It’s confession time. I love maps, I have old maps of various parts of the North East and North Wales in frames on my walls, with the aim of making my kitchen-diner looking suitably gastro-eclectic. I love that they help us find our way, stake claim to territory, and shed light on what was and what might have been, and have done for hundreds of years.
The confession, however, is not to being a collector of maps; the confession is to my being, shall we say, directionally challenged. ‘Not finding my way out of a paper bag’ is a family joke, so for me to consider a walking tour is a source of hilarity to my nearest and dearest. It’s something that almost made me say ‘no’ when my good friend Liz Edwards suggested I combine my love of writing with my work as a landscape artist in this project. And to take a tour in Wales? I’m a foreigner, an English migrant from a North Eastern ex-mining town, married to a Welshman. However, beautiful Wales has me hooked, so it’s with this understanding of how Wales can work her charm on you that I come to write with, I hope, a similar love that Thomas Pennant had for Wales, on what I will describe as my ‘mini-tour’. As an artist, however (and someone truly terrified of being lost), mine will not be an exact step-by-step retracing of Pennant’s steps – but simply an artist’s response to a place that he visited.
Tal-y-Llyn Lake/ Llyn Mwyngil (note spelling difference, Pennant refers to it as Myngil)
I was initially intrigued by the fact that Pennant travelled close to where my in-laws’ holiday home is in a village near Tywyn (Towyn Meirionydd) and he mentioned a small lake close-by that I hadn’t realised existed.
‘….ride several miles along the pretty vale of Tal y Llyn; very narrow but consisting of fine meadows, bounded by lofty verdant mountains, very steeply sloped. Went by Llyn y Myngil, a beautiful lake, about a mile long, which so far fills the valley, as to leave only a narrow road on one side. It’s termination is very picturesque; for it contracts gradually into the form of a river, and rushes through a good stone arch (I couldn’t see this – AH) into a narrow pass.’ (p. 94)
I took a drive with the family on Monday 26th October to see if the area was worth writing about, or whether I should reconsider my (foolish?) agreement. I have to say, on a glorious autumn day, this petite lake didn’t let me down – it might be small in size, but in the shadow of Cadair Idris, Snowdonia, Tal-y-Llyn Lake was breathtaking; the mountains majestically mirrored in the calm surface of the water.
So, the following day I took myself there again by car and parked in a small lay-by. I had packed my art pad, pencils, pastels, pens, as well as my camera and iphone; certainly modern additions to the tools used by Moses Griffith, Pennant’s servant/artist (‘untaught genius’). I suppose I was hoping for the spirit of Pennant or Griffith to join me, guide me, to show up as a ghostly presence. He would, I imagine, be bemused by my need to take time out to take photos for blog posting, though to the 21st-century traveller his Tour of Wales could be seen as the 18th-century version of social media ‘check-ins’ at places of interest; “hey, look who I have been chatting to”, “what a wonderful view (might make a few people back home jealous)” and “having a few pints in the local pub (yes, those working hard at home may well be smarting by now)”.
As my own art enquiry is concerned with mindfulness, I aim to bring a moment of peace or a moment of energy from the past (as I have seen it) to the present, so I suggested that my response to this project would be to try to marry this historic tour, the location, art, and mindfulness together. As a practice, mindfulness can help you to deal with stress and worrying in a more kind and understanding way and help you to be wholly in the present moment. The Wildmind website gives a really useful guide to a walking meditation, so I wanted to use this to see if I could explore this place and perhaps come to an alternative understanding of what Thomas Pennant was trying to do:
“Meditation is a process of developing greater awareness so that we can make changes to our consciousness so that we can be more deeply fulfilled, and have a greater understanding of life.” http://www.wildmind.org/walking/overview
Was he trying to enliven the senses of those reading about his tours? Did he get the same breathless rush of excitement when he arrived here? Was he trying to capture the memories and images of a serene lake for an early form of meditation? I know he certainly didn’t use a Mindfulness app on his iphone, such as I often use, to talk him through meditations, nor an Ordnance Survey app to identify the mountains, nor a voice recorder for his thoughts (what would he make of that?). Although these were options open to me as a 21st-century woman, I chose to discard them in favour of a pencil and paper, and you will see some of my inner voice/ thoughts in italics. As I walked, I kept in mind:
- What do I feel?
- What do I hear?
- What can I see around me?
- How do I feel? What emotions are arising?
- How does the place smell?
- What are the tiny details I might have otherwise overlooked?
- How does any of this transfer to ideas for paintings?
My journey began with the Ty’n-y-Cornel Hotel and St Mary’s Church (a 15th-century part-converted listed building, now used as a holiday let – I strayed into the graveyard initially, not sure if I was an unwelcome guest or not) to my left. I had already decided to take a full circular tour of the lake, despite being unsure of how long this would take.
“So do that now; come to a stop. And just experience yourself standing. Just notice what it’s like to no longer be in motion.” http://www.wildmind.org/walking/introduction
Colours bright, joy, life, fortunate, happy, peace. My hair whipped across my face in the autumn wind and I noticed the sound of the water lapping amongst the reeds and grasses; it was more breezy than the day before. As I set off again, I approached the edge of the lake to investigate the bright orange reeds (they didn’t look that bright from a distance), I almost fell in. Yes, that would have been a rather soggy start to the morning, so I edged away, my heart beating a little faster and I looked around to see if anyone had seen my near-miss. This was quickly replaced by a sudden uneasy feeling that the hills were taking in all of my movements. Don’t be daft, it’s just because you’re on your own. Daft? That’s harsh. Breathe and let any self-criticism go. As I moved further away from the 2 pub/restaurants (tiny place, 2 pubs, can’t be bad, scone with jam later?), I had hoped to leave behind the sound of traffic, but the sound was a pretty constant hum, as the B4405 is a through road from Tywyn to Dolgellau. The sound of leaves underfoot was something I turned my attention to instead as I strode on through the lane beside the lake.
I spotted a horse trail winding uphill and wondered if that could take me to the view of Tywyn that Pennant talks of (p. 92), so I took a slight detour, only to find the route didn’t take me very high at all. I turned back and cantered downhill through mud mixed with chippings of slate, a reminder of the region’s heritage. Distant crows squawked as I came through the tunnel of trees and saw the lake from the opposite side to which I started.
Slow down. Gentle. This isn’t a race. Allow yourself to breathe. Where is your breath? High up in the chest? Let’s see if I can move it down to my stomach. Stop. Close my eyes. Fingers feeling cold.
Through the darkened tunnel of trees I had a sense of unease creep over me as I passed the Old Rectory B&B. Be brave. Alone. Fear. No phone signal. What if I hurt myself? You won’t, just be careful. Because I was conducting my journey using mindfulness, I also noticed flowers with pinks of different shades, the final remnants of summer. I’m sure someone can identify the species (I’m no gardener). I expected only russets, golds and orange at this time of year.
A lone emerald green boat in the middle of the lake made me slow down to take it in. What is it doing there? Had someone swum back from there? Ivory coloured interior just like the 1950s bakelite knife handles my Nana had. Strangely, memories emerge of my own childhood, brown bread and butter and homemade treacle tarts.
As I’m a landscape artist, I thought I had better make some rough sketches (I could have set up paints and an easel, but this would make it a rather static walk), so I sat down on some soft moss and ferns on the hillside (the moss was such an intricate design when I looked closely).
Wet bottom, great. Well done, sit on the bag instead. The vastness astounded me from this side. How do I fit it all in? The buildings look tiny. Two walkers passed me and nodded a greeting; the only other people I saw walking. Oh no, maybe I should have stopped them, interviewed them like Pennant might have. What would I ask? Nothing prepared. Damn it, missed my chance. Let it go.
Leaves were falling, dancing from the trees and as I continued further along the path, I admired the hand-built walls and passed rusted corrugated roofs on farm buildings – a theme that was emerging seemed to be textures and surprising colours. Two RAF jets disturbed the peace and I felt the sound rumble through my body. I hate that sound, it scares me. Calm. Calm. Breathe out. I spotted a sheep up ahead on the path, not in the fields, no, four sheep. No others walkers but unsurprisingly plenty sheep, just as Pennant noted of the area, ‘smooth hills, and covered with flocks, which yield the materials for the neighbouring manufactures.’ (p. 92)
They looked like 4 older women with rounded behinds bustling ahead to get out of my way. I tried to catch up with them. Stop. I’m hurrying, oh but that’s lovely, it’s posing for me on the hillside, framed by the trees with the lake in the background. Perfect. What am I feeling in this moment? I’m hurrying, anxious to get back, but not even halfway there yet. Slightly worrying. But the children are ok. Guilt. Let it go? Yes. Permission to breathe. Relax. I picked some wool off the fences and some coarse black hairs from a cow, great for texture in a painting, something I haven’t tried. The lone foxgloves up ahead were again an unexpected splash of purple/pink at this time of year – this has to be incorporated into my paintings somehow. And blackberries, the last few. I feel these are some of the details of nature Pennant may have noticed had he walked/ridden around the lake at this time of year, so I really wanted to pick up on these.
The final stretch
Can I turn right yet? Should I turn back and give up, not finish the circuit? Who would know I haven’t done it all? I would know. Local people would know. That black cow would know, and her friends, blacker than black, eyes all watching me, a stream dividing us, thankfully.
I crossed a wooden bridge and could see a road, but I was suddenly disappointed and a little annoyed to see a parked Next delivery van there. Didn’t he know I was trying to immerse myself in the landscape, that of a bygone age, casting off the commercial elements I am used to? The driver asked me about a farm address of which I had no knowledge, so I carried on along the road knowing that I was now at the far end of the lake and over half way there. I’m resenting tarmac? Why isn’t the road closer to the lake? This side is dull. Get a grip, I laugh to myself. Hungry and thirsty, can I wait? No, it might be further than I think, this road is winding. I pause to retrieve my bottle of water and a banana from my backpack, but realise I have to move to the other side of the road as I see the corner approaching; I’d rather not be pasted to the front of a lorry as it rounds the blind bend.
I hear chainsaws revving through the trees though couldn’t see anyone, certainly not a sound Pennant would have heard. As I pass some country lodges/B&Bs, I spot a white chicken and an upturned green wheelbarrow in a small-holding. I pause. Why is it making me smile? Maybe it’s a potential scene for a painting?
I reach a crazy paving path on my right alongside the lake (once again, the risk of me falling in is in the forefront of my mind) and this also eventually takes me within sight of my car in the lay-by. The sun was casting a beam across the mountains to my left and a line of sheep were travelling together in a chain through the ferns. I’d really like to have visited Castell y Bere (Tererri Castle, mentioned on p. 93) that day too, but I know even Pennant would have broken his journey into what was manageable as he mentions, ‘After recovering the fatigue of this journey…’ (p. 89). I can say that my own weary body was ready for rest and I congratulated myself on such a hike (though I had forgotten to set my Runkeeper app to see how far I had travelled). Looking at my watch I saw I had taken two and a half hours, this was a little longer than I had anticipated, but then I did stop regularly to take photos and make notes. Perhaps if others visit it will take significantly less time, but I would certainly not recommend the walk back on the B4405 road; perhaps turn around when you reach the wooden bridge. One last push forward, one last look at the lake on my right glistening in the warming midday sun, committing the scene to memory.
Future art as a response to the landscape
How do I feel having visited this lake? Happy, proud, enlightened, invigorated, hoping my response will be interesting enough to read. I am also full of new ideas for art. In taking part in just a tiny part of this tour, Thomas Pennant opened up a new landscape to me, one that I will treasure, and I felt an affinity with him as a traveller exploring the region and wanting to share what he had found with others. I felt humbled to have been guided here to this place (I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason), this being only part of a very long journey taken by a man who travelled through here around 250 years ahead of me.
I thank Thomas Pennant for showing me this place – the serenity, the unexpectedness as you make your way through the mountains and come across this little lake. I feel that applying mindfulness meditation to my own journey helped me to see different shades of hawthorn berries, foxgloves in October, very black cows, rusty roofs, 4 ‘old ladies’, a white chicken and a green wheelbarrow – an eclectic mix. We hurry through life and don’t often notice the most special, tiny details, which can become inspiration for future ideas or a source of wonder. Walking alone in an unfamiliar place with zero mobile phone signal is something that I can say I am not particularly comfortable with, but I found courage and perseverance that day. I feel this may offer me a foray away from my usual impressionistic landscapes into something more expressionist, but I will leave my options open. From this, I am interested in exploring lines, forms, textures of the land, surprising colours, closing circles of a tour/walk, completion, treading in the footsteps of others, layers of history, words and images.
Oh, and Serendipity also played her part too because had I not taken the journey that day, I would have missed the most stunning kite surfer images. I quickly pulled over my car on the way there to snap photos of a kite surfer walking on Aberdyfi beach with board in one arm, a 6ft kite held high in the air with the other arm. I’ve been stalking Wales’ beaches for months for these kind of images and it was a moment of great excitement, something I really want to share with others via a painting, something I think Thomas Pennant would have totally understood.
As one might have expected, Thomas Pennant was completely correct about the location of “Hen Llys” and “Maes y Bendithion”, and any thoughts I might have had about haunted castles were, indeed, castles in the air. Odd, though, that Pennant didn’t mention the motte and bailey at Hendre Isaf: he must have ridden past it on the way to LlanfairTalhaearn, and it’s difficult to miss. Ghosts on the other hand were presumably of little interest. I find that “The Castle of Otranto” was published four years before Pennant made his tour, but somehow I doubt that he would have enjoyed it. I imagine that Eighteenth century rationalists might have been a bit sniffy about the Gothic. There’s a thesis in there somewhere…
One of the most stimulating things about participating in the Curious Travellers project has been the exposure of huge gaps in my general knowledge: on my walk past Henllys a few weeks ago I noted the curious shapes of the fields and banks by the road but was unable to interpret them due to my complete ignorance of the relevant branch of physical geography (if that’s the correct discipline). Now I’m wondering whether the odd bank on one side of the road to the farm could be something to do with the moat. I should stop speculating, and find out.
Anyway, diolch yn fawr iawn i’r ddau Cledwyn – thanks to my neighbour and his friend the archivist, I can confirm that Maes y Bendithion (the Field of Blessings) does indeed exist, and is also known as “Erw’r Bendithion” (the Acre of Blessings). It is located at approximately SH913.696 on the modern Ordnance Survey map, just east of the farm at Henllys. There are other named fields associated with Hedd Molwynog in the immediate area, and the oral tradition of Erw’r Bendithion still persists in the village.
In addition to gathering fascinating information I am also collecting coincidences, and I find I have in fact already taken a photograph of the Acre of Blessings. During the walk mentioned above, I found a good place to take a photograph of the “most lovely view of a fertile little valley, bounded by hills covered with hanging woods” mentioned in connection with Garthewin, the seat of Robert Wynn on the opposite side of the river. The digital camera has flattened the image and has not done justice to the hanging woodland. However, it has taken quite a good shot of Erw’r Bendithion, lying in front of the line of trees in the middle distance.
The plan for the next stage was to wander around Llangernyw towards “Havodunos” Hall (sic), and then try to identify the location of y Maes y Bendithion in Llanfair T.H. I did wonder about doing it all on foot, but changed my mind at the last minute and made a mad dash to catch the bus.
The problems associated with local public transport can be visualised as follows: imagine the top half of an old-fashioned cartwheel with “Llanvair Dolhaearn”, a.k.a. LlanfairTalhaearn/Talhaiarn/TH., at the hub (of course). Thomas Pennant was able to ride in leisurely fashion from bottom left, clockwise around the rim to Llangernyw at bottom right, and then back across the horizontal spoke into LlanfairTH. Nowadays, the roads go up and down the spokes, but not all round the rim. The bus route runs from the hub at LlanfairTH. out to Llansannan, half way back along a spoke, out again to touch the rim briefly at Llangernyw and then westwards into the wide blue yonder. It returns several hours later to do the journey in the opposite direction. If you miss the last bus – at twelve minutes to two – you have to walk. Still, at least you have all afternoon to do it in.
After reading Mary Ann and Liz’s experiences with signs about alpacas, I was more than usually aware of notices today, and pleased to see an oak tree in the Llangernyw Memorial Gardens in the process of eating its’ own sign. However, there was nothing about alpacas, and I crossed the road and walked along the footpath through someone’s vegetable garden to Hafodunos Hall.
The hall has had a chequered history, and was originally a monastery before becoming a private house. The seat of “Howel Lloyd Esq.” in Pennant’s time, it was rebuilt by Sir Gilbert Scott in the 1860s with the latest in High Victorian mod-cons and a substantial, landscaped garden. It passed from family home to Grade 1 Listed wreck in the 20th century after multiple changes of use and an attack of arson, but is now back in private hands. www.hafodunos-hall.co.uk The present hall is out of sight and definitely out of bounds, being seriously unsafe in parts, pending restoration. The gardens are also being restored to their Edwardian glory with terraces and walks and specimen trees. Today the autumn silence was punctured by the sound of leaf-blowers and general horticultural activity as the new owners improved the shining hour. Passing through the park on a public right of way, beside a tributary of the Elwy, I experienced a little taste of the Sublime above yet another horrid chasm. I hadn’t realised there were so many of them in the area.
I was looking forward to the home cooking in The Old Stag, but after ordering a half of Mŵs Piws ale (yes, really. Purple Moose Brewery, Llandudno) I discovered I had left most of my money at home along with the bus timetable. Still, as there are only two buses daily in each direction, it is fairly easy to remember the approximate times and I was picked up along the road home. After a late lunch out of the fridge I set out in the car to investigate the Maes y Bendithion problem.
Pennant records that, in the parish of “LlanfairDolhaearn… was one of the residences of Hedd Molwynog, descended from RODERIC THE GREAT king of all Wales. A large moat, called Yr Hen Llys, marks the place: as the field, styled Maes y Bendithion, does the spot wher(e) the poor received his alms”.
My problem is as follows: Henllys, just outside LlanfairTH. is now a farm, but has no obvious traces of a moat although it looks as though the River Elwy may have flowed close to, or even around it at one time. There is a massive motte and bailey up river but it’s called Hendre Isaf, and it’s just outside Llangernyw. It is said to be a genuine pre-conquest Welsh castle (perhaps this explains why Henry II camped his army at Llangernyw in 1150-something). The 1840 O.S. map confirms the names. Maes y Bendithion is not on the maps. I suppose the prosaic truth is that Henllys near Llanfair has lost its moat, but it would be nice to know for sure, and Hendre Isaf is very imposing even now it has a large farm built on it. And in the field by the castle mound …. alpacas (but no notices).
This afternoon, I called next door to ask my neighbour about Maes y Bendithion; he hadn’t heard of it, but, in a spiralling set of co-incidences, he has connections with Hafodunos, Hendre Isaf and Henllys. One side of his family is apparently descended from the Lloyds of Hafodunos, and his great great grandfather’s family actually lived at Hendre Isaf. He also has an old friend whose family comes from Henllys. The friend is a respected (retired) archivist. He will know about Maes y Bendithion. I hope.
Finally, a tale of the supernatural: my neighbour’s grandfather told him that Hendre Isaf is haunted by Roman soldiers, marching along the cwm. I wonder if Henry II’s army saw them at Llangernyw? I had no idea the valley had such strategic importance.
Mary-Ann Constantine and Liz Edwards, 15th October 2015
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
October 16th (with a little bit of October 15th)
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.
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.
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?
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.
Llansannan to Gwytherin – the (more or less) complete tour.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reconnoitring the route – Llansannan to Gwytherin.
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.
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.
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.