Category Archives: News

Curious Travellers 2: A New Project

We’re delighted to announce the start of a further ‘Curious Travellers’ project with funding from the AHRC!

An exciting collaborative research project with the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Glasgow University and the Natural History Museum will produce the first ever scholarly editions of Thomas Pennant’s Tours of Wales and Scotland.

‘Barmouth’ by Moses Griffith (ca 1778) National Library of Wales

‘Curious Travellers 2: Digital Editions of Thomas Pennant’s Tours of Wales and Scotland’ is an innovative project combining traditional textual editing with new approaches in the digital humanities. These will be the first ever scholarly editions of the influential Welsh and Scottish tours of the Flintshire-based naturalist and antiquarian Thomas Pennant of Downing (1726-98), and they will be freely available to all users.

Partnerships with the national libraries of Wales and Scotland, the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and Historic Environment Scotland will allow us to link Pennant’s writings to a wealth of contemporary images and information.

Pennant’s Tours shaped perceptions of Wales and Scotland in ways that remain with us today. We’re especially delighted to be teaming up with the Natural History Museum to explore how Pennant’s work as a naturalist shaped his travels. This is a fantastic opportunity to bring these rich, multi-layered texts to life.

The Curious Travellers team will also be working with schools and communities in Flintshire and the Isle of Skye, and will co-host exhibitions in Greenfield Valley Heritage Park, and the Gilbert White House in Selbourne.

More news to follow!

Fundraising in Whitford, Crowdsourcing in Aber

Some Curious Travellers project members are hard at work editing Thomas Pennant’s tours of Wales and Scotland for our forthcoming online edition, but that doesn’t mean we’re all hidden away in our offices and libraries: two events hosted by the project last month show that we and our collaborators are already helping to bring the good news about Pennant to the wider world.

On Sunday 19th May the project joined forces with the renowned Hawarden Singers to present an afternoon of songs and readings in the Church of St Mary and St Beuno, Whitford. This was Pennant’s local church, a short walk up the dingle from Downing Hall; he and his family are buried here, and the church boasts an unusual range of interesting monuments, including the marble memorial to Pennant by Richard Westmacott, medieval carved stones and some fine stained glass windows.

An enthusiastic audience enjoyed a combination of readings from Pennant’s own work, and some superb songs from the choir, led by Malcom Williams. The event began with a reading of a new poem by the Chairman (and resident bard) of the Thomas Pennant Society, which nicely linked Pennant’s interest in birds – warblers in particular – to the wonderful programme of singing which followed.  Dr Martin Crampin talked us through details of the stunning stained glass windows, and Sarah Baylis and Mary-Ann Constantine voiced Pennant’s thoughts on everything from fairy changelings to the migration of herring. Many kind volunteers provided tea and a dizzying array of cakes. We would like to thank the Reverend Kathryn Evans for her warm welcome, and Churchwarden Peter Stutchfield for his tireless work in organising and promoting the event.

Thanks to the generosity of our audience, the event raised £1000 to help protect this important Grade I listed building. The Curious Travellers project has been working closely with Whitford Church to raise awareness of its historical importance. We are currently preparing a new heritage guide and have also designed a website where you can learn more about its many treasures – and also add your donations to ours, keeping this vital community and heritage hub running

Our dealings with the church are far from finished – on Wed  5th June our commissioned artist Sean Harris will be using its dramatic space once again, sharing the work he has been doing on Pennant’s British Zoology with pupils from nearby Ysgol y Llan.

A choir in bright blue jackets holding music folders, singing beneath a multicoloured stained-glass window in a church. Rows of audience members line the pews listening to them.
The Hawarden Singers delight the crowd at Whitford Church [Image: Martin Crampin]

Then, on Thursday May 23rd, we organised an event soundtracked more by the quiet clicking of keyboards than the dulcet tones of a choir. Led by our project Co-investigator Lisa Cardy from the Natural History Museum in London, this was a crowdsourcing workshop at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, where a party of volunteers helped us to tag the contents of images from Pennant’s lavishly illustrated tour manuscripts. This information will eventually be incorporated into our online editions of Pennant’s tours, allowing readers to match our edited texts with the images Pennant used to decorate them. Even our online editions, then, are going to be collaborations with the growing audience of Pennant enthusiasts out in the wider world beyond academia – a testament to the continuing appeal of his tours in the twenty-first century.

Launching ‘Travels at Home’

Elizabeth Edwards

It’s been a busy few weeks for the Welsh side of the project, but we are delighted to be able to say that our new exhibition ‘Travels at Home: Thomas Pennant, the Dee Estuary and Greenfield Valley’ is now up and running at Greenfield Valley Heritage Park.

A group of children and adults stand in a brightly lit exhibition room around information boards and a book in a display case, listening to a woman with dark hair in a grey jacket speak.

The exhibition centres on Pennant’s relationships with some of the places closest to his home, Downing Hall, just outside the village of Whitford. The exhibition covers the cultural writings he composed at Downing, the natural history specimens he studied and displayed there (especially in his library), and the industrial and scientific changes that were emerging in his local area at exactly the same moment. The Greenfield Valley is just a few miles from Downing, and it takes us to the edge of the estuary. But the short journey to the sea means encountering a very different sort of watery landscape, defined by the spring at the top of the valley in Holywell, better known as the holy site of St Winifred’s Well. In the eighteenth century this water powered a complex of industrial buildings (mills, forges, furnaces) on its way down to the shore.

A group of mostly children move through an exhibition space, with a display case in the foreground holding a large block of coal surrounded by sea-shells

The exhibition tells the story of these buildings, and the copper, cotton and other industries that boomed in and around the valley. It’s a story of technical innovation and economic progress, but it’s also one of human suffering and environmental catastrophe that is still shaping the world today. Greenfield’s strategic location near the sea tied its industries into global trading patterns in raw materials and manufactured goods, and (disturbingly) the trade in enslaved people. And so the exhibition also explains some of the valley’s vivid contradictions: the estuary’s coal kept poor families warm and fuelled the factories, but its legacy today is a rapidly warming atmosphere and environmental crisis. Or see the abandoned buildings, once full of smoke and noise, but now reclaimed by nature and rich habitats for wildlife.

Greenfield is one of those places where it’s easy to feel that the eighteenth century is not just near but never really over.

We marked the opening of the exhibition (20 April 2024) with a day of talks and activities, from storytelling and comic-creating, to lectures on Pennant and the history of Greenfield, local place names, and the artistic potential of the estuary. And we also launched our accompanying exhibition catalogue, which provides a more permanent space for the images and narratives featured in ‘Travels at Home’. The catalogue can be purchased HERE (for £3.50 + postage).

The front cover of an exhibition's catalogue, standing on a table: the cover shows an eighteenth century picture of a house by the sea, and it bears the title "Travels at Home: Thomas Pennant, The Dee Estuary and Greenfield Valley"

Grateful thanks to the staff at Greenfield for their support and for practical help with the exhibition!

‘Travels at Home’ can be visited until July.

Funding for two new pilot projects on Thomas Pennant’s Outlines of the Globe

Congo and Angola Map from Thomas Pennant’s ‘Outlines of the Globe’
Congo and Angola Map from Thomas Pennant’s ‘Outlines of the Globe’
©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Two researchers from the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies have received funding for pilot projects which will allow greater access to treasures held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. Outlines of the Globe is a set of extraordinary illustrated manuscripts compiled by Flintshire naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726-1798)—an ‘Imaginary World Tour’ covering areas from West Africa and Northern Europe to India, Japan, and Indonesia.  Based on Pennant’s lifelong experience as a traveller, antiquarian and naturalist, combined with the first-hand knowledge of his unparalleled network of international correspondents, Outlines offers an overview of the eighteenth-century world as observed from the British archipelago. Both projects will help us to understand how Britons imagined their empire in an expansive global context.

Dr Rhys Kaminski-Jones (currently a post-doctoral fellow at CAWCS) has obtained a Caird Fellowship in the National Maritime Museum to study the manuscripts for three months. He will expand the existing online catalogue entries for the 22 volumes of the Outlines at the NMM, allowing future researchers to better navigate this fascinating material. He will also write blogs for the Royal Museums Greenwich website and conduct new research into Pennant’s archive, concentrating on the manuscript’s innovative approach to travel writing, its place in networks of European imperialism, and its portrayal of the relationship between Wales and India.

Dr Ffion Mair Jones (Research Fellow at CAWCS) has obtained a grant from Wales Innovation Network (WIN) to develop a project focused specifically on Pennant’s manuscript on West Africa: this volume may have been put together in 1788 at a key moment in the debate about abolition in Britain. Working with colleagues from the National Maritime Museum, Race Council Wales, Bristol, Glasgow and Cardiff Universities, Dr Jones’s project will examine the compilation of both text and images from a decolonising perspective, asking questions about the nature of late C18th representation of African cultures and people.

Both projects build on work done over the years with the Curious Travellers project, and demonstrate the relevance of Pennant’s work to some of the key questions of our own times.

Shortlisted for the Saltire National Book Awards 2021, Best Research Book of the Year

We are thrilled to see Nigel Leask’s Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour c.1720-1830 on the shortlist for the Research Award in the Scotland’s National Book Awards 2021. This work has made a huge contribution to understanding of the history and development of Scottish tours in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Whilst the lens is trained on the literary records of these tours, it’s hard to imagine more impressive interdisciplinary range brought to bear on this fascinating topic.
Oxford University Press

More information here.

Nigel Leask, Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour c.1720-1830 (Oxford: OUP, 2020)

Curious Travellers are delighted to announce a major new publication. Here, Nigel Leask explains what this book sets out to do.

Stepping Westward grew out of the wider research on Pennant’s Welsh and Scottish tours central to Curious Travellers: that’s why the chapter on Pennant’s Scottish tours is really the keystone of the book. It’s the first study of its kind dedicated to the literature of the Scottish Highland tour 1720-1830, which attracted writers and artists like Pennant, Johnson and Boswell, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Hogg, Keats, Daniell, and Turner, as well as numerous less celebrated travellers and tourists. Addressing more than a century’s worth of literary and visual accounts of the Highlands, the book casts new light on how the tour developed a modern literature of place, acting as a catalyst for thinking about improvement, landscape, and the shaping of British, Scottish and Gaelic identities. Special attention is paid to the relationship between travellers and the native Gaels, whose world was plunged into crisis by rapid and forced social change in the wake of Culloden. The best-selling tours of Pennant and Dr Johnson, alongside the Ossian craze and Gilpin’s picturesque, stimulated a wave of ‘home tours’ from the 1770s through the romantic period, including writing by women like Sarah Murray and Dorothy Wordsworth. The incidence of published Highland Tours (many lavishly illustrated), peaked around 1800, but as the genre reached exhaustion, the ‘romantic Highlands’ were reinvented in Scott’s poems and novels, coinciding with steam boats and mass tourism, but also rack-renting, sheep clearance and emigration.”

More information.

Research Visitor to Curious Travellers from India.

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.