It’s confession time. I love maps, I have old maps of various parts of the North East and North Wales in frames on my walls, with the aim of making my kitchen-diner looking suitably gastro-eclectic. I love that they help us find our way, stake claim to territory, and shed light on what was and what might have been, and have done for hundreds of years.
The confession, however, is not to being a collector of maps; the confession is to my being, shall we say, directionally challenged. ‘Not finding my way out of a paper bag’ is a family joke, so for me to consider a walking tour is a source of hilarity to my nearest and dearest. It’s something that almost made me say ‘no’ when my good friend Liz Edwards suggested I combine my love of writing with my work as a landscape artist in this project. And to take a tour in Wales? I’m a foreigner, an English migrant from a North Eastern ex-mining town, married to a Welshman. However, beautiful Wales has me hooked, so it’s with this understanding of how Wales can work her charm on you that I come to write with, I hope, a similar love that Thomas Pennant had for Wales, on what I will describe as my ‘mini-tour’. As an artist, however (and someone truly terrified of being lost), mine will not be an exact step-by-step retracing of Pennant’s steps – but simply an artist’s response to a place that he visited.
Tal-y-Llyn Lake/ Llyn Mwyngil (note spelling difference, Pennant refers to it as Myngil)
I was initially intrigued by the fact that Pennant travelled close to where my in-laws’ holiday home is in a village near Tywyn (Towyn Meirionydd) and he mentioned a small lake close-by that I hadn’t realised existed.
‘….ride several miles along the pretty vale of Tal y Llyn; very narrow but consisting of fine meadows, bounded by lofty verdant mountains, very steeply sloped. Went by Llyn y Myngil, a beautiful lake, about a mile long, which so far fills the valley, as to leave only a narrow road on one side. It’s termination is very picturesque; for it contracts gradually into the form of a river, and rushes through a good stone arch (I couldn’t see this – AH) into a narrow pass.’ (p. 94)
I took a drive with the family on Monday 26th October to see if the area was worth writing about, or whether I should reconsider my (foolish?) agreement. I have to say, on a glorious autumn day, this petite lake didn’t let me down – it might be small in size, but in the shadow of Cadair Idris, Snowdonia, Tal-y-Llyn Lake was breathtaking; the mountains majestically mirrored in the calm surface of the water.
So, the following day I took myself there again by car and parked in a small lay-by. I had packed my art pad, pencils, pastels, pens, as well as my camera and iphone; certainly modern additions to the tools used by Moses Griffith, Pennant’s servant/artist (‘untaught genius’). I suppose I was hoping for the spirit of Pennant or Griffith to join me, guide me, to show up as a ghostly presence. He would, I imagine, be bemused by my need to take time out to take photos for blog posting, though to the 21st-century traveller his Tour of Wales could be seen as the 18th-century version of social media ‘check-ins’ at places of interest; “hey, look who I have been chatting to”, “what a wonderful view (might make a few people back home jealous)” and “having a few pints in the local pub (yes, those working hard at home may well be smarting by now)”.
As my own art enquiry is concerned with mindfulness, I aim to bring a moment of peace or a moment of energy from the past (as I have seen it) to the present, so I suggested that my response to this project would be to try to marry this historic tour, the location, art, and mindfulness together. As a practice, mindfulness can help you to deal with stress and worrying in a more kind and understanding way and help you to be wholly in the present moment. The Wildmind website gives a really useful guide to a walking meditation, so I wanted to use this to see if I could explore this place and perhaps come to an alternative understanding of what Thomas Pennant was trying to do:
“Meditation is a process of developing greater awareness so that we can make changes to our consciousness so that we can be more deeply fulfilled, and have a greater understanding of life.” http://www.wildmind.org/walking/overview
Was he trying to enliven the senses of those reading about his tours? Did he get the same breathless rush of excitement when he arrived here? Was he trying to capture the memories and images of a serene lake for an early form of meditation? I know he certainly didn’t use a Mindfulness app on his iphone, such as I often use, to talk him through meditations, nor an Ordnance Survey app to identify the mountains, nor a voice recorder for his thoughts (what would he make of that?). Although these were options open to me as a 21st-century woman, I chose to discard them in favour of a pencil and paper, and you will see some of my inner voice/ thoughts in italics. As I walked, I kept in mind:
- What do I feel?
- What do I hear?
- What can I see around me?
- How do I feel? What emotions are arising?
- How does the place smell?
- What are the tiny details I might have otherwise overlooked?
- How does any of this transfer to ideas for paintings?
My journey began with the Ty’n-y-Cornel Hotel and St Mary’s Church (a 15th-century part-converted listed building, now used as a holiday let – I strayed into the graveyard initially, not sure if I was an unwelcome guest or not) to my left. I had already decided to take a full circular tour of the lake, despite being unsure of how long this would take.
“So do that now; come to a stop. And just experience yourself standing. Just notice what it’s like to no longer be in motion.” http://www.wildmind.org/walking/introduction
Colours bright, joy, life, fortunate, happy, peace. My hair whipped across my face in the autumn wind and I noticed the sound of the water lapping amongst the reeds and grasses; it was more breezy than the day before. As I set off again, I approached the edge of the lake to investigate the bright orange reeds (they didn’t look that bright from a distance), I almost fell in. Yes, that would have been a rather soggy start to the morning, so I edged away, my heart beating a little faster and I looked around to see if anyone had seen my near-miss. This was quickly replaced by a sudden uneasy feeling that the hills were taking in all of my movements. Don’t be daft, it’s just because you’re on your own. Daft? That’s harsh. Breathe and let any self-criticism go. As I moved further away from the 2 pub/restaurants (tiny place, 2 pubs, can’t be bad, scone with jam later?), I had hoped to leave behind the sound of traffic, but the sound was a pretty constant hum, as the B4405 is a through road from Tywyn to Dolgellau. The sound of leaves underfoot was something I turned my attention to instead as I strode on through the lane beside the lake.
I spotted a horse trail winding uphill and wondered if that could take me to the view of Tywyn that Pennant talks of (p. 92), so I took a slight detour, only to find the route didn’t take me very high at all. I turned back and cantered downhill through mud mixed with chippings of slate, a reminder of the region’s heritage. Distant crows squawked as I came through the tunnel of trees and saw the lake from the opposite side to which I started.
Slow down. Gentle. This isn’t a race. Allow yourself to breathe. Where is your breath? High up in the chest? Let’s see if I can move it down to my stomach. Stop. Close my eyes. Fingers feeling cold.
Through the darkened tunnel of trees I had a sense of unease creep over me as I passed the Old Rectory B&B. Be brave. Alone. Fear. No phone signal. What if I hurt myself? You won’t, just be careful. Because I was conducting my journey using mindfulness, I also noticed flowers with pinks of different shades, the final remnants of summer. I’m sure someone can identify the species (I’m no gardener). I expected only russets, golds and orange at this time of year.
A lone emerald green boat in the middle of the lake made me slow down to take it in. What is it doing there? Had someone swum back from there? Ivory coloured interior just like the 1950s bakelite knife handles my Nana had. Strangely, memories emerge of my own childhood, brown bread and butter and homemade treacle tarts.
As I’m a landscape artist, I thought I had better make some rough sketches (I could have set up paints and an easel, but this would make it a rather static walk), so I sat down on some soft moss and ferns on the hillside (the moss was such an intricate design when I looked closely).
Wet bottom, great. Well done, sit on the bag instead. The vastness astounded me from this side. How do I fit it all in? The buildings look tiny. Two walkers passed me and nodded a greeting; the only other people I saw walking. Oh no, maybe I should have stopped them, interviewed them like Pennant might have. What would I ask? Nothing prepared. Damn it, missed my chance. Let it go.
Leaves were falling, dancing from the trees and as I continued further along the path, I admired the hand-built walls and passed rusted corrugated roofs on farm buildings – a theme that was emerging seemed to be textures and surprising colours. Two RAF jets disturbed the peace and I felt the sound rumble through my body. I hate that sound, it scares me. Calm. Calm. Breathe out. I spotted a sheep up ahead on the path, not in the fields, no, four sheep. No others walkers but unsurprisingly plenty sheep, just as Pennant noted of the area, ‘smooth hills, and covered with flocks, which yield the materials for the neighbouring manufactures.’ (p. 92)
They looked like 4 older women with rounded behinds bustling ahead to get out of my way. I tried to catch up with them. Stop. I’m hurrying, oh but that’s lovely, it’s posing for me on the hillside, framed by the trees with the lake in the background. Perfect. What am I feeling in this moment? I’m hurrying, anxious to get back, but not even halfway there yet. Slightly worrying. But the children are ok. Guilt. Let it go? Yes. Permission to breathe. Relax. I picked some wool off the fences and some coarse black hairs from a cow, great for texture in a painting, something I haven’t tried. The lone foxgloves up ahead were again an unexpected splash of purple/pink at this time of year – this has to be incorporated into my paintings somehow. And blackberries, the last few. I feel these are some of the details of nature Pennant may have noticed had he walked/ridden around the lake at this time of year, so I really wanted to pick up on these.
The final stretch
Can I turn right yet? Should I turn back and give up, not finish the circuit? Who would know I haven’t done it all? I would know. Local people would know. That black cow would know, and her friends, blacker than black, eyes all watching me, a stream dividing us, thankfully.
I crossed a wooden bridge and could see a road, but I was suddenly disappointed and a little annoyed to see a parked Next delivery van there. Didn’t he know I was trying to immerse myself in the landscape, that of a bygone age, casting off the commercial elements I am used to? The driver asked me about a farm address of which I had no knowledge, so I carried on along the road knowing that I was now at the far end of the lake and over half way there. I’m resenting tarmac? Why isn’t the road closer to the lake? This side is dull. Get a grip, I laugh to myself. Hungry and thirsty, can I wait? No, it might be further than I think, this road is winding. I pause to retrieve my bottle of water and a banana from my backpack, but realise I have to move to the other side of the road as I see the corner approaching; I’d rather not be pasted to the front of a lorry as it rounds the blind bend.
I hear chainsaws revving through the trees though couldn’t see anyone, certainly not a sound Pennant would have heard. As I pass some country lodges/B&Bs, I spot a white chicken and an upturned green wheelbarrow in a small-holding. I pause. Why is it making me smile? Maybe it’s a potential scene for a painting?
I reach a crazy paving path on my right alongside the lake (once again, the risk of me falling in is in the forefront of my mind) and this also eventually takes me within sight of my car in the lay-by. The sun was casting a beam across the mountains to my left and a line of sheep were travelling together in a chain through the ferns. I’d really like to have visited Castell y Bere (Tererri Castle, mentioned on p. 93) that day too, but I know even Pennant would have broken his journey into what was manageable as he mentions, ‘After recovering the fatigue of this journey…’ (p. 89). I can say that my own weary body was ready for rest and I congratulated myself on such a hike (though I had forgotten to set my Runkeeper app to see how far I had travelled). Looking at my watch I saw I had taken two and a half hours, this was a little longer than I had anticipated, but then I did stop regularly to take photos and make notes. Perhaps if others visit it will take significantly less time, but I would certainly not recommend the walk back on the B4405 road; perhaps turn around when you reach the wooden bridge. One last push forward, one last look at the lake on my right glistening in the warming midday sun, committing the scene to memory.
Future art as a response to the landscape
How do I feel having visited this lake? Happy, proud, enlightened, invigorated, hoping my response will be interesting enough to read. I am also full of new ideas for art. In taking part in just a tiny part of this tour, Thomas Pennant opened up a new landscape to me, one that I will treasure, and I felt an affinity with him as a traveller exploring the region and wanting to share what he had found with others. I felt humbled to have been guided here to this place (I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason), this being only part of a very long journey taken by a man who travelled through here around 250 years ahead of me.
I thank Thomas Pennant for showing me this place – the serenity, the unexpectedness as you make your way through the mountains and come across this little lake. I feel that applying mindfulness meditation to my own journey helped me to see different shades of hawthorn berries, foxgloves in October, very black cows, rusty roofs, 4 ‘old ladies’, a white chicken and a green wheelbarrow – an eclectic mix. We hurry through life and don’t often notice the most special, tiny details, which can become inspiration for future ideas or a source of wonder. Walking alone in an unfamiliar place with zero mobile phone signal is something that I can say I am not particularly comfortable with, but I found courage and perseverance that day. I feel this may offer me a foray away from my usual impressionistic landscapes into something more expressionist, but I will leave my options open. From this, I am interested in exploring lines, forms, textures of the land, surprising colours, closing circles of a tour/walk, completion, treading in the footsteps of others, layers of history, words and images.
Oh, and Serendipity also played her part too because had I not taken the journey that day, I would have missed the most stunning kite surfer images. I quickly pulled over my car on the way there to snap photos of a kite surfer walking on Aberdyfi beach with board in one arm, a 6ft kite held high in the air with the other arm. I’ve been stalking Wales’ beaches for months for these kind of images and it was a moment of great excitement, something I really want to share with others via a painting, something I think Thomas Pennant would have totally understood.