and often did, but only by accident. Which reminds me, it’s 23rd June, Referendum Day. The day Wales turned upside down. A hand-written sign in the locked door of the local cobblers reads, ‘It’s about Islamisation. Safeguard your children, your spouse, your culture, your life. Vote LEAVE.”
This is the town where everyone was a member of the Conservative Club, not because they voted Tory, but because it was the only place they could buy a drink when Pen Llŷn was Sabbath-dry. I walk around the Maes, past the site of the old slaughterhouse, and stand outside the Gwalia where my mam bought out-of-date cakes for a penny each at the end of the day’s trading. There is no sign of an Islamic invasion. Only pale arms and weathered faces, and a few white hairy legs. I follow the advice on the cobbler’s sign, and leave.
I catch the bus towards Aberdaron, which rattles along past the entrance to the Polish Village at Penrhos, where Saunders Lewis and friends protested in 1936 at the destruction of the sixteenth century house at Penyberth by setting fire to the newly built airfield, which is now a retirement home for the families of Polish airmen who were stationed there. The local women still wear the red and green of traditional dress. They are easily mistaken for fairies. There is a poster on the bus advertising a Bingo night in Trefor. Soon, Carn Fadryn floats into view.
Before Pennant continued his journey to Aberdaron, he took a ride up Carn Fadryn, the hill that rises alone above the central Llyn landscape. The local boys called it ‘Y Tit’. They called a nearby hill ‘Brown Willie,’ such is the nature of folklore. Curiously, Pennant didn’t mention this, preferring to describe the remains of iron age houses, ‘cells, oblong, oval, or circular, once thatched, or covered from the inclemency of the weather.’ Neither did he mention the fairies who lived up there and frequently ‘borrowed’ things from the cottagers, and generally made mischief. Cow pats through letter boxes was a favourite.
From the top of Carn Fadryn I can see Aberystwyth. On the hillside to the south-west is a farm called Trygarn, the childhood home of Moses Griffith. Moses was Pennant’s travelling companion, friend and servant, twenty three years his master’s junior, employed to draw and sketch the landscape and produce engravings for his mentor’s proposed edition of ‘Tours in Wales.’ He had lived at Pennant’s home at Whitford since 1769, supported and encouraged in a way that struggling artists today endlessly dream of. He was a fine natural history painter and scientific illustrator, good enough for his work to be catalogued and conserved in the National Library. And he had learned his art right here. For the first 22 years of his young life, Moses grew up overlooking Carn Fadryn.
And this is where the storyteller in me takes over. Was Moses with Pennant on that day? He accompanied his benefactor on all his travels up to 1790, so unless he stayed behind in Pwllheli, the two men were travelling together. Chattering, eating bread and cheese, writing and sketching, looking south to Pembrokeshire, where twenty years later they would have seen the legendary French invasion of Fishguard being thwarted by Big Jemima. And what was their relationship? A Welsh Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, Boswell and Johnson, or Giraldus and the Archbishop? And did young Moses take his mentor to meet his poor family at Trygarn?
I keep to the high ground, and walk on to Bryncroes. There’s no one around so I call in the Polling Station. It’s empty save for the invigilator and the caretaker. The invigilator has heard of Moses, but can’t remember where from. The caretaker isn’t from the village, so only has a recent memory. We discuss the craziness of anyone voting Brexit when Pen Llŷn is sustained by EU money, though the invigilator suspects some will do exactly that. Turkeys voting for Christmas. He tells me the farmer at Trygarn is friendly, and directs me over the brow of the hill towards Sarn Meyllteyrn.
A renovated cottage stands at the entrance to Trygarn, which in Pennant’s day could easily have been a poorly thatched hovel like so many of the ruins on Pen Llŷn. The track to the farm is long and wide, to accommodate heavy agricultural machinery. Mountains of tyres hold down a sea of black polythene. The farmer explains that the house was built around 1700, an imposing building with three floors. Moses was said to have come from a poor family, but this is no cottage or hovel.
The farmer points to a small plaque on the side wall of the farmhouse, placed there in 2003 by Cwmdeithas Thomas Pennant Society. He says that no one has been to see it during the three years he’s been farming here. I ask if I could take some photos and do some drawing, and he nods his head, looks a little quizical, says he has work to do, and he leaves me to it. Best to keep a distance from itinerant arty types.
Moses looked out on Carn Fadryn from his window. He painted it in 1774 when he was 27. It’s called ‘Botwnnog Church and Free School,’ but the church in the foreground doesn’t look like the current church, which has a roundish steeple and no visible bell, rather than the rectangular steeple with a single arch and bell that Moses painted. It looks more like Eglwys Bryncroes, or the now demolished Eglwys Sarn Meyllteyrn. Or maybe Moses moved the landscape around to improve the design, as romantic painters had a tendency to do (witness Turner’s painting of Hafod). The same way that landowners diverted waterfalls to improve nature’s aesthetics, or storytellers move stories from one place to another.
All around Trygarn there are fairytales. Dic Aberdaron wandered through here with his pockets stuffed with books, harp strapped to his back, and a cat on his shoulder. A farm nearby was called ‘The house with the front door at the back,’ where the fairies lived unseen by the owner, an old man who kept a smelly muck heap by his doorstep. At Castell March to the south, the landscape refused to keep the secret of a vain King who had horse’s ears. To the west is Ynys Enlli with it’s Kings, Saints and Pirates, and Aberdaron famous now for its birdwatcher, poet and vicar.
This landscape is built from layers of stories and images, smells and sounds. Faces peer inquisitively from beneath the water. Old characters walk the lanes as wraiths. Ghosts drive tractors. Bwgans pull the wheels off four-by-fours. Stone walls meander across the landscape, the wobbles indicating where the waller had a drop too much and met the fairies. There’s a man clearing the bracken. Dan, his name. He burns the gorse, too. There are dreams and memories everywhere.
There we are. I’m on my way to Aberdaron, now. If you’d like to hear more tales, of the Kings of Bardsey, Elis Bach the Changeling farmer of Nant Gwrtheyrn, and how the entrance to the Otherworld lies beneath the golf course at Porthdynlleyn, then you are most cordially invited to Oriel Sycharth in Wrecsam on November 23rd at 6pm, to be tinctured further with the piety of place.
The day will consist of a leisurely walk of about four miles in total, with frequent stops for talks and performances. Many (though not all) of these will happen during the first part of the day, so participants could leave earlier if desired. We will aim to have a lateish lunch (bring a picnic) about 1.15. We will be following marked paths, but please be aware that some of these are steep and slippery – more so in the afternoon when we head up to the Cascade. There is no charge for the day, but contributions towards Eglwys Newydd and Hafod Trust would be welcome. There is NO mobile phone coverage: nearest landline is Hafod Estate Offices. Bring anoraks, sun-cream and midge-spray!
Times below are very approximate and our progress will depend on the number of people who turn up. Besides the scheduled talks there will be more impromptu readings / songs as we walk. Any further queries please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
10.30: Gather at Eglwys Newydd church: parking and toilet available. The Friends of Eglwys Newydd have organized a small exhibition and are kindly offering tea and coffee. The artist Sarah Byfield may be showing some of her maps.
10.50: Jennie MacVe: welcome on behalf of the Hafod Trust
- 00: Martin Crampin: Stained glass at Eglwys Newydd
11.20: Easy walk down (part of the Lady’s Walk) from church to Estates office (20-30 minutes)
11.50 – 12.30: Short talks by Peter Wakelin (the painter John Piper at Hafod) and Peter Stevenson (current film project on stories from the area).
12.30 – 12.50: Outside the ruins of the house: landscape archaeologist Andy Peters on the Treescapes at Hafod.
12.50 -1.10 Easy walk to Mrs Johnes’ Flower Garden. Picnic here if nice, and a chance to explore the work of artist Christine Watkins, who will be making a labyrinth on the grass.
Short talk by Michael Freeman on tourists to Wales.
2.15 pm: Walk (20-30 minutes) from garden, over bridge and loop right, cutting diagonally up to Gentleman’s Walk, and along to the wooded knoll by Pant Melyn.
2.45: Short talk by Mary-Ann Constantine on Iolo Morganwg’s visit to Hafod in 1799.
3pm onwards. From here people can visit the Cavern Cascade (10 minutes’ walk) in small groups – note the path is steep and slippery.
3.30: Option to head directly or indirectly back to Church – the latter route will take in the Chain Bridge and the newly restored Gothic arch, and will probably add 20-30 minutes to the walk.
4-4.30 return to Eglwys Newydd and depart.
As part of the Curious Travellers research project, we’re encouraging members of the public (as well as researchers) to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Pennant on his tours through 18th century Scotland, Wales, England or Ireland. We’d love to hear your account of your experiences of landscape, people, places, archaeology, natural environment, industrial sites, etc associated with Pennant’s tours – perhaps in the spirit of modern travellers like W.G. Sebald, Rob Mcfarlane, Kathleen Jamie, or Iain Sinclair! We welcome anything from the barest of blogs to more detailed travel accounts, in prose or verse, where possible illustrated with photographs or (even better) your own drawings or sketches.
As a starter, Alex Deans and Nigel Leask have written up their two day’s tour following Pennant in northern Argyll – we hope that will inspire others.
If you would like to contribute to this blog then please get in touch.
Pennant’s itineraries are published at the end of this tours, and we’ll shortly be uploading a map showing his routes in Scotland and Wales. Bon voyage!
The AHRC-funded ‘Curious Travellers’ project is pleased to advertise a fully-funded PhD, to start 1st October 2015, exploring any aspect of C18th and Romantic-period tours to Wales and Scotland. The post will be based in the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (CAWCS) in Aberystwyth, and will run for three years. We invite applicants to offer ideas from a broad spectrum of possible research topics within the main subject of ‘The Welsh and Scottish Tour 1760-1820’. Suggestions might include (but are not restricted to):
Perceptions of Wales and the Welsh/ Scotland and the Scots in written tours, published and unpublished; the experience of female travellers; antiquarian recoveries of early Britain; the writings of Thomas Pennant; correspondence and knowledge networks; encounters with Welsh/Gaelic literature or song; natural history writing in the tours; enlightenment science and domestic travel; topographical art and artists. A candidate interested in the visual art aspects of the project would have the possibility of working closely with the topographical art collections in the national libraries and museums of Wales and Scotland.
The successful candidate will work alongside a team of researchers currently engaged in the AHRC-funded project “Curious Travellers: Thomas Pennant and the Welsh and Scottish Tour (1760-1820)”, jointly run by CAWCS and the University of Glasgow, and led by Dr Mary-Ann Constantine and Professor Nigel Leask. The deadline for applications is 30 April 2015: for further information about the project and details of the award please contact email@example.com