Author Archives: Rhys Kaminski-jones

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.

‘Just a Little Below Gaza’: Thomas Pennant, Wales, and (almost) Palestine

Rhys Kaminski-Jones

‘The first part of Asia we set foot on…begins just a little below Gaza’ – this is the sentence I had come to find. Turning back to work, and away from the stream of half-seen horrors on social media, I went looking for something that could link the two; moving between them otherwise felt too much like whiplash to handle. Digging into a text by Thomas Pennant (the Welsh tourist at the centre of the Curious Travellers project, on which I’m currently working) I wanted to see if I could connect what was happening now in Palestine with the distant-seeming world of this eighteenth-century gentleman. What use this is, I’m not sure, but it somewhat assuages the feeling that doing my academic work is just a distraction from brutal violence enacted on the immiserated and starving.

              Pennant never went to Palestine, though reading some of his correspondence you might be forgiven for thinking that he did. Here he is in November 1788, describing recent apparent journeys to his friend Richard Bull:

‘I have travelled all over… Africa…turned into the red sea: crossed it with the Israelites & stopped short in sight of the Land of Promise, which I trust I shall reach i[…]n due time’

This letter is misleading on two counts. Firstly, Pennant hadn’t (physically) travelled anywhere; he was describing the writing process of an eccentric project called the Outlines of the Globe, in which he constructed an “imaginary tour” of the world’s coastlines from the safety of his Welsh library. Secondly, even within the Outlines’ imagined world, Pennant barely reached the Promised Land of Israel; though he journeys towards it with Moses via Mount Sinai / Jebel Musa, and briefly skirts its modern coastline on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba.

An eighteenth-century printed source showing a map of Suez, the Red Sea, and the Sinai peninsula, with a decorative title showing the tablets of the ten commandments in a cloud.

Map of Suez, the Red Sea, and the Sinai Peninsula (with Jebel Musa / Mount Sinai in the top right), a copy of which was inserted by Thomas Pennant into the volume of ‘Outlines of the Globe’ on Arabia and Persia (see alt text for image source)

Like me then — though in wildly different circumstances — Pennant only saw the Middle East mediated by what was on his writing desk. For me, that means the scanned images of pages from Pennant’s own manuscripts, interspersed with a grim repetitive flow of videos showing Israeli bombs hitting Gazan houses. For him, that meant a combination of Biblical, Classical, and eighteenth-century traveller’s texts. Pennant makes it clear, however, that he had a favourite amongst his sources. As in his fantasy of crossing the ‘red sea…with the Israelites’, he emphasises the Old Testament throughout: ‘I will travel’, he writes at one point, ‘with the books of Moses in my hand as the most infallible guide’.

              Pennant seems relatively uninterested in the Jews who still inhabit the Middle East (as, of course, they have done through the centuries). Instead, he peoples the lands ‘below Gaza’ with modern Muslims, modern Christians, and resonantly distant Jewish anachronisms – the ancient ‘children of Israel’ familiar to an eighteenth-century Welsh Anglican. Jethro, Moses, Aaron, Hur: these are the Jewish people, familiar from Sunday services, that Pennant sees as he traverses the Sinai desert. The latter two, Pennant informs us, were companions of Moses during the exodus from Egypt, who helped support his upraised staff ‘during the battle with Amalek’: an attack in scripture on fleeing refugees that has often become a justification for genocidal violence, from European settlers’ ethnic cleansing of Native Americans to the current pronouncements of Israel’s far-right government. But the most tangible signs of post-Moses Jewish presence in this section are a few inscriptions in Hebrew left by pilgrims, alongside ones in Arabic and Greek – and even these are attributed to a ‘very early time’. They are noted in passing by Pennant, then set aside.1

              Pennant’s Muslims, on the other hand, are obvious contemporary presences in his landscape – in his Islamophobic reading, they had ‘spread like a deluge…over the eastern and western world’. Whereas Pennant’s ‘Israelites’ are largely absent forerunners of his own Christian beliefs, his Muslims are disdainfully portrayed as followers of an ‘impostor’ prophet – even the story of Muhammad’s tolerance towards the Christian monks of Mount Sinai is presented as an underhanded plot to ‘conciliate the affections of every religion’. As Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed of Cardiff University has argued in a recent workshop on these texts, we can trace in Pennant’s Outlines a kind of Islamophobic thinking that still exists in modern Wales, especially in Pennant’s later comparison of the Muslim Mughals’ conquest of India with the Saxon conquest of the old Welsh-speaking Britons.

              Viewing Palestine and the Middle East from a distance, Pennant’s conclusions are often self-involved and prejudiced. That can’t help but give me pause, sitting here at my computer, at a similar remove. But the distanced gaze of Wales on the Middle East is not just an external irrelevance to what is happening there today – it is, instead, an important ingredient in the ongoing crisis in Palestine. Take, for instance, David Lloyd George, the Welsh Prime Minister whose government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, committing themselves to supporting ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ via the colonial decree of the British empire. Lloyd George, like Pennant, could not think of Palestine without the overlay of his Christian faith (nor the combined philo/anti-semitism that still characterises Christian Zionism): he commented during WWI that Palestine had Biblical ‘place names…more familiar to me than those on the Western Front’. Additionally, like Pennant, he held deep prejudices about the region’s majority Muslim and Arab population: ‘The Jews alone can redeem [Palestine] from the wilderness and restore its ancient glory’, Lloyd George claimed in the 1920s, ‘The Arabs have neither the means, the energy, nor the ambition’. Lloyd George also defended British support for an undivided ‘Jewish Commonwealth’ in Palestine (with a majority-Jewish population) by explicitly invoking his Welsh identity, claiming descent from the Ancient Britons like Pennant before him: any ‘division’ of Israel/Palestine or similar compromise would, according to Lloyd George, be ‘going back on our declaration…as an old Briton, who belongs to the most ancient race in the islands, I do not like it’.2

              And this distant but direct Welsh influence continues, in particular given the presence of a BAE Systems factory on Welsh soil, an arms company who are perfectly willing to supply the Israeli military, just as they shipped weapons to Saudi Arabia during their brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, and profited from Britain’s own disastrous mass-killings during the Iraq war. Though many in Wales today only almost see Palestine, as an image on a screen or a sentence in a book, we can’t pretend we’re not actually involved in it. And unlike Pennant, we’ve been able to hear and respond in real time to the voices of those who’ve been killed in Palestine and those who still remain – we’re not so distant that we can’t do something.

[Many thanks to Emma Pritchard for comments on an earlier draft]

[1] Later in this volume of Pennant’s Outlines there are brief mentions of contemporary Jews in the Middle East: a community ‘obliged to live in a village at a distance’ from Taiz in Yemen, and Syrian merchants carrying European goods to Basra in modern Iraq.

[2] For more on the long (real and imagined) Welsh relationship with Israel, Zionism, and Jewish people (including discussion of Lloyd George’s above-quoted racist contrast between Jews and Arabs), see Jasmine Donahaye, Whose People?: Wales, Israel, Palestine (UWP: Cardiff, 2012).

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.

Pennant and Llandegla

Julie Brominicks (author of The Edge of Cymru: A Journey)

FROM Tommen y Rhodwydd I crossed the country for about two miles to the village of Llandegla, noted for its vast fairs for black cattle. The church is dedicated to St. Tecla, virgin and martyr; who, after her conversion by St. Paul, suffered under Nero at Iconium. (Thomas Pennant, 1778)

I would have loved to see Llandegla in Pennant’s day when no fewer than five drovers’ roads met in the village. The drovers rested here on their way to the London markets, having already walked cattle, sheep, pigs and geese from farms further north and west. The ‘vast fairs for black cattle’ Pennant refers to, took place at a market outside The Crown Hotel. The Crown is closed, but is still there on the A525, looking rather forlorn. It’s where I alight from my bus (the X51) which runs frequently between Wrecsam and Dinbych, but since mid-January 2024, no longer calls right into the village.

Save for the postie doing his rounds, Llandegla is mousy quiet. It’s hard to imagine the smell of muck and sweat and straw and beer. Or conjure up the bleats and grunts, the conversation and shouts, as the animals were led to grazing. Or the sparks and ringing of iron at the forges in the three smithies where animals were shod and farm machinery crafted. One smithy remains – in name only, save for horseshoes around the door. The drovers’ thirst was slaked in sixteen pubs. Imagine that! Now there are none.

But hospitality is still alive and well. The community village shop and café is a convivial hub with photographs of the old cattle days on the walls, a pleasant fug of breakfast-cooking and a good selection of groceries. When I visit, the coffee machine is being repaired, there are frosted pink cupcakes to celebrate Dydd Santes Dwynwen on the counter, and Jasmine – who serves me tea and a traybake – proves to be an excellent source of local knowledge.

I am here to blog for Cyngor Sir Ddinbych about walks from bus stops to interesting places. It is Jasmine who confirms that the circuitous route I will walk to the well, heading north past the church on Llwybr Clawdd Offa along Afon Alyn, then left along lanes back to the village, is a good one. A gentle one, regularly used by villagers, no less. She assures me that the roads are quiet and the verges, in summer, are abundant in wildflowers. And that is indeed the case (though being January, I have to imagine the flowers). I duly meander along the banks of Afon Alyn and down sweetly curving lanes on which the only traffic is a quadbike bumping into a field (and an ambush of wrens).

If you are short of time, you can visit the well directly, which is after all, just at the edge of the village on the banks of Afon Alyn. A sense of something quiet and ancient and sacred awaits you there. Sequestered by a thicket of thorn, the well is a square of water that snares the trees’ reflection. For centuries it has shone between these stones constructed carefully around a spring in an alder grove. The water, albeit leaf-clogged, is clear. Pennant describes it thus:

ABOUT two hundred yards from the church, in a quillet called Gwern Degla, rises a small spring, with these letters cut on free-stone: A. G […]: G.ST. TECLAS’S WELL.

The letters on the stones are no longer discernible, or at least not by me. His description is rather brief. Seems that Pennant was more absorbed by what people did at the well, than the landscape in which it sits. This is hardly surprising, their antics take some beating. Over to Pennant:

The water is under the tutelage of the saint; and to this day held to be extremely beneficial in the Clwyf Tegla, St. Tecla’s disease, or the falling-sickness. The patient washes his limbs in the well; makes an offering into it of four pence; walks round it three times; and thrice repeats the Lord’s prayer. These ceremonies are never begun till after sun-set, in order to inspire the votaries with greater awe. If the afflicted be of the male-sex, like Socrates, he makes an of­fering of a cock to his Aesculapius, or rather to Tecla Hygeia; if of the fair-sex, a hen. The fowl is carried in a basket, first round the well; after that into the church-yard; when the same orisons, and the same circum-ambulations are performed round the church.

At this point I’m going to interrupt Pennant, leave the church and the chickens till later, and dwell at the well a while longer. There have been several only slightly-varying accounts of the ceremony Pennant describes over the years. Phil Cope summarises them in his book The Living Wells of Wales (Seren Books 2019.)

According to Cope you had to visit the well on a Friday night after sunset. He says some accounts report that you had to walk around the well (and then the church) nine rather than three times. A rather concerning addition (from an animal rights perspective), is this:

‘The unfortunate bird would then be pricked with a sharp pin which was thrown into the waters, after which a groat would be paid to the parish clerk.’

Yet more accounts of the ceremony are rounded up on the Well Hopper blog ( Among them is a claim that the well was excavated in the 1930s by Alwyn D Rees, who beneath it found two distinct layers. The lower layer contained a number of white pebbles and calcite, consistent with other holy well sites, while the upper layer contained a large number of 18th and 19th century coins – and wait for it – pins. It’s not looking good for the chickens.

So let’s get this straight. Epilepsy (and scrofula) sufferers hoping to be healed would take a chicken to the well, walk around it three times reciting the Lord’s Prayer, stick a pin in the chicken and then throw the pin in the water. Crikey! They must have bound the fowl’s feet. I for one, would not try sticking a pin in an indignant hen – much less an angry cockerel.

The atmosphere here today is less chaotic, and redolent of those swampy dells you find in Cornwall and Ireland, that seem to have remained unchanged and sacred for centuries. Meanwhile, having brought neither hen nor pin, and nevertheless feeling the need to mark the occasion in some way, I circumnavigate the well three times and recite the Lord’s Prayer – but only once, and quite badly.

Continuing a tradition of throwing metal into water that began in the Iron Age, I toss in a pound coin and it sinks straight away into the leaf mulch. But my offering is neither superstitious nor religious, but rather made from guilty remembrance that me and my friend Katy used to raid the fountain in Shrewsbury shopping centre for twenty-pence pieces and that’s not the worst of it. Before spending our booty on chocolate we would then dry our hands on the clothes in C&A.

Time to head for the church, which is lovely, despite (having shut the outer door behind me before locating the latch of the inner door) a dark moment in the porch with the brooms. The altar window has a pleasing brown tint that reminds me of seventies tea plates. A kitchenette at the back invites visitors to make themselves tea, and a Henry Hoover peeps around the vestibule door.

It is a good place to pause and reflect on the saint to whom both the church and well are dedicated. Tegla. Or Tecla. Or Thecla. According to the New World Encyclopaedia, Thecla was a follower of St Paul and is mentioned in one of the writings of the New Testament where it is claimed, her devotion was ‘rewarded by miraculous signs including several dramatic rescues from martyrdom by fire and wild beasts.’ She was venerated widely in late antiquity and is recognised today by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. So how did she end up in Cymru? Another theory is that our Tegla was a local saint about whom we now know nothing at all.

Or as Phil Cope writes: ‘Tristan Gray Hulse has argued that “The identity of the Welsh saint Tegla was so far forgotten at Llandegla by the high middle ages that she was apparently identified … with the possibly apocryphal but certainly far more famous first-century saint Thecla of Iconium.”’

I’m afraid those waters of understanding remain a little unclear. Back then, to the chickens. Here’s what Pennant said people did, after circling the well and the outside of the church.

The votary then enters the church; gets under the communion-table; lies down with the Bible under his or her head; is covered with the carpet or cloth, and rests there till break of day; departing after offering six pence, and leaving the fowl in the church. If the bird dies, the cure is supposed to have been effected, and the disease transferred to the devoted victim.

Phil Cope fleshes out the details by explaining that at daybreak, the afflicted person blew into the beak of the fowl. He goes onto include a quote from American journalist Wirt Sykes who wrote a number of pieces about Welsh folklore during his time living in Caerdydd as US Consol.

“The parish clerk of Llandegla in 1855 said that an old man of his acquaintance ‘remembered quite well seeing the birds staggering about from the effects of the fits’ which had been transferred to them.”  

Apparently, this whole glorious and completely bonkers mish-mash of Pagan and Christian beliefs, is an example of ‘scapegoating.’ I knew the chickens would cop it.

Anyhow, I am here on a Thursday morning rather than Friday evening, so there will be no sleeping under the altar for me. Instead I make my way back to The Crown through the exceedingly peaceful village of Llandegla, reflecting, while I wait for my bus, that it was not always thus.

Eliseg’s Pillar

Julie Brominicks (author of The Edge of Cymru: A Journey)

ABOUT a quarter of a mile higher up the vale, in the hedge of a meadow, I met with the remainder of a round column, perhaps one of the most antient of any British inscribed pillar now existing.

So wrote Pennant in ‘Tours of Wales’, 1778.

And so it almost was with me, though ‘improved’ grass would be a more apt description of the species-poor field I found myself in, rather than the richly-biodiverse idyll conjured up by Pennant’s ‘meadow’. Nevertheless the field is still hedge-bound at least.

I sit on the Bronze Age burial mound to regard Eliseg’s Pillar whilst eating my cheese sandwich and then a hard-boiled egg. Truth is, the reason for my being here at all is not out of passion for pillars or a penchant for Pennant (though a curious traveller I most definitely am). I am here because I have been commissioned by the county council to blog about places in Sir Ddinbych you can visit via an interesting walk from a bus stop – public transport being in desperate need of champions.

Having anticipated meeting Eliseg’s Pillar with a sense of disappointment, I had planned my walk here to be circuitous, to take in the wider vale. To first appreciate the landscape in which the pillar sits. Stands. So I had nipped from Llangollen up and over Castell Dinas Brân (in an earlier version of which Eliseg probably lived), scooted beneath the limestone embrace of Creigiau Eglwyseg, and rounded Fron Fawr to get here. The reverse of the walk that Pennant took. He, being a more eager antiquarian than I, had visited the pillar first. Here’s what he had to say about his route back to Llangollen:

THERE are two ways from this pillar: the usual is along the vale, on an excellent turnpike-road leading to Ruthyn; the other is adapted only for the travel of the horsemen; but far the more preferable, on account of the romantic views. I returned by Valle Crucis; and, after winding along a steep midway to the old castle, descended, and after crossing the rill of the Brán, ar­rived in the valley of Glisseg; long and narrow, bounded on the right by the astonishing precipices, divided into numberless paral­lel strata of white limestone, often giving birth to vast yew-trees: and on the left, by smooth and verdant hills, bordered by pretty woods. One of the principal of the Glisseg rocks is honored with the name of Craig-Arthur. That at the end of the vale is called Craig y Forwyn, or the maiden’s; is bold, precipitous, and termi­nates with a vast natural column.

I share his enthusiasm for Creigiau Eglwyseg. The escarpment wraps around the Vale like a limestone scarf. Dolomites in miniature. I love these crags best on a crisp wintry day, like this Tuesday in December. With flocks of fieldfares and redwings flickering in the thorn trees that cling to the scree, wheep-wheeping and gorging on berries. I was in no hurry to reach this old monument.

But here I am, considering the pillar whilst sipping tea with fieldfares still on my mind. As I reach the fruitcake part of my picnic, I concede that ‘disappointment’ is a little unfair. It was just that I knew better than to expect to find the pillar in a remote and romantic location. Llangollen is too popular these days and the pillar too famous. Why so?

Eliseg’s Pillar is the remains of what was once a much taller memorial stone erected by Cyngen (a local leader) in the ninth century, to honour his great-grandfather Eliseg, who had beaten the Anglo-Saxons in a battle and expelled them from this part of Powys. We know this from the lengthy Latin inscription engraved upon it – an important contribution to our comprehension of Welsh history.

The inscription totals thirty-one lines, broken into paragraphs separated by small crosses. Coflein, the online database for the National Monuments Record of Wales and my go-to source for any monument, has this to say about it:

‘It glorified Eliseg and Cyngen, proclaiming their lineage from Emperor Magnus Maximus and his son Vortigern (Gwrtheyrn), both celebrated figures from the end of Roman Britain. Eliseg, the inscription asserted, drove the English from the area after they had laid this borderland waste for nine years. The mason that carved the inscription was also named: Cynfarch.’

Powys was still under threat in Cyngen’s era. Perhaps the words were meant as propaganda, to boost flagging spirits. Or to be read aloud – this may have been where leaders were appointed. The original inscription is now eroded away. Even Pennant found it ‘illegible.’ We are indebted to Edward Lhuyd (who Pennant describes as ‘that great antiquary’) for copying down the text in 1696.

What is still decipherable today, is the inscription added by local landowner Trevor Lloyd when he re-erected the pillar in 1779. I like to think Lloyd was motivated to do so, by Pennant’s account in Tours of Wales, which was published in 1778. It is tempting to assume that Pennant and Lloyd met. Perhaps Pennant was there at Lloyd’s invitation.

Speculation apart, what we do know is that Lloyd also undertook an excavation of the Bronze-Age barrow, atop which he reset the pillar in its original stone setting on a new plinth. Whether this was the exact former location of the pillar we do not know, but the Coflein website claims that Lloyd could now see it from his summer house at Valle Crucis Abbey – which, post-Dissolution, was serving for a while, as a mansion. Had they met, no doubt the men would have discussed the stone’s historical significance, of which Pennant was most definitely aware.  

It is among the first lettered stones that succeeded the Meini-hirion, Meini­-Gwŷr, and Llechau. It stood on a great tumulus; perhaps always environed with wood (as the mount is at present) according to the custom of the most antient times, when standing. pillars were placed under every green tree.

I cannot, from his account, guess at the extent of woodland which surrounded the mound and the meadow in the eighteenth century. But woodland there still is, on the surrounding hills. Fron Fawr across Afon Eglwyseg, from where I have just walked and seen squirrels flowing like silver rivers betwixt the branches of old oaks, is looking particularly resplendent in this crisp December light. The hill is bordered at the base by golden oak, rising to a band of purple birch that gives to a red-bracken summit.

Pennant tells us that the stone when complete, was said to be twelve feet high, but was now just six foot eight. Despite Lloyd’s re-erection, the pillar looks somewhat mollified after centuries spent lying in the hedge. Its restraint by iron palings on top of the Bronze-Age barrow, which itself is surrounded by a plain wire fence, does not help. Nor do our messy modern habits. If you squint you can decipher Valle Crucis Abbey beyond the caravan site, but more prominent are the billboards advertising roast dinners at the nearby Abbey Grange Hotel in the field across the A542 and its grinding traffic. But the main reason for the pillar’s embarrassment is that it has taken a beating.

It was toppled, so it is said, and so Pennant said, by Cromwell’s iconoclasts in the 1640s, when the original cross was broken off the top. Pennant’s indignation at this treatment equals, if not out-strips, his enthusiasm for the stone’s importance.

‘IT was entire till the civil wars of the last century, when it was thrown down and broken by some ignorant fanatics; who thought it had too much the appearance of a cross, to be suf­fered to stand.’

As a distinctly ruffled Pennant goes onto claim, it never was a cross, or at least not in the modern religious sense. It was more memorial than gravestone. His indignation is worth repeating.

‘…It was erected at so early a period, that there is nothing marvellous, if we should perceive a tincture of the old idolatry, or at lea[s]t of the primeval customs of our country, in the mode of it when per­fect.

THE pillar never had been a cross; notwithstanding folly and superstition might, in later times, imagine it to have been one and have paid it the usual honors. It was a memorial of the dead; an improvement on the rude columns of Druidical times and cut into form, and surrounded with inscription…’

Pennant’s distress is palpable and warranted. Lloyd did what he could to restore the pillar’s dignity. He elevated it and added moulding and swags to the wounds left by the amputation of the cross from the top. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that today, the pillar looks very much like a penis.

The Curious Case of the ‘Mud-Inguana’

Stephanie Holt

Recently I have been tagging the letters in British Museum manuscript MS5318, a series of 32 documents sent to Thomas Pennant; this includes 30 of the original letters from Gilbert White which were later altered and adapted for his book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. HTML tagging involves taking the transcribed documents and setting them up for publication on the Curious Travellers Project website, whilst cataloguing various elements to make them searchable, including the names of people, places, and things (such as art works). Coming to this from the perspective of a scientist, I suggested we also tagged species—I think this was a popular decision with the team, even if it means more work! But in order to do so, each species mentioned in the document needs to be tied to a modern species name. Taxonomy and nomenclature in the late eighteenth century were still very much in flux, so this can sometimes be a very difficult task. It has turned out to be one of the most time-consuming—though completely fascinating—elements of the project. Particularly when species are from abroad or less well known, you find yourself having to do some serious sleuthing!

Fortunately for me, as I work at the Natural History Museum, I have excellent colleagues that I can call on when I get really stuck, such as in the case of the ‘Mud-Inguana’. In document 7, written on 17th June 1768, White is writing to Pennant on a number of subjects. Mid-way through the letter he asks of Pennant:

Mr Ellis F:R:S: (the coraline Ellis) in a letter to the Royal society dated June 5:1766. is his account of the amphibious biper from S: Carolina, — he says that the water-eft or neut is only the larva of the land-eft, as tadpoles are of frogs. Least I should be suspected to misunderstand his meaning. I shall give it you in his own words. Speaking of the opercula or coverings to the gills of the mud-inguana, he proceeds to say, “That the form of these pennated coverings approach very near to what I have some time ago observed in the larva or aquatic state of our English lacerta, known by the mane of eft or neut; which serve them for coverings to their gills, & for fins to swim with while in this state; & which they lose, as well as the fins of their tails when they change their state, & become land animals; as I have observed by keeping them alive for some time myself.”

The species, proving if not impossible, certainly very hard to locate from that name and description, I turned to my colleague Jeff Streicher (Senior Curator in Charge of Amphibians and Reptiles at the Natural History Museum) for help. Having not heard of the ‘mud-inguana’ either, Jeff went back to the original paper by Ellis in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,  which can be found here. The paper An account of an amphibious bipes; by John Ellis Esq; F. R. S. To the Royal Society (published 1st January 1766), gives a detailed description of two specimens that Ellis had acquired from South Carolina via Dr Garden. He gives the name ‘Mud-Inguana’ as ‘the name the natives call it’ and then continued to give both a detailed description and illustrations of the two specimens. From this description, Jeff was able to identify the species, and confirmed that it is the aquatic salamander, Siren lacertina. The illustration in the paper also refers to the Siren of Linneaus, so this corroborates this identification.

I had my species name, but Jeff had one more surprise for me. Having seen that the paper was based on the description of two specimens, at least one of which had been preserved in spirits, presented to the Royal Society, Jeff headed for the collection. Lo and behold, we have a specimen labelled as follows:

This specimen was sent by Dr Alexander Garden of Charles Farm South Caroline to John Ellis, who presented it to the British Museum ‘Sire, so called by Linneaus on 26 August 1768 (see B.M. Benefactors Book for that date). Garden also sent specimens to Linnaeus via John Ellis.

The preserved ‘Mud Iguana’ from 1768

The specimen matches the description of the specimen in the paper, and consequently it is highly likely that this is the specimen that Ellis describes. Dating from 1768, it is also one of the oldest, if not the oldest alcohol-preserved specimen in the Natural History Museums collection.

And with that, our mystery of the ‘Mud-Inguana’ is solved!

The Invisible Library: a Visit to Downing Hall

Mary-Ann Constantine

A landscape print of Downing Hall in Flintshire, with the hall in the back in front of some hills and woods, and a road, trees, and lawns in the foreground.
‘Downing’, from Thomas Pennant, History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell 1796 (National Library of Wales, on Wikimedia Commons)

‘THE house itself has little to boast of. I fortunately found it incapable of being improved into a magnitude exceeding the revenue of the family. It has a hall which I prefer to the rural impropriety of a paltry vestibule; a library thirty feet by eighteen; a parlor capable of containing more guests than I ever wish to see at a time […] I have Cowley’s wish realized, a small house and large garden!’ [Pennant, History of the Parishes, p.7]

Mosses and ferns breaking through the flagstones

On 28 September this year Thomas Pennant possibly received more guests than he would have wished to see at one time. I hope, though, that he might have overcome his reluctance to mingle once he realised that these were congenial spirits. We were there at the kind invitation of the proprietors Ann and Jim Wragg, and through the good offices of the Thomas Pennant Society, visiting the vestiges of Downing Hall with Dr Edwin Rose, who would deliver the annual Thomas Pennant Lecture in Holywell later that evening.

John Edmonson, Edwin Rose, Ann Wragg and Sarah Baylis examine the floor plan

In the wake of storm Agnes we had feared rain and wind, but there was watery autumn sunlight on the piles of brick and rubble that mark where the Pennant family home stood until it was almost destroyed by fire in 1922, and demolished in the 1950s. It is a strange site – the house itself now an invisible presence against the tall dark trees of the dingle, set back from the narrow road, fronted by rolling open fields. For someone who spends so much time in the eighteenth century I have a surprisingly poor historical imagination, but Edwin had brought a copy of the floor plan and, with Jim and Ann, who know the site intimately, we had a very convincing guided tour of the absent house.

The best-preserved part of Downing, and the place most visitors remember, is the cellar. Much of it was filled with rubble after the demolition, and the Wraggs have gradually, with much labour, cleared out the original space. The vaulted ceilings and damp walls make it feel like being in a cathedral crypt, but animated discussion of its alcoves, shelves, stalls and recesses soon filled it with cheeses and hams, jars, kegs and bottles, and busy feet on the different flights of stairs, fetching and lifting or storing safely away. One of those staircases, its stone steps worn away by footprints, now leads evocatively up into the open air.

A series of stone steps from a cellar, leading up past a rough wall to the light above.
The staircase up from the cellars (Image: Edwin Rose)
Edwin rose (man in grey jacket and blue  jeans) smiles at the camera holding a fossil in both hands.
Edwin Rose holds the plant fossil (a ‘species of stigmaria’).

Like many small estates, Downing would have been run as a mini economy, growing, making and preserving much of the food needed for the family and staff – perhaps up to hundred people at one time, judging by the accounts. Among the more curious items kept down there, alongside old bottles and the fragments of broken crockery, is an impressive chunk of a plant fossil which – surely! – must once have been part of Pennant’s natural history collections.    

Above ground, there are a few precarious walls bursting with ferns, mosses and seedlings, and still areas where you can see the floor-tiles and work out the entrances to different rooms. We had no trouble identifying the library, which still has part of the fireplace at the far end. This was Pennant’s favourite room:

‘THE library is filled by a numerous collection of books, principally of history, natural history and classics. My own labors might fill an ordinary book-room; many of them receive considerable value from the smaller drawings and prints with which they are illustrated on the margins, as well as by the larger intermixed with the leaves; among the latter are several drawings of uncommon beauty, by that eminent hand Mr. Nicholas Pococke. These relate either to the Ferroe isles, or to Iceland, others to the distant Tibet or Boutan. […] Among my own labors, I value myself on my MS. volumes of THE OUTLINES OF THE GLOBE, in xxii. volumes, folio, on which uncommon expence has been bestowed, in ornament and illuminations.’

Three figures gathered around an old book amongst dilapidated and overgrown walls.
Paul Brighton, Norman Closs Parry and Edwin Rose look at David Pennant’s copy of British Zoology.

Edwin (who, to our amusement, had been clutching his briefcase all the while) now pulled out his personal copy of David Pennant’s annotated edition of his father’s British Zoology. In typical Pennant fashion, this book is a riddle of scribbles, additions, corrections, and advice from trusted correspondents for a future edition. He opened it for us with a smile. This, he said, is the first time this book has been back in this room for well over a hundred years. We were all moved.

Close-up image of a ruined wall with a burst of green plant growth emerging from the top,.
Ruined wall with vegetation at Downing

The house lives on in various pictures and sketches by Moses Griffith (and his son, Moses Junior), and in letters and accounts by those who visited during Pennant’s time: Wordsworth remembered being shown the beautiful manuscripts of the ‘Outlines of the Globe’, while Katherine Plymley, whose party stayed for several days, lamented that ‘time did not permit us to see nearly all the numberless drawings, & curiosities that Mr Pennant has collected’.  Later sepia photographs show the dining room and library as they would have been at the beginning of the twentieth century – filled with polished furniture, stuffed animals, and books, many from Pennant’s time. This invisible library in which we all stood would have been filled with objects from Pennant’s own collections. Our project hopes to create a kind of Virtual Cabinet of Curiosities, drawing on the many specimens and artefacts which have ended up in the Natural History Museum and other archives and repositories – pulling them back into a different imagined space, a regrouping of objects, but also the beginning of new stories.       

Edwin shared some of those stories later in the evening during his lecture, when he traced the journeys of a few specimens through Pennant’s astonishingly effective web of collaborators and correspondents. He showed us the stages, from living creature to type-specimen in a box, via sketch, watercolour, copperplate engraving, and page in a printed book – plants and creatures examined, represented, described and discussed. These processes all form the eighteenth-century’s contributions to the precise biological classifications, the careful descriptors, which allow us to measure the rich variety of species on our planet – and, increasingly, to reckon the measure of our losses. 

Another black and white print of Downing Hall in front of an open sky with some clouds. A tree and a horse in the foreground.
M. Griffith, ‘Downing: The Seat of Thos Pennant Esq’ (National Library of Wales on Wikimedia Commons)

With grateful thanks to Ann and Jim Wragg, Edwin Rose and the officers of the Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant Society.

You can see further pictures of the estate here: Downing Estate – Downing Hall (

You can learn about Edwin Rose’s recent work on Pennant and other eighteenth-century collectors here: Edwin Rose | People | HPS (

You can learn about the activities of Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant Society here: Cymdeithas Thomas Pennant Society

The best account of Downing Hall can be found in the opening pages of Pennant’s History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell (1796). See also M. Bevan Evans, ‘Thomas Pennant and Downing’ (Flintshire Historical Soc, 1953-54) 72-79. The article has numerous pictures and plans, and was written shortly after the demolition.

Textual Collaborations and National Identities: Thomas Pennant and C18th Travel

Glasgow, September 8th 2023


Coffee and Welcome (9.45 am)
Session 1: (10am- 11.20am)

Opening lecture by Professor Murray Pittock (Glasgow): ‘Vacant Spaces: British policy and the landscapes of memory after Culloden’.
Nigel Leask (Glasgow): ‘Pennant and the Scottish Enlightenment: The Beinecke Copy of Tour in Scotland 1772’.
Alex Deans (Glasgow): ‘I never met with a finer field for the Zoologist to range in’: preliminary reflections on natural history and editing Pennant’s Tour in Scotland 1769’.

Break (11.20am)

Session 2: (11.40 – 1pm).
Alan Montgomery (Independent Scholar): ‘In the midst of Classical ground”: Thomas Pennant’s Encounters with Roman Scotland’.
Colm Murray (Independent Scholar): ‘Captain Sir William Smith: evidence for a Scottish Sojourn with Cordiner, & Irish military journeys’.
Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart (Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, UHI) ‘Pennant, Johnson, Boswell, and the Hebrideans’.

Buffet lunch in the building (1-2pm).

Session 3: (2 pm- 3.30pm)
Lisa Cardy (NHM) & Luca Guariento (Glasgow): ’Crowdsourcing and tagging Thomas Pennant’s Extra Illustrated Tours of Wales and Scotland’.
Edwin Rose (Cambridge/NHM) ‘Thomas Pennant and the Practice of Natural History’.
Elizabeth Edwards (CAWCS) ‘The limits of the antient’: Thomas Pennant’s Chester and his Tours in Wales.

Break (3.30pm)

Session 4 (3.50pm-5.30pm)
Rhys Kaminski-Jones (University of Wales): ‘Doctor Druid and the “Druids of India”’.
Stephanie Holt (NHM): ‘Gilbert White’s Gibraltar and Pennant’s ‘Outlines of the Globe’.
Finola O’Kane (UCD) & M-A Constantine (CAWCS): ‘Pennant’s Irish Tour Notebooks of 1754’.

For more information contact:

5.30 pm: Wine Reception, with C18th Scottish fiddle and cello music performed by Claudia Edwards & Joanna Stark