As part of the Curious Travellers research project, we’re encouraging members of the public (as well as researchers) to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Pennant on his tours through 18th century Scotland, Wales, England or Ireland. We’d love to hear your account of your experiences of landscape, people, places, archaeology, natural environment, industrial sites, etc associated with Pennant’s tours – perhaps in the spirit of modern travellers like W.G. Sebald, Rob Mcfarlane, Kathleen Jamie, or Iain Sinclair! We welcome anything from the barest of blogs to more detailed travel accounts, in prose or verse, where possible illustrated with photographs or (even better) your own drawings or sketches.
The air in general is temperate: no mists or thick rolling fogs from the sea, called in the North, a harle, ever infested this island. Snow is scarcely ever known to lie here; and even that of last winter, so remarkable for its depth and duration in other places, was in this island scarce two inches deep.
Thomas Pennant, June, 1772
Thomas Pennant disembarked from the Lady Frederic Hamilton, a ‘ninety tun cutter’, and arrived on the
Isle of Bute on a warm summer day in June 1772, during his second tour of
Scotland. Arriving by ship, Pennant described the dramatic views of the Firth
of Clyde, down towards the Kyles of Bute:
The view down the Firth now appears extremely great: the shire of Renfrew bounds one side: the hills of Cowal, sloping to the water edge, and varied with woods and corn lands, grace the other: in front are the greater and the lesser Cumbrays … the isle of Bute, with its fertile shores, lies oblique, and the stupendous mountains of Arran, soar at some distance, far, far above. 1
The view sailing into Rothesay Bay, on the isle of Bute,
today, is still dramatic. The short crossing from Wemyss Bay on the mainland,
by ferry, reveals some of the most beautiful features of Scotland’s West Coast,
as witnessed by Pennant. To trace the naturalist’s steps on Bute, our group (a
party of two adults, one child and a very excitable dog) drove from the centre of
Glasgow to Wemyss Bay, a journey of around 30 minutes on a warm, clear, July
day, with the ferry crossing only a further 30-40minutes. It is possible to recreate
a more romantic voyage to Bute in the summer months by stepping onto the
steamship, The Waverley, which
departs from moorings on the Clyde, in the city centre, and sails serenely down
the estuary, out to the Kyles of Bute, and beyond, passing the scenic, rugged,
Dumbarton Rock and Castle, on the way. However, for convenience, with a child
and a dog in tow, we opted to take the car along on this journey.
Pennant disembarked at Squlog (or Scoulag) and walked the short distance to Mount Stuart, the seat of the Earl of Bute. Scoulag forms a small inlet known as Scoulag Burn, which runs down to the beach, a natural landing point for access to the estate. Cheating, slightly, we drove from the ferry terminal at Rothesay to Mount Stuart, still the seat of the Earl of Bute, but now a Gothic Revival mansion, designed by Robert Rowand-Anderson (1834-1921), under the instructions of John Patrick Crichton Stuart (1847-1900), the philanthropist and third Marques of Bute. Mount Stuart has reinvented itself as a home of the arts, with a busy calendar of events and public arts programmes throughout the year. The house and gardens are incredibly attractive, comprising richly decorated interiors and lush, extensively cultivated grounds. When we visited, however, the house was closed for a wedding reception, even the café was packing up early. We walked down to Scoulag, from the house, trying to find the spot where Pennant would have stepped ashore. The Earl of Bute in Pennant’s day was John Stuart (1713-1792) the third Earl and great favourite of George III. As First Lord of the Treasury, this Earl of Bute suffered a very public humiliation when his close relationship to the court came under scrutiny during a particularly intense period of suspicion of Scots in London in the 1760s, following tensions after the defeat of the Jacobites in 1745.2 He was eventually forced to resign his position and lived the rest of his life looking after his estates at High Cliff in Hampshire and at Luton Hoo, in Bedfordshire. The Earl of Bute retained a strong interest in botany throughout his life and his Botanical Tables Containing the Families of British Plants, 1785, illustrated by John Miller (1715-1790), still considered to be one of the greatest contributions to botany, are held in the collections at Mount Stuart. When he died, he was buried at Rothesay. The house which Pennant would have witnessed, although he does not mention whether he entered it or not, was an earlier, classical revival mansion, commissioned by John Stewart (d.1723), the second Earl of Bute, which he describes as:
(A) modern house, with a handsome front and wings: the situation very fine, on an eminence in the midst of a wood, where trees grow with as much vigor as in the more Southern parts, and extend far beneath on each side. Throstle and other birds of song, fill the groves with their melody; nothing disturbs their harmony; for instinct often stronger than reason, forbid them to quit these delicious shades, and wander, like their unhappy master, into the ungrateful wilds of ambition. 3
The last line of this passage provides a commentary from
Pennant on the third Earl’s recent political demise. This house, built in 1716,
was destroyed by fire and replaced with Rowand-Anderson’s Gothic Revival manor.
Pennant writes that on Bute, ‘the
country rises into small hills, is in no part mountainous, but is highest at
the South end. The strata of stone along the shore from Rothesay to
Cil-chattan, (Kilchattan), is a red grit, mixed with pebbles; from the first,
transverse to Scalpay bay, is a bed of slate, which seems to be a continuation
of that species of stone, rising near Stonehive [Stonehaven?], on the Eastern
shores of Scotland, and continued, with some interruptions to this island; but
is of a bad kind at its origin and termination. In the South end is some
limestone: some spotted stone, not unlike lava, is found near the South End’.4 Walking
along the shoreline at Scoulag, this is evident in the colour and consistency
of the landscape (fig. 1).
Among the abundant cow parsley
and wild flowers, we came across the ruins of an old boat house, elaborate in
its construction, with castellated roof, heavy corner buttresses, and a fine
portcullis gate lying off its hinges and rusting on the floor. (fig. 2) This was clearly, at one time,
an important addition to the estate, perhaps contemporary with the
Rowand-Anderson rebuild. However, with obvious damage to its slipway and parts
of the internal workings of the house abandoned and decomposing, it seems that
this kind of industrial architecture is easily overlooked in historic conservation
enterprises such as Mount Stuart, and we were sorry for the little house as we
speculated on how it might be revived as a disembarkation site for smaller
boats sailing in and around Bute’s shores.
As the boat house is a feature of the landscape that belongs to a period after Pennant’s time, we decide to press on to Kilchattan, an area of the island that held a particular fascination for the naturalist because of its associations with the ancient people of Scotland and their religion. We hopped in the car to drive to Kilchattan bay but parked at the bottom of the hill, known as ‘Little Dunagoil’ and followed the signposts up a steady climb to the site of St Blane’s church and the remains of its ‘dark age’ monastery. As the weather stayed fine, warm with just a gentle breeze, we looked back toward Kiltachattan bay and the sun really did sparkle on the water. We could see the outline of the hills of Great Cumbrae, and, perhaps, a glimpse of the mainland beyond. (fig. 3) Pennant makes no mention of St Blane’s but writes of this part of the island:
Visit the south part of the island: ride to the hill of Cil-chatten, (Little Dunagoil) a round eminence from whence is a vast view of all around, insular and mainland. Observe, on the face of the hills, that rocks dip almost perpendicularly, and form long columnar stacks, some opposing to us their sides, others their angles; are hard and cherty, but not basaltic; a term I apply to the jointed columns resembling those of the giant’s causeway. 5
This feature of the landscape was not visible to us, as we
veered off to the left of the hill, (fig.
4) past some grazing sheep and, being careful not to disturb them, quickly
attached our highly energetic dog to his lead. Pennant’s ascent up the ‘hill of
Cil-chatten’ provided him with a comprehensive view of the surrounding area and
in this paragraph, he dismisses any evidence that the isle of Bute might extend
to form part of the subterranean basaltic structure that he imagined existed
from Ireland, beginning with the Giant’s Causeway, to the West Coast of
Scotland. Little Dunagoil is now recognised as an ancient hillfort that has been
surveyed in recent years to uncover many of its long-hidden artefacts that
evidence human life and habitation, including:
Part of a shale ring and 40 sherds of pottery from the rear of the ramparts on the SE; a fragment of a comb and five sherds of “grass tempered” pottery and unstratified fragments of a mould for a Late Bronze Age axe … from the W sector of the interior; and a pendant and armlet fragment of shale; a serpentine ring, and a whorl, an awl, a pin and a knife handle of bone from the northern sector … and two heavily worn shards of Samian ware. 6
Such findings were unknown to Pennant, of course, and so we
try to revert to his path through these fragments of earliest times, but while
Pennant explains: ‘descend to the ruin of old Kin-garth church’, with its two
separate cemeteries, before describing the ‘Devil’s Cauldron’, our path takes
us first to the ruins of St. Blane’s, then the Cauldron and further on to the
two cemeteries belonging to the old church. It feels like we are always walking
in the opposite direction to Pennant.
St Blane’s Church and an early Christian Monastery are well
signposted and labelled in the area. The information board now at the site
Tradition records that St Catan founded the monastery here at Kingarth in the later 6th century. The tradition continues that his sister Ertha became pregnant by an unknown man and she and her new-born child, Blane, were cast adrift in an oarless boat by the enraged Catan. The boat was eventually driven ashore on the Ulster coast where Blane spent the next seven years. On his return to Bute, Blane was reunited with his uncle and succeeded him as abbot of the monastery and bishop of the surrounding area. 7
Despite the information signs acting as reminders of the contemporary
world, the site around St Blane’s is remote, intensely peaceful and quiet,
sheltered by a circle of trees. A sign attached to a stone wall describes the
area surrounding the monastery as ‘vallum’, (fig. 5) indicating the spiritual division of the land between the
sacred monastery and the secular world beyond. There are remnants or religious
devotion scattered over the field, including a cross-base, ‘a stone base with a
socket to hold a tall upright cross’; all of which Pennant would have seen (fig. 6). Nestled within this grove is
the mysterious structure known to Pennant as the Devil’s Cauldron, an ancient
building removed from the main location of the monastery but clearly belonging
to it, now simply called ‘the Cauldron’. (fig.
7) Pennant remarks:
Near this place is a circular inclosure, called the Devil’s Cauldron: it is made of stone, of excellent masonry, but without mortar, having the inside faced with the most smooth and regular manner. The walls at present are only seven feet six inches high, but are ten feet in thickness: on one side is an entrance, wide at the beginning, but grows gradually narrower as it approaches the area, which is thirty feet diameter. 8
From Pennant’s description, the Cauldron appears to have
been in better shape in the 1770s, with an entrance and interior finish still
discernible. The walls of the Cauldron are not seven feet high any longer but
their width, at ‘ten feet’, mentioned by Pennant, can still be appreciated. (fig. 8) We sit in the Cauldron and
imagine, as many others have, what the purpose of this building might have
been. Pennant alludes to its use as a sanctuary of some kind, given its
location at Kingarth, ‘Kin-garth implies, Kin,
for chief or head, Garth, a
sanctuary; the common word for places of refuge, Girth, being corrupted from it’. It could not, he suggests, be a
defensive structure, ‘as it is situated beneath a precipice, from whose summit,
the inmates might instantly have been oppressed by stones, or missile weapons’.9 It
is difficult to imagine on a warm summer’s day, when the place offers some
welcome shade from the unusually hot Scottish sun, that the Cauldron might have
been a building designed for penance, for punishing the soul, hence the Devil
playing a role in its name. Others have speculated that the Cauldron was a
cell, entered voluntarily to experience self-inflicted punishment and
repentance. In 1893, James King Hewison, Minister of Rothesay, recognised this
function and described it in his book, The
Isle of Bute in Olden Time:
Tradition characterises it as a place of penance. It might thus be enumerated among those primitive structures called Clochans or Carcairs, which formed part of the Celtic monastic settlements, and were set apart for cells for undisturbed devotions, or for the suffering of punishment enjoined in terms of the monastic rule. It is a desert or solitude within the abbacy. 10
The original purpose of the Cauldron remains mystifying but
there is little doubt that it represents an impressive building type and its
presence has a similar effect on the visitor, as it seemed to have on Pennant,
to that of other ancient monuments as simultaneously remarkable, affective and
Unlike Pennant, we spent some
time exploring the ruined church of St Blane’s. (fig. 9) The nave of the church is dated to the twelfth century and
the information signs explain how these remains were preserved and conserved by
the architect Robert Weir Schultz (1860-1951) in 1896 who was commissioned by
John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the third Marques of Bute, as part of his project
to protect the island’s heritage. The architect used local slate and inserted
this material within the walls of the nave to indicate the old masonry from the
new stones. (fig. 10) St Blane’s was
once the parish church for the population of Kingarth and we noticed that some
visitors left their own devotional objects within the church’s walls. (fig. 11)
On Bute, Pennant does not remark
on the detail of the local flora and fauna; due, perhaps, to the similarity of
this with the other islands he described. Among the plants growing in and around St
Blane’s and the monastery, we cannot help but notice the number of common foxgloves
(Digitalis purpurea), and their
bright pinky-purple colour, appearing in sharp contrast to the predominantly
lush green grass, ferns and nettles. (fig.
Foxgloves appear to have been
common in Pennant’s time too. John Lightfoot (1735-1788), who accompanied
Pennant on his second journey through Scotland, describes the plants in Flora Scotica, 1777. They are found:
In rough mountainous places not uncommon, as upon the Corstorphyn hills near Edinburgh, and on the hills about Loch-Rannoch in Perthshire, and many other places … The flowers grow pendulous, in a long spike, all on the same side of the stalk. They are of a purple colour, very specious and marked internally with white flowers, but rarely. The plant has a bitter quality: six or seven spoon-fulls of the decoction is a strong emetic and cathartic. It has been found serviceable in scrophulous cases, taken internally for some time, and the bruised leaves or an ointment applied outwardly. 11
Medicinal use of the Fox-glove was revived in the
eighteenth-century, with physicians such as William Withers, based in
Birmingham, advocating its effectiveness as a purgative and diuretic. In An Account of the Foxglove, Withers
combines his case notes with botanical information on the origins of the plant
and its common name. Withers quotes naturalist John Ray’s (1627-1705)
description of the effects of ingesting Fox-glove: ‘It purges very violently
and excites excessive vomiting’, he writes.12 William
Curtis, of Chelsea Physic Garden, remarked in his book, Flora Londinensi, in 1777, thatFoxgloves were so common in Britain that their aesthetic qualities
were often overlooked:
Was it not that we are too apt to treat with neglect the beautiful plants of our own country, merely because they are common and easily obtained, the stately and elegant Fox-glove would much oftner be the pride of our gardens than it is at present. 13
Despite these fashionable reconsiderations of this
particular species, Pennant does not mention these plants in his assessment of
the kinds of landscape development or land management undertaken by the third
earl during this period. He does indicate that progress is visible in the
effects of enclosures, recently introduced: ‘… the hedges are tall, thick and
vigorous: the white thorns and wicken trees now in full flower; and about two
thousand acres have been thus improved.’ However, improvement exists for
Pennant alongside historical myth and legend of the island and one of the most
intriguing passages in Pennant’s description of this area is his retelling of
the story of two separate burial plots in the parish of Kingarth, (fig. 13) one for men and another for
Descend to the ruins of old Kin-garth church. Two cemeteries belong to it, a higher and a lower; the last was allotted for the internment of females alone because in old times, certain women being employed to carry a quantity of holy earth, brought from Rome, lost some by the way, and so incurred this penalty for their negligence, that of being buried separated from the other sex. 14
The legend is repeated in John Reid’s account of Bute in
Tradition asserts that the upper portion of the burying-ground was formed of consecrated earth, brought by St Blane from Rome; and it is added that the women having refused to assist in bringing the earth from the ships, or having spilled some of it by the way, their sex was denied the privilege of burial in the upper or consecrated portion of the ground; and it is recorded that in consequence of this superstition it was the practice to bury the males and females separately, and that this custom prevailed till 1661, when it was abolished by an order of the Presbytery. 15
Looking around the two cemeteries today, there is little
evidence of the gender divide, although it is satisfying to think of the
island’s women disobeying the church and behaving in such subversive ways; and
whether they would have considered their final resting places away from the men
as truly a punishment!
When Pennant visited, Kingarth Church, he would have seen
‘mid-kirk’, completed in 1680 and depicted on Roy’s Military Map (1747-1755)
but destroyed by a fierce storm in 1795. A new church, built in 1826, designed
by William Burn (1789-1870) and described as ‘an elegant and modern building’,
was also damaged by storms which blew its roof off and led to its eventual
demolition in 196816.
Unfortunately, there is nothing of either church visible today. (fig. 14)
Despite its temperate climate, which Pennant remarked upon,
Bute is renowned for ferocious and severe downpours: ‘The evils of this place
are winds and rains, the last coming in deluges from the West’.17
It is hard to imagine gales and rainstorms on the day we
visited, the sun was still shining when we set out for home. (fig. 15) Leaving Kingarth cemetery, we
walked onto the main road to find our car for the drive back to Rothesay to
catch the ferry. On the way, we stopped at a beautiful but small beach, at
Kerrycroy, the ‘model village’ designed by Maria Crichton-Stuart, (neé
North), wife of the 2nd Marquess of Bute and begun in 1803, some
years after Pennant’s tours. Perhaps he would have admired this improved
prospect, combining the benevolence of the Bute family with the natural
advantages of the landscape and climate. The scene appeared in contrast to the
portrayal of the island in Pennant’s time. The tumultuous years of John Stuart, the third
Earl of Bute’s political service in the later-half of the 1760s would have been
very fresh in the mind of Pennant when he visited the Earl’s ancestral seat, so
much so that the memory of the events generates a sympathy, of sorts, in the
naturalist’s portrayal of the darker aspects of the island’s history and
environment: religious intolerance, bitter plants, medieval barbarity, torrential
rain and powerful gales, all of which the Earl, as an ‘unhappy master’ seemed pitted
 Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, MDCCLXXII, 4th
Edition, Vol. II, Dublin, p.158.
 John Brewer, ‘The Misfortunes of
Lord Bute: A Case Study in Eighteenth-Century Political Argument and Public
Opinion’, The Historical Journal,
vol. 16, 1973, p. 6; See also: The Scots
Magazine, No. 25, October 1763, p. 533.
 Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXXII, p.158.
James King Hewison, The Isle of Bute in
Olden Time, with illustrations, maps and plans, 1893, p. 180.
 John Lightfoot, Flora Scotica: Or A Systematic Arrangement in the Linnaean Method of
the Native Plants of Scotland and the Hebrides, B. White, London, 1777, p.
 William Withers, An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its
Medical Uses, printed by M. Swinney, Birmingham; and G.G.J. Robinson,
London, 1785, p.xiv.
 William Curtis, Flora Londinensis, published and sold by the author; and B. White,
Bookseller, London, 1777, p. 71. Curtis dedicated the first volume of Flora Londinensis to John Stuart, 3rd
Earl of Bute, see Maureen H. Lazarus and Heather S. Pardoe, ‘Bute’s Botanical
Tables: Dictated by Nature’ in Archives
of Natural History, 36 (2) 2009, p. 279.
 Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXXII, p. 162.
 John Eaton Reid, History of the County of Bute, Thomas
Murray and Sons, Glasgow, 1864, p. 30.
It’s early October 2016. Bit by bit the space of Oriel Sycharth is shifting: first an empty white cuboid, now a heap of boxes and packages, then as if by artistic alchemy, a fully formed exhibition.
Barbara was there throughout, piecing together her works, which dealt so deftly with ideas of landscape, the politics of space, history, and feminism, in what I learned were ‘shallow space’ installations. Starting with a scythe, she looped photographs, drawings, and small paintings downwards, in a method inspired by the landmarks featured in early strip maps. In these works, Barbara was illustrating a walk around Mallwyd and Dinas Mawddwy, its beautiful landscapes, ancient associations with banditti, and ‘private’/’keep out’ warnings, all which she explained best in her own words in a blog post for our project about historical travel writing, and on her own website.
The works she made for the exhibition were colourful, provocative, and, in the hanging slates on which she’d engraved the outline of a mountain range, mesmerisingly (and deceptively) simple and pretty. She was the last to leave the gallery that day, quietly and methodically photographing all the assembled works long after everyone else had gone. This exhibition, and exhibitions of the same works in two other galleries, changed forever how I think about academic research; more than that they were enormous fun – events that celebrated women’s art and collectivity with so much wit and generosity because of the artists involved in them.
Driving up the last narrow lanes to Brondanw – it’s summer now, 2017, and the exhibition has moved west and north into the mountains; the mountains have become part of the exhibition, framed in the windows of the Plas. Here we fill not a shining white space but rooms of all sizes on many levels, and we are running up and downstairs looking for clips and ladders and lights. And laughing. Dylan is printing off labels as fast as he can. Marged’s practised eye judges heights and levels, light and shade. She has decided who goes where. More laughing. We lug Ali’s rocks in boxes out of the van, down the path, past the wisteria and up the curve of the stairs to be spread out on the dark wooden floor. Barbara is already there with her astonishing scythe – she hangs it, in perfect equilibrium, against a white wall. Her delicate printed-paper bowls each find their own space in the cabinet. The house fills up with stories.
In Aberystwyth’s Old College we have less room to play with but this time the sea joins us, framed in a big bay window. One evening some of the artists give talks about their work. Barbara tells us about the copper ladies, mentioned by early travellers, picking over the lumps of ore up at Mynydd Parys. She uses the pigments in her beautiful piece, ‘Quilt for a Copper Lady’, where the intensive, repeated gestures of different types of women’s work collide and surprise. Those bright colours. That bright laugh. A legacy.
Fat glossy pheasants catch the light between fields of greylag geese. Others are dead in the road, having made it through the shooting season only to find their snapped tail feathers nodding in the slipstream of passing cars. Then Nigel spots a red squirrel in the roadside canopy. Perthshire in early April. We’ve come here to transcribe a handful of Thomas Pennant’s letters at Blair Castle, but also to pick up his trail in a part of Scotland that neither of us know well. And then there’s the chance to walk Schiehallion, the long mountain that aligns Stob Dearg on the other side of the watershed with the sweeping river valleys of Tayside.
This part of the map is thick with names that drew eighteenth-century tourists: Blair Atholl, Killiecrankie, Birnam wood and Dunsinane, and the rivers Tummel, Lyon, Garry, Braan and Tay. The modern roads here tend to follow the military routes set down by Wade and Caulfeild, so we find ourselves intermittently crossing the paths of earlier travellers on their way to completing the section of ‘petit-tour’ that ran through Dunkeld and Loch Tay to Breadalbane. People passing this way often described the defile where the newly mixed rivers race out of the Highlands towards Perth in rapturous terms, a dark chasm whose sides seemed to close above their heads. The crags are now thick with conifer plantations, including deciduous larch, which at this time of year hangs above the valley like a rust-coloured mist. This part of Perthshire is larch country, the legacy of the 4th Duke of Atholl, who dreamed of establishing a lucrative industry supplying the navy with home-grown timber — a story told in Fredrik Albritton Jonsson’s book, Enlightenment’s Frontier. Nigel mentions that the less accessible crags were planted by loading cannon with larch seeds, conjuring up a slightly unsettling image of landscape improvement as aristocratic autocthony. In any case, these valleys must have been used to the ring of gunpowder by the 18th century. When we stop in Dunkeld for coffee and cake, information boards describe the street skirmishes that took place here between Jacobites and covenanters, as the vicious epilogue to the nearby battle of Killiecrankie.
We walk to the ruined cathedral, scanning the walls for pits left by musket balls. When Pennant first visited here it was without Moses Griffith, so the building is illustrated in the 1769 Tour with a view by Paul Sandby. In the cathedral grounds a board points out the 300 year old ‘Parent Larch’, the last remaining ancestor of the trees now crowding the hills around. It seems to have a second trunk growing straight up from one of its branches, like a new tree ready to be deposited — a living picture of its own legacy. As we discovered from reading the correspondence at Blair Castle the next day, Pennant’s characteristically brief account of Dunkeld and the Atholl estate in the 1769 Tour was taken as something of a slight by the Duke, and Pennant had to patch things up in advance of his second visit in 1772.
Tay Bridge, Aberfeldy
Eager to begin our hill walk while the weather still looked good, we don’t linger long in Dunkeld, and also decide to leave the town’s favourite tourist destination for another trip— the Hermitage with its waterfalls and mirror-covered Ossian’s hall. After driving by fields of lambs getting fat on the grassy valley floors we arrive in Aberfeldy, where we stop for a view of the famous Wade Bridge across the Tay. The bridge is a monument to Hanoverian power as much as a piece of infrastructure, its central span flanked by obelisks and inset with a relief of the initials ‘G II R’ between a crown and crossed swords. I didn’t catch the bridge’s famous Latin inscription, which hammers the point home:
Like Dunkeld and the pass of Killiecrankie nearby, this place is stamped with its history as an insurgent landscape of armed rebellions and braided rivers gradually thinned away. On the riverbank just above the bridge, something else catches my eye. The bright orange of a willow trunk almost severed at its base. I remember a running controversy about a population of escaped beavers that have made a home in the Tay and its tributaries, gnawing through trees, damming up streams and ditches and flooding fields. Farmers and landowners here see them as a pest, but others have welcomed their enlivening effect on these valleys and their ecosystems, and are keen for them to stay. Though not native European beavers, I wonder if this landscape will one day be as hard to imagine without their influence as it is without the larch. The ‘G II R’ on the bridge faces our first glimpse of snow across the floodplain, where it lines out the ridges of Schiehallion’s neighbours, Meall Liath, and Meall na Aighean. The air here is getting cold, and we decide to cross the Tay and head for the mountain.
View across the Tay from Aberfeldy
I’ve climbed Scheihallion once before — in almost total cloud cover — and been lucky enough to glimpse a ptarmigan making for cover among the boulders of the upper slopes. Pennant calls them ‘silly birds, and so tame as to suffer a stone to be flung at them without rising.’ He’s more sympathetic of the ptarmigan’s mountain neighbour, the White Hare, which is described as ‘full of frolick’ and ‘fond of honey and carraway confits’. When I was last here the mountain lived up to its Gaelic name, which translates as ‘The Fairy Hill of the Caledonians,’ the sheets of cloud racing by gave a confusing feeling of forward movement while I stood still on its rocky top. The good weather has put paid to any chance of mountain hares and ptarmigans today, but it’s hard to begrudge the bright procession of walkers we pass on the way up and down the hill, taking in the clear views and open sky.
Pennant mentions passing a ‘rocky hill called shei-hallen or the paps’ in 1769, but as a memorial at its base reminds us, it found a different source of fame in the eighteenth century as a scientific test site. Scheihallion’s shape, isolation and east-west alignment recommended it to the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, as a place to observe the ‘attraction of mountains’. Using an instrument called a zenith sector, Maskelyne observed the deflection of a silver plumb line bisecting a telescope view of the celestial meridian. Measured against the positions of the stars at a certain time, tiny movements in the line revealed the gravitational pull of the mountain itself. Between the astronomical observations and a survey of Schiehallion’s shape and composition, the experiment provided evidence of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and of the density and shape of the entire Earth. Apparently the footprints of Maskelyne’s parallel observatories on the north and south slopes of the mountain can still be found by those who know where to look, but we stick to the path, spotting only sheep fanks and the spreading cairns built-up by walkers.
As we climb, the mountains around begin to rise up around us, gathering into blue and white heaps towards Breadalbane, marked by the twin ridges of Ben More and Stob Binnein. We spot a few clusters of frogspawn in the path-side ditches, covered by water that might have fallen as snow a few weeks ago — though we’re both struck by how little snow there is on the mountain for this time of year. As we make our way up the long ridge we can see down to the bright blue Lochs of Rannoch and Tummel in the North, and onto a web of burns and springs catching the sunlight in the south — like snail trails, says Nigel. In the distance what looks like smoke from late-season muirburn rises in front of a windfarm. At our feet there are cow or blaeberry leaves tucked between the heather, sphagnum, and occasional hare droppings.
I’m reminded that Nigel and I have different feelings about ledges and heights, as I watch him peering down to the valley floor, sometimes adjusting his backpack or camera while standing next to a long fall. I prefer to stay a body’s length away from any drops when I can, and there’s a moment near the very top when this looks like a wise philosophy, as Nigel almost loses his footing on a piece of broken quartzite. I hear a shout and a flurry of footsteps chasing their balance behind me, but he manages to stay upright. We agree that he’s been tripped up by the fairies, pulled off-centre like Maskelyne’s silver plumb line.
Towards Creag a’ Mhadaidh
At the summit the view into the west suddenly opens over the blue-bronze haze of Rannoch Moor to Glencoe. From those hills Schiehallion takes on a conical shape, its long body hidden behind its steep western aspect. We stay as long as we can at the top, and on the way back down a grey partridge breaks cover on the path in front of us, before fluttering away into the heather. At the foot of the mountain the low sun brings out the declivities on a cup-marked stone. An information board nearby marks Allt Creag a’ Mhadaidh — the Burn of the Crag of the Wolves — winding its way between grouse butts and the remains of shielings: it’s a name like Schiehallion, that remembers somebody else’s world. As we drive away we spot an eagle slowly orbiting a cluster of Sitka spruce, Scots pine, and bright orange larch.
We arrive at the Atholl Arms in time for a drink in the beer garden, as the train from Inverness to London passes by on the adjacent track. We’re a stone’s throw away from the gates to Blair Castle, and the hotel is similarly decked-out in fading baronial style. We eat under high wooden beams and coats of arms in the hotel dining room. At the side is a display of stuffed game birds, including a huge Capercaillie. In what feels like a quiet act of care, someone has written a note giving the bird its name and the story of its reintroduction.
After dinner we wander around the village, where we can hear barn owls calling from the castle grounds. There’s a footbridge here across the River Garry. Pennant called it ‘an outrageous stream, whose ravages have greatly deformed the vally, by the vast beds of gravel which it has left behind.’ It seems to be confined to a single channel now, with the railway on one side and the main road rushing along the other. As we stand in the middle of the bridge with the black water flowing beneath, the pinprick glow of a satellite drops across the night sky and behind the trees.
Some photos from day 2: Blair Castle and the Falls of Bruar
Bedwyr Williams, ‘Tyrrau Mawr‘, Artes Mundi 7, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.
The Minffordd path to the five summits of Cadair (or, for us Gogs, Cader) Idris rises steeply from Tal y Llyn to Llyn Cau. On Thursday morning, 24 November this year I walked slowly uphill from a nearly-empty car-park, each step falling on ground so familiar my feet were almost on auto-pilot. Each turn evoked a memory, some recent, some very distant, recalling unbidden snatches of conversation or the sound of a voice. Walking alone, enveloped by the silence that follows grief like my shadow on the path, I soon reached the abandoned hafodtai, roofless but with their stone lintels still firm over the doorways and windows. I always pause there, where the ground evens, to catch my breath and to be reminded that this was once a settled, populated landscape. Not a playground for walkers, but summer grazing land, an intrinsic, productive part of the farming economy, and thus also of the social and cultural fabric of Meirionnydd.
From the ruins, the path rises gently to Llyn Cau, the glacial lake in the cwm at the foot of Craig y Cau. Then follows the steep but always exhilarating climb up the south ridge to the tops of Craig Cwm Amarch and Craig y Cau itself, and from there to the summit of Pen y Gadair, the highest point of the mountain.
Llyn Cau and Craig y Cau, from the southern ridge, Pen y Gadair in cloud to the right, 24 November 2016.
From the trig-point, on a reasonably clear day (admittedly, a rare event), you can visually take in the subsidiary summits of Cyfrwy and Tyrrau Mawr above the Mawddach to the west, and the whole of Llŷn. The long arm of the wild Rhinog, and beyond them Eryri, hold your attention to the north as the faint path traverses the summit ridge to reach the final, breathtaking Mynydd Moel near the mountain’s north-eastern edge. From there, the track descends roughly and precipitously to the point where Richard Wilson probably sketched his celebrated ‘Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris’ in circa the early 1770s.
Richard Wilson, Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris ?exhibited 1774, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/richard-wilson-llyn-y-cau-cader-idris-r1105618, accessed 05 December 2016
I have, over the years, grown to be more forgiving of the mildly over-dramatised upward stretching of Wilson’s Craig y Cau, and the strange scattering of individual figures in distorted perspective. For one thing, it’s a point from which you can trace the day’s walking almost in its entirety, as you can in Wilson’s painting. Born in nearby Penegoes in 1714, Wilson’s curiously gentle depiction of Cadair Idris stimulated not only a host of later landscape painters, from Joseph Mallord William Turner to Alfred de Bréanski, to trudge over its slopes in his footsteps, but also a veritable Victorian tourist industry as well, with enterprising Dolgellau folk taking visitors on horse-rides the long and easy way up the Pony Path to a café (of sorts) at the summit of Pen y Gadair. This one painting has, for two and a half centuries, framed the classical view of a magic mountain, an upland Wales rendered beautiful for metropolitan eyes to enjoy.
Nine days later, Yasmin and I are weaving our way through Christmas shoppers and the noisy Cardiff traffic to see an exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cathays of the short-listed candidates for the Artes Mundi Award 2016. We have come in particular to see our old friend John Akomfrah’s film about emigration and displacement, but then we step into a large darkened room, and find ourselves standing, awestruck and aghast, in front of this.
Bedwyr Williams, Tyrrau Mawr, 2016. 4K Video Installation 20 minutes video loop. Artes Mundi 7 installation view, National Museum Cardiff, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Limoncello Gallery.
Here again is Llyn Cau, with Craig y Cau above it, and Pen y Gadair just out of view in the cloud. On its rocks and scree rise the towers of a brand new city, named by its architects after one of the mountain’s western peaks, Tyrrau Mawr. My first, admittedly unkind, thought is that it resembles an early stab at the computer game, SimCity, which turns out to be about the only trace of Bedwyr Williams’s trademark irony here. I suspect you’ll find few other comedic twists among these cold, gleaming glass and concrete towers.
We confront the huge scale of the digital canvas, its immersive combination of music and a spoken narrative that relate the story of a song about a twenty-year old city, without roads, and with only the merest hint of human habitation as tiny lights switch on and off in apartments and offices. The emptiness of the quay-side, the theatre and the flood-lit sports-field further accentuate its fragmented, alienated human presence.
The lens that focused the image of the mountain appears to have been placed closer to the lake than the spot where Wilson put his easel, on the other side of the cwm, some half way up the southern ridge, near the point where Wilson’s two figures are standing together (below). His photography quotes Wilson, but gives him a different accent, perhaps even a different language. Certainly, he gives his Llyn Cau a different purpose.
Approximate lens position of ‘Tyrrau Mawr’, turned towards the north-west
Tyrrau Mawr’ shocks. It is a raw, brutal work. For the first few moments I assume it to be a still image, before I slowly realise that it pulses, like a living thing, the clouds blowing to the north-west, as does the smoke rising from the dark tower in the centre, the water in the lake lapping gently. In its twenty-minute cycle from evening to dawn, the light constantly changes position. Its stillness, the hard stone of the mountain, the sun’s reflection lighting up in sequence each detail of the ‘great towers’ brings a calmness to the composition that renders it exquisitely beautiful. It reminds us of the melancholy of a cathedral.
Yasmin, a fan of the artist since seeing him at his first exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery in 2012, curated by the ever-innovative Jonathan Watkins, whispered to me as we finally walked out, ’It’s like Caravaggio’. Ein Caravaggio Cymraeg, yn wir. Her hyperbole was measured. Williams really is playing, mysteriously, with light, and the digital matte painting techniques he uses are, if nothing else, painterly. His exhibition, The Gulch, now showing at the Barbican until 8 January 2017, is described by its curator as the work of ‘one of the contemporary art world’s most exciting and innovative artists’, so perhaps her remark is not so overblown after all.
Cadair Idris and ‘Tyrrau Mawr’
Cadair Idris is no mere contrasting, if picturesque, background here, not an empty stage where the architectural drama unfolds. It’s a place of myth and memory. Idris was a giant of learning, master of both the ancient arts and the cosmic sciences. The hell-hounds of the Mabinogi hunted his mountainsides, and the long skyline is inscribed with stories – of religious zeal, poetic gifts and madness.
Where Richard Wilson made Cadair Idris look serene and almost pastoral, Bedwyr Williams renders it terrifying. Here is a Brazilia or a Naypyidaw waiting to happen. A new Shenzhen built on concrete poured over a national park, the grandiose and overweening arrogance of Trump Towers desecrating the sublime. In the turning of a fragile and loved psychosocial space, whose cultural geography runs deep, into nothing more than ‘foundations’, I see the burning of Penyberth, hear Gwenallt’s blistering Rhydycymerau, remember Tryweryn and Aberfan. Yet we’re told that the city houses people just like us, busy with the micro-details of their lives. It’s just that we don’t see them. They too have been subsumed by the great towers. ‘Tyrrau Mawr’, by observing so unwaveringly the erasure of layers of history and memory, and the building of new ones, is a work of quiet fury. Go see it.
And next time you climb as far as Llyn Cau, stay awhile in Bedwyr Williams’s ‘Tyrrau Mawr’ and listen, entranced and horrified, to the sounds of his city. They’re the sounds of our Trumped-up times.
Diwedd dydd, diwedd oes, Cadair Idris, 24 November 2016.
Edward Pugh, ‘Pont Cysyllty Aqueduct’ (1816), by permission of the National Library of Wales
Soon after we regained the high road, we saw the immense aqueduct which is building over the Vale of Llangollen from the Ellesmere canal, when compleat [sic] it will be a very noble work, at present it is in a very unfinished state’ – Mary Anne Eade, 1802
Friday 4 November
I’ve not long come home from a lively, beautifully illustrated pair of talks at Oriel Sycharth, on the history (and the future) of the landscape of the Dee Valley. I collapse on the sofa with an end-of-the-week glass of wine, message a friend to thank her for coming along. It makes me want to go back over the aqueduct, comes the quick reply…me too, I think. And so we hatch a plan for the following Friday.
Friday 11 November
The kids dropped at school, I head round to collect Andrea. A few minutes southbound and we’re virtually there, winding along orange-strewn roads and through increasingly bare trees. We park up, pleasantly surprised to find no charge. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is, since 2009, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and generally a busy spot, though we have it to ourselves at a little after nine on a bitter November morning. Before we get quite to the aqueduct we find the canal crowded with empty barges; the place seems not yet properly awake.
We head on round to the aqueduct – a channel of water streaming out across the valley. It still seems so unlikely, this towering, elegant water-filled structure bridging the River Dee. I still can’t get my head around the leap of faith it needed, in 1795 (a year of famine and riots in Wales), to imagine the aqueduct spanning an empty landscape. It took more than ten years to complete.
The towpath side is bordered by railings but at over a hundred feet above the river, looking down is disconcerting. Looking upstream is especially so, as there’s nothing at all between the canal edge and the drop. Gazing ahead and down, the aqueduct flows slowly to my left, at a right angle to the river powering downstream below. The competing directions, too, disorientate. Immediately across from where I’m standing, the low sun projects the railings behind me onto the lip of the canal: a fuzzy-edged miniature aqueduct.
We walk on, talk on, stop to take photos, are passed by our first fellow visitor – another photographer. I’m snapping by phone, hoping for the best, but this guy looks like a pro.
Andrea and I are exchanging incomprehension over events in America this week, trying (failing) to imagine voting for someone who shows nothing but contempt for you, when the canal catches my eye. With no traffic or even wildlife to disturb it, the water is a black mirror, tipping the trees on the far bank upside down. A few leaves stick to the surface; others hang motionless within the water. We keep walking, colder now under the canopy of this part of the towpath.
The canal veers left, and we try to get a view of the aqueduct from a little distance. Too many trees obstruct the view. We stop and smile at a notice asking visitors not to disturb the ducks. Health and safety information isn’t, after all, known for its humour.
We turn back, keen to head down to the riverbank. Down here, the aqueduct, its massive feet planted in the Dee, seems more unlikely than ever. How do you even begin to build in these fierce waters?
Looking up is masonry and iron on blue sky. Shadows of trees stretch across the pillars, something like a tangle of nerve endings.
We walk a little way down the path towards Tŷ Mawr country park. Andrea crouches to photograph some leaves, but the path is also marked by grey-white feathers, then some spotted with blood, then a torn-off leg, still bright red at the top. We quickly look away, climb back up to the canal.
We’ve been wandering for the best part of a couple of hours, and by now the place is pretty busy, even in three-degree temperatures. The snack kiosk has opened and looks seriously tempting, but we’re suddenly conscious of all the other jobs awaiting us today: soup and cake will have to wait.
‘Bwlch-y-Groes’ from Thomas Compton’s “The Northern Cambrian Mountains” (1818). Image from the National Library of Wales Landscape Collection /Casgliad Tirlun, by kind permission [link].
It is the most tantalising of seasons. The first frost of the year is guaranteed to be a matter of weeks away. On a day in mid-October the weather might be anything from bright to drenching. This Thursday I have luck. In Llanymawddy early afternoon outside the church of St Tydecho the sky looks promising, enough cloud to protect against an excess of sun but of a shape and texture that suggest no rain. The oaks and limes on the valley floor are still thick with leaves.
It is a day that has worked out nicely. The morning has started in the Raven Inn in Llanarmon-yn-Ial, a village pub owned and run by the community with all the flavour which that status brings. The memory of a scintillating night at Mold’s Theatr Clwyd has been fresh in the mind and eight paragraphs for Theatre Wales, the critics’ hub founded by Aberystwyth’s Keith Morris, have flowed with ease. With the main task for the day done, the route to the coast, broken by a stroll around the architectural treasure store that is Ruthin, has brought me to the upper Dyfi all by the time of the one o’clock news.
I have been here before but not in a satisfactory way. The road from south of Bala to its highest point at Bwlch-y-Groes is narrow in ascent and precipitate in descent. The setting may be one of grandeur but in truth to be in command of a ton of metal means that the predominant emotion is anxiety. A vehicle may be coming from the opposite direction with all the manoeuvring on a tight mountain lane that such a meeting entails. Besides human perception is designed to work at its peak when passing through an environment at a speed of four miles an hour. “Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being” said Kierkegaard “I have walked myself into my best thoughts”. The best of travel’s pleasures are always serendipitous. With no obligation for hours this is the day for Bwlch-y-Groes.
With no map and a changeable climate it is also not a day for straying from a secure route. It makes small difference. The walk takes an hour and half. In that time a couple of four-wheel-drives go by. Otherwise it is me and the landscape. It was not always so. Human traffic has shifted to the low route via Dolgellau but this was once a main thoroughfare. Today the village may be a silent string of houses but in its past Llanymawddy was host to enough human traffic to support eight pubs.
The first suggestion of the clouds has of course been deceptive. The ascent from the floor of the Dyfi Valley means that the upper tree-line is soon passed and with it places of refuge from rain. The walker’s eye is tuned to the movement of clouds. The speed of change is dramatic; just minutes can pass between a sky with oblique shards of bright sunlight to black-grey clouds. Happily the wind at two thousand feet is just as swift in sending the rain clouds on to Cadair Idris.
It is not just the eye that is called upon to work harder. It is a rare place where all sound of human industry disappears. On a distant ridge a post is being worked on. On and off the thwack of mallet on post carries across the interval of two miles distance. But in its absence natural sound predominates. Lower down an on-off October breeze shakes the branches of the trees still thick with leaves. Higher up it is the sound of water, the many streams pouring down to become the Dyfi. The soundscape is not unlike that of earlier traveller-recorders. Thomas Pennant was here in 1781.
Just before the pass of Bwlch-y-Groes the road splits. The southern lane drops sharply to Efyrnwy, the arm to the north on and over to Llanuwchllyn and Bala. A memorial cross has been placed here in memory that this most now lonely of roads was once the direct route of pilgrimage from the north to Saint David’s. The purposes of place change. In that great piece of British cinema “A Canterbury Tale” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger fused their servicemen of 1944 with pilgrims of five centuries earlier.
To be at the top is good. The space is huge, the view stretching from Dyfi Valley to Cadair Idris to the Aran range with their distinctive covering of peat. The two peaks, Aran Fawddwy and Aran Benllyn, are surprisingly close, as a companion traveller from past time also noted. But Thomas Pennant did not warm to this summit. “The pass itself is a dreary, heathy flat…the descent on the other side…very tedious”. On the valley floor he changed tone, noting the “excellent quickset hedges” and concluding “there is a beauty in this vale.”
As for the walker of today there is the intrinsic satisfaction that it has all been achieved by leg and lung power rather than with feet on accelerator, clutch and brake. I am not an out-and-out Kierkegaardian but on the power of the walk he is quite correct. There is not another two-legged creature to be seen but the bracken is filled with life. The nearby circling red kite knows it well and is looking for it. Happy it is to be of the species of infinite specialisation of work. The human eye no longer has to scan a landscape for sources of sustenance. It can look for the unseen. That most eminent son of Llanuwchllyn, O. M. Edwards, said of Bro Aran: “Mangre dawel fynyddig ydyw, lle ardderchog i enaid ddal cymundeb a Dduw.” “This is a silent, mountainous retreat, an excellent place for communion with God”.
Last word on what it is all for goes to the best of today’s walker-writers of Wales.. For Jim Perrin to be out in the landscape “gives you something to question, pictures to create in your mind, purposes to unravel, the jigsaw of history to piece together from the disparate elements of fact, feature, literature, place, imagination and mood.”
One example of this is the series of illustrations of the donor figure in stained glass at Eglwys Rhos: the Church of St Eleri and St Mary, Llanrhos, near Conwy. It is illustrated in volume four of the National Library of Wales’ collection of extra-illustrated tours, and Pennant identifies him in the text as Howel ap Tudor of Mostyn, the donor of the window (p. 328), dating the window to the fifteenth century.
In this instance we have not only the illustration on the page, but an insert, which appears to be an original sketch of the figure, presumably by Moses Griffith. The figure here has a happier demeanor, and only an indication of the inscription, which is recorded separately and also inserted, and was later combined with the figure for the illustration on page 328.
Insert from National Library of Wales’ extra-illustrated volume four. Courtesy National Library of Wales
Insert from National Library of Wales’ extra-illustrated volume four. Courtesy National Library of Wales
Page from National Library of Wales’ extra-illustrated volume four. Courtesy National Library of Wales
The figure is not mentioned in the survey of medieval glass in North Wales by Mostyn Lewis (1970), or in the Royal Commission inventory (1956). So what became of it? The discovery of the image encouraged me to go and find out.
The church is usually locked outside of service times, so I had to arrange a visit with the incumbent. The church is full of stained glass, but there was no sign of the figure. I subsequently identified the lovely Victorian east window as the work of Lavers & Barraud, and there are also nineteenth-century windows by Mayer & Co. and Ward & Hughes, and a more recent window by Celtic Studios. There are also some unusual scenes painted on green glass in the south transept, which look as though they might date to the early nineteenth century, or just possibly earlier.
But there was no sign of Howel ap Tudor of Mostyn. There was, however, an odd piece of glass in the lower part of the central light of the east window, painted and joined, without lead, to a piece of pinkish glass. What is it? Could be old?
Thursday 26 May. The University and College Union (UCU) had called on its members to stage a strike, as part of an ongoing dispute over pay. Although I would officially be on strike I knew I was likely to spend the day quietly working, and Mary-Ann admitted the same. We decided to go hiking instead.
But where to walk? Quickly settling on Mallwyd, we weren’t just following in the footsteps of Thomas Pennant. Mallwyd is a crossroads, linking Snowdonia with mid-Wales and the coast beyond Machynlleth, and so many of our travellers passed through it. We checked our notes and found the father-and-daughter duo William and Catherine Hutton – curious, hardy, humane visitors – among the best on the area. (Catherine captures Mallwyd’s setting in a few words: ‘the junction of four vales, and consequently the meeting of four roads; for here roads cannot get over the hills’.)
Meeting at the Brigands Inn, right on the crossroads, we dig out maps over coffee and choose a circular route starting from Dinas Mawddwy. First, though, a colleague’s recommendation sends us through a lane of cottages to Mallwyd’s church, St Tydecho’s. Eighteenth-century travellers stopping at Mallwyd mention without fail the church’s massive yews, still there, their trunks fanning out in different directions. In July 1796, Catherine Hutton saw them as symbols of an unchanging world:
In the churchyard of Mallwyd is a yew-tree, that, tradition says, is 700 years old; and it is not easy to imagine a sport where a yew-tree could have witnessed fewer vicissitudes in the objects around, during that length of time. The rivers, the rocks, and the mountains, are immutable. The woods are the lineal descendants of those that flourished when the yew was planted. Their houses, probably differ little in number, and but few of them in convenience. The roads are undoubtedly the same; for nowhere else could they be made to pass: they are only widened to admit a carriage. The yew-tree has nine distinct trunks, one in the centre, and eight that surround it; and the circumference of their united branches is computed at upwards of 200 ft.
Typical tourists, we climb into the centre of the trees, look for eighteenth-century headstones, admire their carvings. As always I have to brace myself before walking across graves placed end-to-end in the long grass.
The entrance to the church is bizarrely guarded by a giant tusk; inside the pews are banked up like a theatre. I climb to the top, try to imagine the space filled with bodies and voices, stare out at the hillside rising sharply alongside the church. I know Catherine was struck by the same kind of view:
The mountains which encompass it are so high that it is difficult to determine whether the white specks we see near their tops are stones or sheep, till we observe them change their place. On the sides are small patches of wood, or enclosed lands, with here and there a cottage.
We head back, drive on to Dinas Mawddwy, find a café serving takeaway lunches – cheese and sundried tomato sandwiches, a slab of cake – and turn back to the map. We had chosen an easy route for the first part: a flattish walk along lanes and bridleways to Abercywarch. The sky begins to clear; we watch the landscape change around us, post-mortem a recent conference, wonder about the future. Head on through steep-sided farmland, past a graveyard of metal and machinery, a tied-up dog goes crazy. Tadpoles crowd a shallow puddle.
Ahead, towards Cwm Cywarch, the view is dark with bare rock. We know we have to cross the ridge to drop back to Dinas Mawddwy, but the map looks none too clear to me on how. We walk on, spot a route we know our colleagues have taken before us: the ghost of walks past. Looking across at the broken rockface I wonder if it’s natural or worked (quarried, I discover from a sign in a car park). We realise we’ve gone too far and missed the path; we double back, knock a door for directions, but there’s no one home. We’ve barely even seen a passing car, and suddenly this valley feels uneasily remote. Somewhere nobody would hear you scream. We cut across country, through the last of the bluebells, hope not to be spotted. And then the path appears – we’ve climbed a little and can see all too easily where we went wrong.
The climb gets harder, conversation slows. Higher and higher, and the view changes, no longer diagonal lines criss-crossing but now a single curve, Bala and Lake Vyrnwy beyond. Mary-Ann stops to photograph some of the ferns that by this point cover the damp hillside. Tiny, intricate tendrils.
Our route over the ridge is clearly an old and well-trodden one. We try to picture its past travellers, making for the other side of the hill – sharp though it is, it seems like much the much the quickest way of crossing into the next valley. We stop at the top, try to catch some breath, eat something, but abandon sitting down for lunch-on-the-move as the midges swarm for us.
The other side of the hill is nothing at all like the deserted valley we’ve just climbed from. The skyline is gorgeous, but our immediate surroundings are desolate with cut forestry, and then military jets smashing through the quiet, again and again. They make the sheep miscarry, Mary-Ann says, furiously flicking Vs at the disappearing jet. I think of her story, ‘The Breathing’, and our talk turns to writing.
Heading down towards the main road, we find we’ve missed the path again. I’m not walking on the A470 says Mary-Ann, so we turn back into a side lane at the first opportunity, wind through farmyards, past rampant lilac rhododendron; still not a soul in sight. It’s been hours, we’re dusty and suspect blisters, but back at the cars we decide to finish where we started – at the Brigands. We down blissfully cold lime and soda, then sip a huge pot of tea, and turn home, happy with our hike strike.
Exactly three weeks later, I’m driving home a little earlier than usual, worried by the unbelievable news that an MP has been brutally attacked in broad daylight. Between Machynlleth and Mallwyd, rain batters the windscreen so hard I can barely see the road. Radio 4 is rolling news, and Andrew Mitchell is already talking about Jo Cox in the past tense when the interviewer suddenly cuts to a police statement announcing that she has died of her injuries. Moments later I’m at the Brigands again, racing in through the rain. I order a coffee, look round at the people already there, a dog asleep at their feet, and think they don’t know yet. I scroll through the news, through Twitter, and the sheer horror and grief is both paralysing and strangely comforting; strangers connected across who knows where in a shared sadness.
I look out of the front window towards the estuary, which is filled with mist. In literally hundreds of through-journeys, I don’t think this meeting point of roads, and clouds, has ever looked so grey. A couple sit down at the table next to me, start to discuss tonight’s menu. I think of Catherine Hutton, watching people as well as places:
That you may not stand astonished at my prodigious knowledge of this principality, considering the short time I have been in it I will let you into the secret. The wind whistled all night among the mountains, by which Mallwyd is environed; the rain beat against my casement; and I requested my father to pass the day here. I have spent the rainy part of it in studying the inhabitants; and the fair, in acquiring some idea of their country.
I first became aware of Thomas Pennant’s tours in Wales when working on the ‘Visual Culture of Wales’ project from 1999–2004, although this was initially through the work of Moses Griffith and the extra-illustrated volumes now in the National Library of Wales. Pages and illustrations from the volumes were used in the series of books and CD-ROMs by Peter Lord, which were published between 1998 and 2004.
These extra-illustrated volumes are printed versions of the tours with large margins around the outside of the text. Their owners would have drawings added to these margins as illustrations, and used them rather like a scrapbook for additional prints and drawings, and also added larger illustrations, often in the form of prints, as additional leaves to the volumes.
In this way the illustrations create an almost independent visual journey through Wales, and as each of the extra-illustrated volumes are unique, they are a reflection of their owners’ interests. The images form a parallel narrative with Thomas Pennant’s text, which does not always describe the objects and views added in the outer margins.
All of the National Library of Wales’ eight volumes of extra-illustrated are available on their website. These are thought to have been compiled for Thomas Pennant’s own library, although there is evidence that they reached their final form after his death in 1798.
The volumes provide important evidence for buildings and artworks that no longer survive, or survive in an altered form. For example, medieval churches that were subsequently demolished or heavily restored during the course of the nineteenth century are found here. The National Library’s extra-illustrated volumes contain many of the earliest visual recordings of memorials, graveslabs, fonts and stained glass in Wales (as well as sections in Cheshire and Shropshire), and in some instances these are the only evidence that we have for these medieval artworks.
For example, I found these volumes useful for their illustrations of medieval stained glass and used these sources when writing about medieval stained glass in Stained Glass from Welsh Churches (2014). I’ll try to add some examples to this blog in the coming months.
Reviewing the posts by other artists on this blog so far, most seem to be responding to the landscape of the tours. My focus will mainly be on the built environment, and particularly the ecclesiastical history and visual culture of the churches encountered along the path of Thomas Pennant’s tours, which is represented primarily in the images that were added to the extra-illustrated tours.
Continuing with my chosen place, Dinas Emrys in Nantgwynant, and following on from my small ‘Book of Earths’ using the earths collected from the land, I made two larger drawings based on the circular Pool, and the Tower, both places which play an important part in this legend.
I decided to refresh my memory of the Sygun Copper mine which I had visited only once many years ago and hadn’t realized how much water is constantly running throughout the mines. The leaching of the minerals within the depths of these caverns gives rise to rich red pools.
Returning to the site of the hill fort and more specifically to the pool that still exists below the tower foundations, I found myself unable to stop thinking of the connections between the legend of the red and white dragons fighting and the geological colours of the land. The red pools in the depths of the copper mines and the strong white quartz veins that run through as tributaries within the rocks, became the source of the sculptural idea to express my response to this place.
The pool or cistern, as it is called, lies within a hollow on the hill fort and it is possible that it had a particular status or numinous quality, a pagan shrine or a place of inaugural ritual. Bowls, being the first form made by humans, were not uncommon within the process of such rituals and it is a form that has become a strong element of my work. I decided to work with this one form and to express the two energies of the Welsh (Britons) and the English (Saxons) that, according to legend still lie beneath the pool.
White bowl symbolizing the White Dragon
Red earth bowl symbolizing the Red Dragon
Working with the different earth pigments found in the area, the installation ‘Y Pwll’ was created.
‘Y Pwll’ – installation of 26 white bowls and 27 red.
“The boy, Merlin, prophesied that the Britons would rise again and push the Saxons back”.