Charles Darwin “Get up your steam & have a ramble in Wales”

Darwin made many excursions into north Wales, from his childhood through towards the end of his life. The most numerous of these were to the coastal town of Barmouth at the mouth of the Mawddach estuary. Not only did the area attract Darwin, but also members of the Wedgwood family including Darwin’s cousin and brother-in-law Hensleigh Wedgwood and his family. 

 

At the beginning of the C17th Barmouth, then named Abermawe, had only four houses[1] perched on the crags below the rocky outcrop of Dinas Oleu. During the C17th and C18th Abermawe grew and became a small seaport. The present name was adopted in the 1760s, the port authorities considering it beneficial having an English rather than a Welsh name inscribed upon their vessels. The principle trade was the export of ‘webs’, coarse woollen cloths made on looms in the homes within the district. Imports included building materials, wrought and pig iron, coal, gunpowder and household provisions.[2]

 



[1] Roger Redfern, ‘Mawddach – The Story of Barmouth and its District’, The Cottage Press, Chesterfield, 2004, p14.

[2] Redfern, ‘Mawddach’, p15.

Thomas Pennant during his ‘Tour of Wales’ in 1810 found: the little town of Barmouth seated near the bottom of some high mountains, and the houses placed on the steep sides, one above another, in such a manner as to give the upper an opportunity of seeing down the chimneys of their next subjacent neighbours.[1] Just over 20 years later Samuel Lewis described the houses: rising in successive tiers from the base almost to the summit scattered along the brow of the mountain.[2]

 

The arrival of the Railway in 1867 resulted in the decline of Barmouth as a seaport. The most visible feature of this new form of transport was (and still is) the viaduct built to carry the line across the ½ mile wide mouth of the estuary. Barmouth already had a reputation as a holiday resort with a regular coach service from the English midlands. Although the railway resulted in the decline of sea trade it did bring with it the tourist trade which acted as a catalyst for the development of the town.

 

The result was the hotels and distinctive Victorian terraces that dominate the town. Large private houses also appeared as people from the Midlands began to settle in the area. One such family was the Perrins family (of Worcester Sauce) who lived at Plas Mynach on the road to Llanaber. Meanwhile across the other side of the estuary the McDougall family (of McDougall’s flour) built a large residence at Morfa Henddol and renamed the area Fairbourne.

Darwin was not the first of the rich and famous to visit the area. The poet Shelley came to Barmouth in 1812 with the intention of finding a home.[1] Wordsworth visited 1824. Hiring a boat he rowed up what he termed: the sublime estuary which many compare with the finest in Scotland. With a fine sea view in front and mountains behind, the glorious estuary running eight miles inland, and Cader Idris within compass of a day’s walk, Barmouth can always hold its own against any rival.[2]

 

 

Others also came after Darwin’s first visit. Tennyson arrived as part of a tour of north Wales in 1839 and thought the town prettier than Aberysthwyth and the sandy shore: looking Mablethorpe-like. He described the Mawddach as: a long estuary with cloud-capped hills running up as far as Dolgellau.[3] The art critic John Ruskin visited in 1876 having two years before obtained six cottages and a piece of land near the top of the old part of Barmouth. His idea was to establish ‘The Guild of Saint George’ as a philanthropic act for the working class.[4] After his visit he became ill and never had the chance to expand his scheme of social reform.


[1] Redfern, ‘Mawddach’, p21.

[2] Redfern, ‘Mawddach’, p21.

[3] Redfern, ‘Mawddach’, p22.

[4] Redfern, ‘Mawddach’, p23. Redfern claims that Ruskin purchased the land and cottages. Peter Lucas, in personal correspondence, thinks that Ruskin was given the land and cottages (which were not in good repair) by Mrs Talbot of Dinas Oleu.

But why did Darwin choose Wales? The answer probably lies in a combination of his fathers’ medical practice and early childhood holidays. His father, Dr Robert Waring Darwin, was a successful doctor and banker living at The Mount in Shrewsbury. He had numerous Welsh connections – medical, financial and social. His practice extended into Wales and references in his account books show links with Llangollen, Brynbella, Berriew, Denbigh and Bangor between 1805 and 1822.[1]

 

Darwin’s first visit to Wales appears to have been to Rhos-on-Sea near Abergele at the age of four in 1813. This was in the company of his mother Susannah and his younger sister Catherine, as well as Susannah’s sister-in-law Bessie Wedgwood (wife of Josiah Wedgwood II) and her two youngest children Fanny and Emma. (Emma would later become Darwin’s wife). Abergele was then considered to be: a small mean town...of late years it is become a bathing place, in consequence of the general mania prevailing all over the Kingdom, for quitting home and every comfort for three months every summer to experience all the miseries of contracted apartments and every species of imposition.[2] The choice of destination may have been the recommendation of the Rev. James Price who lived nearby at Pwllycrochan and one of many financially obliged to Darwin’s father.[3]

 

Six years later, at the age of 10, he went with his brother and four sisters to Plas Edwards[4], a group of three lodging houses at Tywyn ten miles south of Barmouth. Tywyn was already attracting: many respectable families [who] during the bathing season...frequent this place in preference to Aberystwyth, because of its cheap and excellent supply of provisions.[5] His mother had died two years earlier and his father remained at home. Instead the children were accompanied by their uncle John Wedgwood and his wife Louisa Jane together with their seven children.[6] However, Darwin later described these three weeks of  July 1819 as being more like three months.[7] This comment could be taken in one of two ways. Darwin may have meant that the stay was a prolonged endurance. Alternatively, he may have been enchanted by the place. Darwin’s own sister Catherine made her feelings quite clear. Reporting to her brother in 1832 on a later Welsh holiday she wrote: Rhyl is a very ugly sea coast, and I found it quite a Plas Edwards and got heartily sick of it.[8]

 

This destination may have been influenced by the Corbets, a large Shropshire family whose property Ynysmaengwyn dominated the town. Sir Andrew Corbet[9] appears in the account books of Darwin’s father. A further link is found in Catherine Darwin’s account in 1832 of ‘the Cholera’ at Shrewsbury and the death of: Mr Corbet of Ynysmaengwyn (near our old Plas Edwards) whom perhaps you may remember in Shrewsbury [who] died after a few hours of the greatest agony so that his screams were heard in the adjoining houses.[10]

 

Darwin gave a glimpse of the journey in an autobiographical fragment: when journeying there by stage coach I remember a recruiting officer (I think I should know his face to this day) at tea time, asking the maid servant for toasted bread butter. – I was so convulsed with laughter, & thought it the quaintest and wittiest speech that ever passed from the mouth of a man.[11] The stage coach was probably the Duke of Wellington Post Coach, already running three times a week during the summer between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth on Mondays and Fridays, and to Barmouth on Wednesdays.[12]

 

His first holiday in adulthood was with his friend Nathan Hubberstie, a master at Shrewsbury School. Darwin remembered later in life taking a walking tour in the summer of 1826: with knapsacks on our backs through North Wales. We walked thirty miles most days, including one day the ascent of Snowdon.[13] The tour began on June 15th[14] and ended before July 28th when Hubberstie, was reported as being: very well after his fatigues in Wales.[15] The itinerary included Bodnant, Ffestiniog and Snowdon and possibly the Great Orme at Llandudno.[16]

 

Darwin’s first known visit to Barmouth[17] was a two-month stay during the summer of 1828.[18] This was as a 19-year old Cambridge student and a member of a reading party.[19] Writing to his friend and 2nd cousin William Darwin Fox he expressed: I have been at Barmouth ever since the first of July, & like it very much; the scenery & therefore the walks are quite delightful. I only wish you would make a trip here, & I would Cicerone you up & down the mountains, until you had not a particle of wind left in your lungs.[20] To his friend, the mathematician and clergyman, Charles Whitley he similarly noted: I like Barmouth very much, I only wish I could spend every summer so pleasantly.[21]

 

It was during this holiday that he climbed Cader Idris (which would become one of his haunts during his visits to Barmouth), and Craig yr Aderyn (‘Bird Rock’) near to his childhood holiday at Tywyn to shoot rare birds to stuff. He also collected insects, as evidenced by a letter to fellow Cambridge student John Herbert. After his return he asked his friend to collect more beetle specimens from the Barmouth and Fairbourne areas.[22]

 

Herbert adds insight into how he was pressed into the service of collecting beetles. They took their daily walks together among the hills behind Barmouth, or boated in the Mawddach estuary, or sailed to Sarn Badrig to land there on low water. Alternatively they would spend their time fly fishing in the Cors-y-gedol lakes.[23] On these occasions Darwin entomologised most industriously, picking up creatures as he walked along, and bagging everything which seemed worthy of being pursued, or of further examination. And very soon he armed me with a bottle of alcohol, in which I had to drop any beetle which struck me as not of a common kind. I performed this duty with some diligence in my constitutional walks; but alas! My powers of discrimination seldom enabled me to secure a prize – the usual result, on his examining the contents of my bottle, being an exclamation, ‘Well, old Cherbury, none of these will do.’[24]


[1] Peter Lucas, ‘Three Weeks which now appear like three months – Charles Darwin at Plas Edwards’ in ‘Archives of Natural History’, 32. 2001, p137-138.

[2] Richard Fenton, ‘Tours in Wales 1804-1813.’

[3] Lucas, ‘Three Weeks Which Now Appear Like Three Months ‘, p137.

[4] Plas Edwards was demolished in the 1970s and a bungalow, no.17 ‘Chateau’, is thought to now occupy the site.

[5] Peter Lucas, ‘Three Weeks Which Now Appear Like Three Months’ p136.

[6] WM74, June 3rd, July 4th, August 6th 1819 in Peter Lucas, ‘Three Weeks Which Now Appear Like Three Months’ p133.

[7] Autobiographical fragment – Burkhardt and Smith (eds.), ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin’, 2, (1837-1843), Cambridge 1986, p440 in Peter Lucas, ‘Three Weeks Which Now Appear Like Three Months’ p133.

[8] Peter Lucas, ‘Three Weeks Which Now Appear Like Three Month’ p140.

[9] Of Moreton Court, Shropshire.

[10] Peter Lucas, ‘Three Weeks Which Now Appear Like Three Months’ p138.

[11] Peter Lucas, ‘Three Weeks Which Now Appear Like Three Months’ p138-139.

[12] Peter Lucas, ‘Three Weeks Which Now Appear Like Three Months’ p139.

[13] Barlow, 1958: 53-54 in Peter Lucas, ‘Jigsaw with pieces missing: Charles Darwin with John Price at Bodnant, the walking tour of 1826 and the expeditions of 1827’ in ‘Archives of natural history’, 29 (3): 359-372. 2002. p362. Much earlier in a journal made respectively in 1838 he had noted only a ‘walking tour into North Wales with Hubbertsty.

[14] Burkhardt and Smith, 1985: 1, 538.

[15] Burkhardt and Smith, 1985: 1, 43.

[16] Peter Lucas, ‘Jigsaw with pieces missing’ p363.

[17] Darwin had been quite close in the past, i.e. on his return from Bangor Ferry in 1821 although nothing is recorded.

[18] July 1st to August 27th.

[19] Other companions included John Maurice Herbert and Adam Duncan.

[20] Darwin, Barmouth, to W D Fox, July 29th 1828.

[21] Darwin, Barmouth, to Charles Whitley, August 10th 1828

[22] Darwin, Osmaston, Derbyshire, to J M Herbert, Sept 13th 1828. The letter mentions Craig Storm (a hilltop near Barmouth), and then asks Herbert to cross the ferry and you will find a great number under the stones on the waste land[22] and also upon the marshy over the ferry land near the sea under old seaweed, stones, etc.

[23] These lie inland from Tal-y-bont.

[24] Francis Darwin (ed.), ‘The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, John Murray, London, 1887, p168. ‘Old Cherbury’ was the nickname with which Darwin usually addressed Herbert, no doubt in illusion to the title of Lord Herbert of Cherbury.

Darwin returned to Wales the following year in mid-June to collect insects accompanied by Frederick Hope, a clergyman and fellow entomologist, with Barmouth as their first destination.[1] However, the trip was cut short due to Darwin feeling unwell and he returned to Shrewsbury.

 

The following year, in early August, Darwin once again returned to Barmouth, again accompanied by Hope. Writing to Fox he confessed: I have been intending to write every hour for the last fortnight, but really have had no time: I left Shrewsbury this day a fortnight ago, & have since that time been working from morning to night in catching fish or beetles. This is literally the first idle day I have had to myself: for on the rainy days I go fishing, on the good ones Entomologizing. This expedition also took in Capel Curig and Snowdon. Darwin had had enough of Hope by the end of the holiday recording: I am quite disgusted with Hopes egotism & stupidity.[2]

 

In 1831 Darwin returned to Barmouth for his fourth consecutive year. To Charles Whitley he wrote: I am at present mad about geology & I daresay I shall put a plan which I am now hatching, into excursion sometime in August, viz of riding through Wales & staying a few days at Barmouth.[3] This excursion, beginning in early August, was in the company of the geologist Adam Sedgwick. It was Sedgwick who gave the name of ‘Cambrian’ to the area. Places visited included St Asaph, Betws-yn-Rhos, Abergele, Conway, Llanbedr, Penmaenmawr, Capel Curig and Ffestiniog.[4] At the end of the tour Darwin left Sedgwick probably at the Menai Strait. From Ffestiniog he, in his own words,: went in a straight line by compass across the mountains to Barmouth, never following any track unless it coincided with my course.[5]

 

He arrived in Barmouth and spent much of his time with Charles Whitley along with the brothers Robert and Henry Lowe[6], and other Cambridge students. The following glimpses are taken from a journal kept by the brothers[7] that shows Darwin had walked from Ffestiniog to Barmouth on August 23rd.

 

Saturday. August. 27 [1831]: Darwin & R[obert] had a game at Billiards; then strolled to the pierhead where they, with Mr Johns, agreed to ascend Cader, it was then cloudy, but clearing gradually, the Carnarvonshire hills were very clear: a storm coming over stopped them & they staid at our room till 1.30 (and ate their sandwiches prepared for the walk) when they started agreeing to return…They got a little way over the river, when they again turned back, the weather being worse: they played billiards till 4 oclock, when Darwin, Beadon, & H[enry], strolled on the Sand Hills, & found some fungus, of a peculiar sort, which much pleased Darwin.  Afterwards walked towards Borthwen, & at 6.15 dined. We had some hashed mutton, stewed cucumber, & apple tart, after the discussion of wh[ich], Darwin & H[enry] strolled on the Harlech sands, met Mr Pearson  & Co, had some tea at the Cors.y.gedol, where H[enry] left Darwin at 10.

 

Darwin left Barmouth on August 29th, and went up the Mawddach towards Dolgellau, and then on foot, accompanied by Robert Lowe, who travelled with him as far as Mallwydd to keep him company: The walk from Dolgelley to Dinas Mowddy is wild, & the vale about 6 miles from the former place particularly striking.  Mallwydd is a small village with a good Inn, where Darwin and R[obert] arrived soon after 8, had some tea, & went to bed.  In the morning they started at 8.30, on their different routes, Darwin towards Shrewsbury & R[obert] back here.


[1] Darwin, Shrewsbury, to W D Fox, July 4th 1829. Francis Darwin (ed.), ‘The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, John Murray, London, 1887, p178.

[2] Darwin, Barmouth, to W D Fox, August 25th 1830.

[3] Darwin, Barmouth, to Charles Whitley, July 19th 1831Darwin went on a brief geological tour in North Wales, part of it in the company of Adam Sedgwick,in August 1831 (see Correspondence vol. 1, letters from Adam Sedgwick, 4th  September 1831 and 18th  September 1831).

[4] Peter Lucas, ‘Jigsaw with pieces missing’ p364-366.

[5] Redfern, ‘Mawddach’, p21.

[6] Robert Lowe politician and lawyer; his brother Henry became High Sherriff of Nottinghamshire.

[7] Peter Lucas [transcriber], ‘Journal kept by H P Lowe and R Lowe during three months of the summer of 1831 at Barmouth, North Wales.’ Nottinghamshire Record Office. NRO-DD.SK.218.1.

At the end of the year Darwin began the epic voyage aboard The Beagle. While onboard his thoughts turned once again to Barmouth. His diary for May 28th 1832 recorded: Visited the shore behind the Sugar Loaf & again obtained vast numbers of insects. — The situation being much the same as that of Barmouth; many of the insects were closely allied; as I watched the elegant Cicindelae running on this sand, Barmouth with all its charms rose vividly before my mind.[1]

 

Writing to John Herbert he confided: I enjoyed some walks in a wild country like that behind Barmouth...how often & how vividly have many of the hours spent at Barmouth come before my mind. I look back to that time with no common pleasure; at this moment I can see you seated on the hill behind the inn, almost as plainly as if we were really there. It is necessary to be separated from all which one has become accustomed to, to know how properly to treasure up such recollections. Towards the end of the letter he commented I wish you were here among the green plains : we would take walks which would rival the Dolgelley ones.[2]

 

After The Beagle references to Wales become less frequent. In 1842 he undertook a geological trip based around Capel Curig. Writing in 1863, in response to the early instalments of the memoirs of his old friend John Price, Darwin replied: I wonder you do not give us more about the wilder parts of north Wales, which I admire with the fervour of a Welchman.[3] It should be no surprise that he would vigorously recommend the area to friends, once remarking: Get up your steam...& have a ramble in Wales. It’s glorious scenery must do every one’s heart & body good.[4]

 

 

In the summer of 1865 Darwin’s cousin and brother-in-law Hensleigh Wedgwood, along with his family including his daughters Hope and Effie, rented Hengwrt eight miles from Barmouth near to the market town of Dolgellau. Their visitors included two of Darwin’s children, Henrietta and George, and his brother Erasmus.[5]


[1] Darwin's Beagle diary (1831-1836). Peter Lucas, ‘The Recovery of time past: Darwin at Barmouth on the eve of The Beagle. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=text&itemID=EHBeagleDiary&keywords=barmouth&pageseq=167. Accessed 24-06-2009

[2] Written from ‘a miserable dark room in an old Spanish house from the torrents of rain’

[3] Peter Lucas, ‘Jigsaw with pieces missing’ p364. Price was originally friends with Charles’s eldest brother Erasmus while both at Cambridge and Shrewsbury. Price was six years older than Darwin. Both brothers appear to have visited Price at Bodnant in 1826. The memoirs were ‘Old Price’s remains’.

[4] Adrian Desmond and James Moore, ‘Darwin’, Michael Joseph, London, 1991, p309. (Original source not footnoted).

[5] Sources include Henrietta Darwin’s letters to her mother, Cambridge University Library, DAR245: 24-28; Emma Darwin’s diary of 1865 (CUL, DAR242:29) and Burkhardt et alii, 2002: 225, 226 note 1.

Hengwrt, whose name in English means ‘Old Court’, was situated between Dolgellau and the tiny hamlet of Llanelltyd.  Dolgellau was described in 1868 as: mean, and the grey sombre appearance of its houses would be uninviting if it were not for the exquisite beauty of its situation.[1] Llanelltyd was a picturesque cluster of houses nestling close to the ancient church and in the shadows of the C12th Cymmer Abbey.

 

The house itself had a long and interesting history. It was the birthplace of the antiquarian Robert Vaughan in the 1590s. He entered Oriel College, Oxford, in 1612 and his main interests lay in the early history of Wales and genealogy. He devoted his life to collecting early manuscripts and books that he amassed at Hengwrt. These included the ‘Book of Taliesin’, the ‘Black Book of Carmarthen’ and the so-called Hengwrt manuscript of the ‘Canterbury Tales’ (now thought to be the earliest known copy of Chaucer’s work).[2]

 

The male line of the Vaughan family ended with the death of Sir Robert Williams Vaughan in 1859. His wife had died the previous year and it was to her unmarried sister Mary Charlotte Lloyd that Vaughan left a life interest in Hengwrt, but no money. Unable to afford to live at Hengwrt, Miss Lloyd, along with a companion Frances Power Cobbe came every summer to look after the estate[3] taking a small cottage nearby.[4]

 

Downstairs was an old oak hall[5] and another of the oak panelled rooms contained a bed placed there at the dissolution of Cymmer Abbey – but according to Cobbe: it is not in the least a gloomy house, altogether the reverse. The drawing-rooms commands a view...of almost the whole valley of the Mawddach for nine or ten miles, and just opposite lies the pretty village of Llanelltyd, at the foot of the wooded hills which rise up behind it to the heights of Moel Ispry and Cefn Cam. It is a panorama of splendid scenery, not darkening the room, but making one side of it into a great picture full of exquisite details of the old stone bridge and ruined abbey, rivers, woods and rocks. Among the objects in that wide view, and also in the still more extensive one from my bedroom above, is the little ivy-covered church of Llanelltyd, and below it a bit of ground sloping to the westering sun, dotted over with grey and white stones where ‘the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.’[6]

 

No spot in the kingdom unites so many elements of beauty as this part of Wales. The deep, true, purple heather and the emerald-green fern robe these Welsh mountains in summer in regal splendour of colouring, and in autumn wrap them in rich russet brown cloaks. Down between every chain and ridge rush brooks, always bright and clear, and in many places leaping into lovely waterfalls. The ‘broad and brawling Mawddach’ runs through all the valley from heights far out of sight, till, just below Hengwrt, it meets the almost equally beautiful stream of the Wnion, and the two together wind their way through the tidal estuary out to the sea at Barmouth eight miles to the west. On both north and south of the valley and on the sides of the mountains are...endless woods of oak and larch and Scotch fir, interspersed with sycamore, wild cherry, horse chestnut, elm, holly, and an occasional beech. Never was there a country in which were to be found growing freely and almost wild, so many different kinds of trees, creating the loveliest wood-scenery and variety of colouring. The oaks and elms and sycamores which grow in Hengwrt itself are the oldest and some of the finest in this part of Wales; and here also flourish the largest laurels and rhododendrons I have ever seen...The blossoms of the Rhodes are sometime 20 or 25 feet from the ground, and the laurels almost resemble forest trees. It has been one of my chief pleasures here to prune and clip and clear the way for these beautiful shrubs. Through the midst of them all, from one end of the place to the other, rushes the dearest little brook in the world, singing away constantly in so human a tone that over and over again I have paused in my labours of saw and clippers, and said to myself ‘there must be someone talking in that walk! It is a lady’s voice too! It can’t be only the brook this time!’ but the brook it has always proved to be on further investigation.[7]


[1] The National Gazetteer of Wales 1868.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Vaughan_(antiquary)

[3] Cobbe, 1904: 445.

[4] Cobbe, 1904, p638; Letter from H E Darwin to Emma Darwin DAR245:26. This letter should be dated June 19th 1865, one of five to her mother. There are also at least six from Emma to Henrietta in series DAR219.9: 27-33.

[5] Cobbe, 1904, p639.

[6] Cobbe, 1904, p647-648.

[7] Cobbe, 1904, p646-647.

Hope Wedgwood was the youngest daughter of Hensleigh Wedgwood, Darwin’s cousin and brother-in-law. Her collection of letters from Hengwrt give a fascinating insight into the holiday. These are in Hope’s extremely difficult-to-read hand, heavily abbreviated and include frequent code-like symbols. The first letter begins by describing the journey to Hengwrt:

The Drive was a very pretty one with very good horses who galloped down the hills so as to put my health in a dither...I did get so excited as we turned into the drive which leads from the road along the flat of the valley & up a little gorge which is very thickly stummed up with trees, fine ones but dreadfully crowded, to a grassy plateau overlooking the valley where is situated our house. It reminds me rather of the situation of LHP[1] with beautiful parky fields on all sides sloping down on the drawing room side & up on t’other. I grieve to say that the points on the compass are all wrong & that our corridors look to the north but it is such a pretty view. There is a bit of a flat lawn & then nice wavy fields down to the flat of the valley which is a full ½ mile across which is enough to prevent one feeling stuffy as I think I soon might in a Devonshire valley. The river winds about with shingle borders, not mud as we were told, & it is crossed by a pretty long bridge just at the bottom of our field so that we can make our walks on both sides of the valley with equal ease. There is a nice little hamlick opposite just where the hills begin to rise ½ hidden by trees with a sweet little church. The church, over which the sun sets – so beautifully last night that we left our tea to look at it!! The one advantage of our north drawing room is that we see the sunsets for it. There are endless walks in our fields & I feel as if I should never wish to go out of our own domain. It really might be made a most beautiful place but it is very little taken care of, & the trees are spoiling each other & the bushes growing up straggling & spindling. We went to church – the aforesaid one across the valley – where the congregation was exceedingly male & the clerksman played the hymns & Eff[ie] sang than. After the Service we sat in the churchyard in the shadow of a yew. It is very lucky that the weather has turned bad (leastways cloudy) for our expressions of delight were becoming mutually tedious. All afternoon we sat on the grass in what I call a most charming flower garden, moving in & out of the shade & having our tea there...The drawing room is very comfortable, there is a huge writing table in the bow window on the 4 sides of which we 4[2] girls are sat scratching away like so many reporters in the House of Commons.[3]

 

The letters reveal that the majority of their time was spent enjoying the scenery of the area. Places visited included the Torrent Walk at Dolgellau, Precipice Walk at Barmouth, Penrhos, Dol-y-Melynllyn (Rhaiadr Du), Moel Earthwrm or just exploring the green lanes choosing sites for her paintings.[4] Many of these feature Cader Idris, which Hope recorded as taking five hours to reach the summit:

 

Cader on Monday when I nearly died of asthma going up & of apoplexy coming down...soft white clouds all around the horizon...hiding all the hills & just towards the sea there was a break & lovely lights thereon but that was all. We were such a huge party, 5 girls, Ernest & 3 parents only leaving Ras, old Caroline & Snow at home. Of course the parents were on ponies...Lucy sprained her ankle on the way down so the next day we had out the old pony for her.[5]


[1] Leith Hill Place.

[2] Hope, along with Effie, Laura and possibly her elder sister Francis Julia ‘Snow’.

[3] WM389. Hope Wedgwood, Hengwrt, to Miss E[mma] Wedgwood [probably 6th/7th] May 1865.

[4] WM389. Hope Wedgwood, Hengwrt, to Miss E[mma] Wedgwood May [probably 6th/7th] 1865; WM327 Hope Wedgwood, Dolgellau, to Miss E Wedgwood, July 2nd 1865; WM327 Hope Wedgwood, Dolgellau, to Miss E Wedgwood, July 9th 1865.

[5] WM389 Hope Wedgwood, Hengwrt, to Harriet, July 27th 1865.

Some letters contain local gossip: I made Louisa go to church with me & was very much relived to find she can sing – we had a litany, communion & sermon...when alms were requested only a solitary 3d bit found its way onto the plate.[1] Some also reveal calling on acquaintances: We drove to Barmouth yesterday to call on the Corbets & found them all in, Colonel and all...The Corbets have the most lovely walks behind their house...this afternoon they are going to do the only goldmines that are working about here.[2]

 

One of Hope’s most intriguing letters describes stumbling upon a hitherto undiscovered garden: We strolled about the garden & came upon a little unobserved path leading through a wood to such a romantic spot which we had not seen before...the path led to a door in a ruinous old wall, which pushing open we descended steps, all covered with ferns, into a deserted garden in the middle of the wood. There was a thicket of rhodes & azaleas in the middle in full bloom. There were other bushes but they were all choked with brambles. The gravel path all round was grown green & the bushes had straggled all over it. There was a great large oak tree with a round of grass to itself, & beyond it, the old wall on which we sat down forever so long looking at the sunset reflected in the river which was just at the bottom of the wood. You can’t think how curious it was coming upon it unexpectedly & a deserted garden always has a sort of melancholy about it which added to the impression it made. It was so odd our not having come upon it before, for it is only a stones throw from the house, but I shall not tell you whereabouts it is because I mean to wait till just such another evening as today to take you to it that you may be as charmed as we were. On a dull day it might no doubt be dark, but seen as we saw it today it really was most beautiful.[3]

 

What appears to be Hope’s last letter from Hengwrt in October 1865 records: We leave Hengwrt on Tuesday week & now that the cold weather has come we shall be quite reconciled to pavement & fog..The weather has been quite beautiful – even now the frost has come it remains as beautiful as ever. Yesterday Effie & I scaled Moel Offrion for the first time...It was so excessively pretty – much more so than Cader. I quite wish we had known about...when you get to the top it seems quite an extensive view. All the Snowdon range was covered with snow & glittered on the horizon..I may state positively that Hengwrt is ours for another year but I haven’t time before church to expatiate either on all our interviews with our stern landlady or our pleasant anticipations for next summer. She signed this final letter ‘Tina Teapot.’[4] Nothing appears to survive as to whether or not they did return to Hengwrt the following year.


[1] WM327. Hope Wedgwood, Dolgellau, to Miss E Wedgwood May 29th 1865.

[2] WM389. Hope Wedgwood, Hengwrt, to Harriet, ‘Tuesday 9th’ [1865].

[3] WM389. Hope Wedgwood, Emma, no date but marked ‘Sunday’ and mentioning May (1865).

[4] WM389. Hope Wedgwood, Hengwrt, to Harriet, Sunday, October 1865.

But to return to Darwin. In April 1869 he suffered a bad accident while out riding. The horse, which stumbled and fell, rolled over on him, causing serious bruising.[1] Darwin was now averse to holidays although his children insisted on taking him to Caerdeon to recover. Caerdeon[2] lies on the north shore of the Mawddach estuary two miles inland from Barmouth and six from Dolgellau close to the wild hill country, as Darwin remarked,[3] facing across to Cader Idris. The party at Caerdeon came to include all seven Darwin children and their cousin Hope Wedgwood. In ‘a cottage...close by’[4], were ‘Miss Cobbe and Miss Lloyd’ whom Darwin and his wife had met when they dined with Hensleigh Wedgwood at Regents Park[5] the previous year.[6] 

 

They journeyed by train[7] and stayed for seven weeks from June 12th[8] until the end of July. On their way the family stopped at Shrewsbury. Henrietta recalled: We visited my father’s old home, the Mount, and were accompanied by the owners as we were shown over the house. This was meant in all kindness but I remember my father’s deep disappointment as he said “If I could have been left alone in the greenhouse for five minutes, I know I should have been able to see my father in his wheel-chair as vividly as if he had been there before me.”[9]

 

Francis Cobbe recalled that during their stay: we naturally saw our neighbours daily[10] and each lady made a useful loan to their neighbour. Women is very much the topic here Henrietta told Hope’s sister Effie on July 14th[11]: We are all reading the Subjection of Women lent by Cobbe - & we discuss marriage in the concrete and marriage as Mill w[oul]d have it etc. F[ather] says it is v[ery] odd that nobody has ever tried to make an analysis of the differences in the minds of men & women – we say uncle Ras w[oul]d be peculiarly fitted as nobody can settle wh[ich] sex he is of.

 

Despite being lent ‘Old Whitey’ by Miss Lloyd[12] so that Darwin could take a daily ride, during his last visit he was ill and his lack of mobility caused depression, as recorded in a letter to Sir Joseph Hooker on June 22nd 1869: We have been here for ten days, how I wish it was possible for you to pay us a visit here; we have a beautiful house with a terraced garden, and a really magnificent view of Cader, right opposite. Old Cader is a grand fellow, and shows himself off superbly with every changing light. We remain here till the end of July, when the H. Wedgwoods have the house. I have been as yet in a very poor way; it seems as soon as the stimulus of mental work stops, my whole strength gives way. As yet I have hardly crawled half a mile from the house, and then have been fearfully fatigued.  It is enough to make one wish oneself quiet in a comfortable tomb.[13]


[1] John Bowlby, ‘Charles Darwin – A Biography’, Hutchinson, London, 1990. p396.

[2] The house Plas caerdeon had been built by the Rev W E Jelf. Notorious for ‘faults of temper and manner’ (Lee, 1892: 291), the Rev. W E Jelf was probably residing in the newly-built mansion Caerdeon at Biarritz when his tenant was at Plas Caerdeon, Journals and reminiscences of my life by Hugh John Reveley (Reverley Journals at Gwynedd Archives.

[3] Darwin, 1887. 3:106

[4] Cobbe, 1904; 485.

[5] Litchfield, 1904: 2: 208.

[6] Emma Darwin’s pocket diary 1869, Cambridge University Library, Darwin Papers 242:33.

[7] Emma Darwin to her sister Elizabeth Wedgwood, June 13th 1869. Cambridge University Library, Darwin Papers 219: 11.10.

[8] Emma Darwin’s pocket diary 1869, Cambridge University Library, Darwin Papers 242:33.

[9] Emma Darwin to her aunt Fanny Allen, 1869 in Henrietta Litchfield (ed.), ‘Emma Darwin – A Century of Family Letters 1796-1896, John Murray, London, 1915, p195

[10] Cobbe, 1904:485. From other sources: WM327 ‘Ras [Erasmus] hs bn like a good man & paid his respex down at y cottage & fd y ladies v jolly & civil’ – HW to Katherine Euphemia (Effie) Wedgwood, July 2nd 1869. WM437 ‘I’m got into a clean gown & am waiting for the advent of Cobbe & Lloyd...[Hope] stays...putting on her photography gown as a protest’ – HD to Katherine Euphemia Wedgwood, July 14th 1869. A section in Desmond and Moore’s book records how one afternoon near Caerdeon Darwin was stopped by a shout. Peering through the ‘impenetrable brambles’ he saw on the road 60 feet away Cobbe who began telling him about Mr Mill’s emancipationist book ‘On the Subjection of Women.’ It was perfect for his study of human descent she informed him, especially the chapters on sexual selection. Darwin told Cobbe that Mill ‘could learn some things’ from biology. Men’s superiority was the product of the ‘struggle for existence;’ their special ‘vigour and courage’ came from battling ‘for the possession of women. Hearing that Cobbe offered her copy of Kant on the ‘moral sense’ to sort out his obvious ethical problem. Darwin politely refused. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, ‘Darwin’, Michael Joseph, London, 1991, p572.

[11] WM437 The hillside sequel, as recorded by Cobbe (1904: 486-487) is the episode at Caerdeon which caught the attention of Desmond and Moore (1991: 572) and Browne (2002: 331-332).

[12] Cobbe, 1904: 486.

After the Darwins left Hope remained at Caerdeon, and regularly kept cousin Harriet informed with what was happening.[1] Once again these letters are in Hope’s extremely difficult and heavily abbreviated hand.[2] One such letter even contains explanations of the symbols in a plea from the recipient[3]: We got up at 6.30, if you’ll believe me, in order to get the morning...thick fog, the sun wrapped herself in a thick mist...We went beyond Barmouth and got lovely views of the Caernarvon hills and stopped in Barmouth to get a stock of baskets. The same letter also mentions: gardening after dinner by the light of the splendid moon.[4]

 

Many mention excursions including:  a lovely walk over the hills to Barmouth...High-tide and the view looks like a lake in fairyland. We have done the Precipice Walk again too very successfully...Monday we plan to drive to Llanaber.[5]

 

By September the prolonged spell of sunny weather had broke, as Hope had been hoping for the sake of the flowers: For ten days the weather has broken and last week there were three days in which nobody would have gone out of doors but sooner than stand the 24 hours lamenting we did go out and oh my! What fearful walks we did. On Saturday we went to Lyn-y-Groes by Lake Cymmynwch setting out in a delusive ½ hours gap in the rains.[6] The following month she described the frosty nights and the snow at the bottom of Cader Idris that melted during the day which was very sunny as Sundays always are.[7]

 

One of Hope’s last letters from Caerdeon records: Autumn has brought out the merits of this place wonderfully. It is so delightful and such an expanse of hills to show off the lights and shadows which are extra lovely. Cader has had a thundercloud about him all day and an intensely bright sun has been lighting up everything else. Don’t people say the oaks never turn a beautiful colour? I couldn’t believe how vivid and yellow they would have gone. It is an exquisite colour. And the larches are every shade of yellow and brown too so we are splendidly lit up. I believe that if I could only be in the country one month in the year I should choose November.[8]

 

The Wedgwood trait of holidaying in Barmouth continued into the C20th when Cecil Wedgwood, who was Hope’s stepson, went and had the impression that ‘Barmouth seems a much nicer place than Rhos.’[9] Whether any other later Darwins or Wedgwoods visited Barmouth and its environs is outside the scope of this paper. Although Barmouth has suffered from its architects during the C20th, the surrounding areas of Caerdeon and Hengwrt have changed little, and would be as recognisable today as they were to both the Darwins and the Wedgwoods who got up steam and rambled there in the 19th century.


[1] WM389. Letters addressed to Miss [Harriet] Darwin, Down, Beckenham, Kent.

[2] Hope would have had no difficulty in mastering the modern art of texting with frequent use of abbreviations such as ‘CU’ and ‘l8r’.

[3] WM389. August 23rd 1869, Hope to Harriet, Caerdeon.

[4] WM389. August 18th 1869, Hope to Harriet, Caerdeon.

[5] WM389. Sept 6th 1869, Hope to Harriet, Caerdeon.

[6] WM389. Sept 13th 1869, Hope to Harriet, Caerdeon.

[7] WM389. Oct 20th 1869, Hope to Harriet, Caerdeon.

[8] WM389. Nov 9th 1869, Hope to Harriet, Caerdeon.

[9] Cecil Wedgwood to Phoebe Wedgwood, undated later in the unlisted Phoebe Wedgwood collection. Other letters in this collection mentioning Barmouth are Oct 6, 20, 22 and 27, 1907.