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.
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!
In collaboration with
National Library of Wales
Exhibition: 5-9 February 2018, Summers Room
Lunchtime talk: 1pm, 7 February 2018, the Drwm.
Mary-Ann Constantine will explore the highlights of a four-year project on the Tours of Thomas Pennant (1726–1798) and those who followed in his footsteps. A selection of Pennant’s books and manuscripts will be on display throughout the week in the Library’s Summers Room.
Event held in English
In 1754 Thomas Pennant, aged 28, heir to but not yet master of the estate at Downing, set off on a Tour of Ireland. The journal he kept of his travels, which would last from late June to late September and take him right around the island, is a sparse enough document: two small notebooks recording journeys between towns and villages, the nature of the country he rode through (usually on horseback) and–crucially–the people he met and stayed with. In his Literary Life written some 40 years later he would explain, with typical dry humour, why this tour never made it into print:
Such was the conviviality of the country, that my journal proved as maigre as my entertainment was gras, so it never was a dish fit to be offered to the public.
Maigre as it is, this account is thrilling to us now as an early example of the kind of raw, jotted text which Pennant subsequently worked up into his published tours; texts which, alas, do not survive (or exist only fragmentarily) for his Scottish and Welsh tours. As a document it is often enigmatic, frustrating, or impossible to decode: but those jotted notes bring us much closer to his actual experience of places and events as they happened than any of his published works. Besides the notebook, a handful of letters from Pennant survive from this summer, written to his aunt Elizabeth, and they provide valuable further insights.
The tour reveals Pennant’s usual wide-ranging curiosity, beginning with a productive morning’s botanizing with William Morris at Holyhead. Here he finds an anemone
displaying various beautyfull branches, always expanded. it readily seized on any bit of fish offered it and made use of those branches to convey it to its mouth; these branches seemed furnished with small nervous papillae which adhered strongly to my finger.
This possibly marks the first meeting of two men who would become excellent friends: William Morris (1705-63) would write to his brothers of how proud he was ‘of such an ingenious worthy man’s friendship’. The late June crossing to Ireland was not easy: ‘one part of the time a rolling sea and no wind. When off the Hill of Howth an hard gale from land drove us several leagues North’ – and it was Friday morning before they reached Dublin, where he spent several days seeing the sights, including the College and Museum (‘ill furnished’ but with two British axe heads that he rather liked). He then proceeded north and toured Ireland anti-clockwise, taking in a wide range of places from Ballycastle in the far north to Cork in the south.
The Curious Travellers project intends to publish the Irish Tour online, and hopes to have a ‘raw’ unedited text transcribed and available to read before long. My recent experience of introducing the tour at the Eighteenth Century Society of Ireland’s annual conference (Dublin, 2017) made it clear that there is a wealth of existing expertise upon which we could draw in order to put a little more flesh on the bones of this account. Pennant had letters of introduction to gentry houses the length and breadth of the island, many of them important estates undergoing mid-century improvements to their land, houses and gardens: he also visited coalmines and linen manufactures, barracks and harbours, churches and castles. Antiquities and natural phenomena are noted as points of interest, but it is clear that improvement was the main focus of this tour. In a letter to his aunt he compares the landscaping projects of the Annesleys of Castlewhellan to the efforts of Colonel Hugh Boyd at Ballycastle:
The country in these parts owes as much to this good man’s industry, as that about Mr Annesley’s (as mentioned in my last) will soon experience from the indefatigable pains of the latter. The difference consists only in this, Mr Annesley is improving his Land, and Mr Boyde is attempting to form a flourishing colliery and a secure Port. The former he has in some measure succeeded in; but the latter seems still in an uncertain state. A turbulent sea, and a destructive insect has done vast damage, a small grub scarce the 8th part of an inch in length having in five years space utterly destroyed part of the finest oake he had employed in his Pier.
One of the most significant encounters Pennant had was in Kerry, where he spent a week as the guest of Thomas Browne, fourth Viscount Kenmare, at his newly redesigned house in Killarney. Indeed, the arrival of one Thomas, born 1726, sometimes considered the ‘father of Cambrian Tourism’, at the home of another, born the same year, sometimes considered the ‘father of Irish Tourism’, is a thoroughly gratifying historical coincidence. Pennant would ‘Lye at Lord Kenmares’ for a whole week, riding out to see castles and walks, copper mines and plantations, visiting his lordship’s linen manufacture, witnessing an ‘Irish Papist funeral’ (a version of which would later resurface in the 1769 Tour in Scotland) and of course visiting the Lakes of Killarney. Here, as he told his aunt, he was treated to ‘the Beauties of the celebrated Lough Lene’:
These entertained my Eyes; but that was not the only sense that was pleased; for my Hearing had its share from the surprizing Echo from the mountains: to enjoy this in the greatest perfection his Ld brought on the water two French horns, a fife, a drum and Two swivel guns: every note was returned to the former, but when the Latter were discharged the loudest claps of Thunder I ever heard were unequal to the sound returned.
As William Williams and Luke Gibbons have shown, the Killarney Lake Experience has by now become a kind of locus classicus in the history of Irish tourism; it seems both apt and amusing that Pennant should have taken part in this ‘tourist ritual’ during its earliest stages.
There is much to be learned from this hastily-jotted journal and the few accompanying letters, not only about Pennant himself as a young man on his first major journey from home, but about the ways in which his experience of Ireland and Irish society (in all its political and cultural complexity) might have shaped his responses to his Scottish tours, undertaken some fifteen years later. It meshes Pennant’s Tours still further into those ‘four nations’ or ‘archipelagic’ conversations which have contributed so much to our understanding of the eighteenth century in these islands. Some of the people he met and the places he visited are well-known, but researchers of C18th Ireland –academics, local historians, genealogists–will certainly be able to shed light on more obscure details. We would be delighted to hear from anyone who can help; all contributors will be acknowledged in our final edited version. We look forward to working closely with colleagues in Ireland to unpick some of the more elusive events and encounters hidden between its scrawled lines.
Sources and further reading:
Thomas Pennant, The Literary Life of the Late Thomas Pennant Esquire. By Himself. (London, 1793)
Warwickhire County Record Office, Thomas Pennant Archives, CR 2017/TP18/1-2 & CR2017/TP125 1-4
William Williams, Creating Irish Tourism: The First Century, 1750-1850. Anthem Studies in Travel (London, Anthem Press, 2011)
Luke Gibbons, ‘Topographies of Terror: Killarney and the Politics of the Sublime’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 95.1 (Winter, 1996) 23-45