A rainy visit to Cwm Idwal chasing after Darwin

Little did I think when I first visited Cwm Idwal in 1963, I would still be coming here 56 years later. Then I was here only for the climbing and after that I cycled home to surrey, climbing the Snowdon horseshoe and Cadair Idris en route. Since then most of my visits have been to climb whether the Idwal slabs, the surrounding peaks or even snow climbing. However for the last 25 years many of my visits have had an academic and Darwinian bent as I was researching Darwin’s visits in 1831 and 1842.

In 1831 Darwin visited Cwm Idwal after leaving the geologist Adam Sedgwick in Bangor and he tried to work out the geology with varying success. When he got home to Shrewsbury a fortnight later there was a letter asking him to joint the Beagle. Then in 1842, after a spell of illness, he returned to Snowdonia to confirm or not Buckland’s ideas of glaciation.

In the 90s I spent many days sorting out what Darwin did. This was made harder by his tendency to invert compass readings! And so these got into print and lo! I was the go-to-person for Darwin in Wales.

Every year since 2005 I have assisted Andrew Berry take Harvard students round North Wales looking at Darwiniana  and our high point is Cwm Idwal and for most the ascent of Y Garn 3104 ft. I don’t do that with them now as I cannot match the speed of athletic Harvard students!

Each year we wonder about the weather and have experienced everything. soem of the years we become drowned rats as we did this time.

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Our first task is to visit the Vomitory, which is just down the road from Idwal Cottage. I spent hours trying to work out that word in Darwin’s notes and then I realised it was a good appellation of an ice-fall as here the Francon descends steeply to the bottom of Nant Francon.

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Here is the view first of Nant Francon , a perfect U-shaped valley and then looking down the vomitory!

After that we returned to the awful visitors centre, with its woeful comments about Darwin and took the path to Llyn Idwal – the lake.

 

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It’s less than half an hour and the outlook on arrival is always stupendous, which explains why it was Darwin’s favourite place. However the weather was closing in and we wondered if Y Gard was possible with a threat of thuunder.

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Looking back we could see Pen yr Oleu Wen, where I was blown over a cliff and the west face of Tryfan, where I did my early rock-climbing. But we weren’t there for that.

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and so we looked at Darwin’s boulders, which he helpfully said were on the west side of where the stream left the lake. Typical dyslexic like me. It was on the east. There is one big boulder split into four, which Darwin suggested happened as it collasped thorught the glacier. This lies on another.  Here is Andrew holding forth – after I did.

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This is looking west to the head of the Nant Francon with the northerly Glyderau peaks and then above the boulders to the crag where I did my first rock climb.

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some years ago on another field trip I was amazed at these incredible yellow flowers, which I’d never seen before. I thought I must have been as blind as a bat, but Pete, the botanist, said that until sheep were removed in about 2000 they never saw the light of day.  They now cover the area with their yellow spikes , which turn to rust-colour after the end of flowering as we get into august.

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The weather was most atmospheric with a threat of rain, which soon came down, giving two fine views of Pen yr Oleu Wen and the head of the Nant.

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Cwm Idwal is a great area for insectivorous plants which Darwin must have seen. There were hundreds of butterworts and drosera. Later Darwin researched these with experiments at Down House. He tried out possible acids and even gave them milk. He published his book in 1875.

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below Devil’s Kitchem there was a grassy area below the scree which contianed different flowers eg the campanula. The second is a view of his boulders.

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In 1831 Darwin was puzzled by Devils Kitchen which he thought was a volcanic plug. However in a letter written a few weeks later in Sept 1831  Sedgwick put him right pointing out it was a syncline of the folded lava beds. Mark you I cannot criticise as I intended to map Cwm Idwal for my mapping project in my geology degree. I could not distinguish the rock types so had to find something else. So I ended up mapping a layered basic intrusion in the Canadian Arctic instead!

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While Andrew took most of the students up Y Garn I went round the lake with two students looking at things in detail. I then noticed that Y Garn was falling to bits as there was a large rock fall just above the lake. I have often walked through the path of that avalanche!!

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And so we ended up looking down the U-shaped valley of Nant Francon and then the rain came. We went down to the lake and the second photo is looking towards the Devils Kitchen but all was obscured.

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Before we got to the bottom it was chucking it down and all was dark and gloomy, but very atmospheric. On the way up the stream was a trickle but after two hours it had changed.

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We walked a mile along the A5 to the coach getting wetter and wetter and then the rain paused giving me fine photos of Foel Goch and the north ridge of Tryfan.

sometime later the drowned rats who had climbed Y Garn returned and we drove off in pouring rain.

So ended what must be about my 150th visit to Cwm Idwal. It is ever new and there is always something new to see.

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More on this and my papers are in this blog

https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/darwins-boulders/

 

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