At Capel Curig I left Sedgwick and went in a straight line by compass and map
across the mountains to Barmouth, never following any track unless it coincided with
my course. I thus came to some strange wild places and enjoyed much this manner of
travelling. I visited Barmouth to see more Cambridge friends who were reading there,
and thence returned to Shrewsbury and to Maer for shooting;” (Darwin and Huxley,
So wrote Charles Darwin in his Autobiography which he wrote when he was nearly seventy, reminiscing about his geological tour of North Wales in which he joined Adam Sedgwick, geology professor at Cambridge in August 1831. This is repeated ad nauseam and often verbatim in biographies of Darwin as his pre-Beagle life is considered.
They only thing wrong with it is that it is simply not true and though Darwin did walk from Capel Curig to Barmouth, he had left Sedgwick a few days earlier in the vicinity of Bangor and he did not go “in a straight line by compass and map across the mountains to Barmouth, never following any track unless it coincided with my course.” If anyone does believe that Darwin did follow a compass bearing from Capel Curig to Barmouth I shall happily follow that direct route with him (no woman would be so keen to get a Darwin award) and plod along until he gives up.
This account describes the work I did twenty five years ago while living in North Wales and link to the paper I wrote in Archive of Natural History
During the nineties I obtained copies of all Darwin’s geological notes of Shropshire and North Wales and slowly visited all the sites. I worked out his routes and compared his geological notes with modern understandings. Luckily I did not have time contraints as most researchers would have and combined it with my own exploration of the area. I had an excellent field assistant and companion, Topper, who always accompanied me. Here he is as the top of Cwm Cneifion in the Glyderau when he patiently waited for me to surmount a cornice which he found easy-peasy.
For the first part of his 1831 geological trip to Wales Darwin’s companion also had a dog-collar*, the Rev Prof Adam Sedgwick, one of the greatest geologists of his generation. Darwin was very lucky to be taught by him, even if he was more liable to snap than Topper. Sedgwick gave us the Cambrian and much of the Devonian too. As a devout Christian he had no time for the Creationists of his day and his spat with the creationist Dean Cockburn of York was little more than farce.
- not actually true as dog-collars came in later in the 19th century!
This map traces his route. From 4th to 19th August Darwin was with Sedgwick, travelling from Shrewsbury and then round Anglesey after a quick visit to Dublin. Account here
The router superimposed on an old geological map
After leaving Sedgqwick near Bangor, Darwin travelled to Ogwen Cottage. I presume he took a coach as what is now Ogwen Cottage was a coaching inn, much needed to change exhausted horses after the pull-up from Bethesda. From there he went round Cwm Idwal on his own – contrary to his Autobiography – and made geological observations which are described in the second part of this paper;
I could go into raptures about Cwm Idwal which I first visited in 1963. I first climbed the peaks round about. It is the place of my first rock climb. Since then I have regularly been up the peaks in all weathers. This is the same view as the above!!
Darwin went round the lake but we may ask how did he get to Plas Y Brenin in Capel Curig. He could have walked along the old road, got a ride or went over the tops of the Glyderau, which are about 1000 metres. That would have been a nice stroll for Darwin!
Cwm Idwal is a great place for bog plants, especially sundew, butterwort and bog asphodel.
This is looking down to Llyn Idwal and Nant Francon from the Glyderau. That day I was on a field trip with Harvard students. By the lake it was raining and when a speck of blue sky appear Andrew Berry suggested we walked over the tops to Plas y Brenin. The weather simply improved with my best views ever. As we walked over the tops one student told me I was very fast for my age. I was only 61 then! Cheeky blighter!
For comparison, the road walk from Idwal to Plas y Brenin is six miles and would have taken less than two hours. The mountain route is seven miles and would take at least three hours, except for mountain goats. It took us a good three hours, but I slowed the students down!
And so we sped over GlyderFawr and Glyder Fach and then down the ridge to Plas y Brenin. This was a coaching inn and both Darwin and Queen Victoria stayed and both scratched their names on a window!
The ridge as we dropped down to Plas y Brenin and the lakes.
Plas y Brenin, a Victorian coaching inn
An early morning view of Snowdon from Plas y Brenin looking over the Llynau Mymbyr. As Darwin stayed here many times in the 1820s as well as 1831 and then in 1842, he would have known the view.
Darwin began his route to Barmouth from Plas y Brenin and I describe it in this paper
Archives of Natural History (1998) 25 (1): 59-73
Darwin’s dog-leg: the last stage of Darwin’s Welsh field trip of 1831
PDF here; Darwinsdogleg1998
Darwin spent two nights at Plas y Brenin. On the first day he climbed Moel Siabod 872 metres and an easy climb from the inn. Then, having left Sedgwick a letter (missing from Cambrdiger University Library) describing his geological findings at Cwm idwal, walked to Barmouth.
Darwin claimed to have followed a compass bearing to Barmouth, which would give a route of 26 miles or 40 km. I think Darwin could have done it in a day but would have been totally knackered for the next few days. The compass route is horrific with very rough terrain and few paths. The first part to the Vale of Ffestiniog is bad enough but to continue over the Rhinogau would be ten times worse. It would involve wading through large heather covered boulders! I suppose it could be done. It is excess of anything I have done in Snowdonia, or anywhwere but then I am lazy. It makes my walk of 20 miles and 6000ft of climbing from Bethesda over all the Glyderau summits and then from Capel Curig to Dolwyddelan, or 18 miles and 6000ft of climbing over the Carneddau seem short strolls! (Both of these took me about ten hours. I was 41 for the Glyderau walk and 53 for the Carneddau.) To my knowledge nobody has actually followed Darwin’s remembered route! To do so you would be given a Darwin award!!!!
A study of Darwin’s notes gives markers to the route, as he gives notes to various outcrops. Most significant was the outcrop at Carreg y Fran which he described in detail (see paper) and is locality no 7 on the map. It is 6km or 4 miles to the east of his compass route. As his notes are a fair description of the site it is beyond question. I slowly pieced together his route and walked most of it with my assistant, Topper. There was no following of a compass direction with a masochism worthy of Orde Wingate in Ethiopia, but Darwin followed clear tracks from Capel to Dolwyddelan then over the Sarn Helen, past Carreg y Fran to Ffestiniog where he spent the night on 22nd August.
The following day he followed the road south before taking a track over Bwlch Drws Ardudwy and thence to Barmouth. It was two fairly easy days.
On page 61 of my paper I gave a timeline for August 1831, which I made in 1997 before I had realised than Darwin had accompanied Sedgwick around Anglesey. Hence I had Darwin staying in Barmouth for eleven nights. On realising he went round Anglesey I revised the dates with Darwin visiting Cwm Idwal on 20th August and leaving Capel Curig on the 22nd. Thus he would most likely have stayed in Ffestiniog on the 22nd. This is confirmed by Lucas in Archives of Natural History 29 (1) p1-26, 2002. Lucas looked more at documentary evidence rather than identifying geological localities.
Moel Siabod. Darwin climbed from the RHS just out of view and descended the ridge facing the camera!
For the journey Darwin had a copy of Walker’s map which was published in 1824. It was a small scale and not always accurate. Those familiar with the area will acknowledge the difficulty of using this map, but Darwin was familiar with the area. However he knew the terrain in the Rhinogau from previous visits.
There is, and was, a good track from Capel Curig to Dolwyddelan and from there went south along the valley to the boggy moreland east of Moel Penamnen and joined the Sarn Helel.
Moel Siabod from above Dolwyddelan.
Snowdon Glyderau Moel Siabod
The boogy moor!
Carreg y Fran from the summit of Manod Mawr with Cwm Penmachno in the background. Sarn Helen is a matter of yards on the far side of Carreg y Fran.
A close-up of the crag, which Darwin described as conglomerate but today is agglomerate.
Carreg y Fran from B4391 to the west of Ffestiniog. This photo was taken on the return from climbing Snowdon by the Rhyd Ddu path which was my son’s 75th birthday present for me!
Manod Mawr with Carreg y Fran behind. During WWII art treasures from London were stored in the caverns in Manod Mawr.
Darwin continued to Ffestiniog and stayed at the Pengwern Arms.
Note Manod Mawr behind the inn on the right.
The next day he continued south joining the main Dolgellau road before turning off into the hills to Bwlch Drws Ardudwy.
Looking down on Bwlch Drws Ardudy from the slopes of Rhinog Fach. Boulders covered with heather does not make for easy walking! In the distance on RHS is Arenig Fawr with Migneint on LHS.
Looking back at the Bwlch, with Rhinog Fach to the right. Well to the right below Diffws Darwin found a rock glacier and found similar in the Falklands.
My field assistant examining one of Darwin’s outcrops.
Working out the last leg of this walk was tricky as from Darwin’s notes I could piece together several alternatives.
But he arrived in Barmouth in the evening of the 24th August and stayed there a few days.
He had no idea what was to befall him!
A view of Barmouth from the south. The mountain to the right is Diffws.
Cyfrwy from the summit of Cadair Idris with Barmouth in the background
No one knows what Darwin did with his mates at Barmouth. Perhaps he even went up his favourite mountain Cadair Idris. But he wanted to get home for the beginning of the shooting season. However when he got home there was a letter from John Henslow suggesting he joined the Beagle. He never went shooting at Maer.
And so ends his 1831 trip to North Wales, which ended in a bit of a climax!
Darwin’s geological evolution.
During the summer of 1831 Darwin spent much time geologising. This was in several stages;
- His vist to Llanymynech hill on the Welsh Border, when he used his newly-aqiured clinometer.
- His production of maps of Shropshire and Anglesey. He also marked in some geology i.e. New Red Sandstoone by Nesscliff, and made notes of several sites. This will appear soon as a blog
- accompanying Sedgwick around Shrewsbury on 4 th and 5th of August
- Accompanying Sedgwick from Shrewsbury through Llangollen to conwy and then Bethesda.
- After a weekend with Sedgwick they went round Anglesey using Henslow’s map as guide
- After leaving Sedgwick near Bangor, he went first to Cwm Idwal and then to Barmouth as described here.
He did no more geology until he landed at the Cape Verde islands. It is fascinating to read through his notes starting with the not-very-good ones at Llanymynech and then on the main part of his trip with Sedgwick. As the two lots of notes are often similar it is clear that Sedgwick was tutoring him. Then lastly in Wales the notes he made at Cwm Idwal and then on the “dogleg”, which showed how he had improved since his visit to Llanymynech. and then lastly his notes at Cape Verde show more improvement and are perceptive.
It is interesting to compare with my own development in mapping. at Easter 1967 I was at the mapping course at Horton and made a pigs ear of mapping. In the July I was in Northern Canada mapping an intrusion at 64 degrees north. I was commended for my map. It was fun to discover a layered basic intrusion.
Darwin’s 1831 is both interesting in that it shows how Darwin learnt his science and was thus competent when he sailed on the Beagle and how a geologist develops in their field work with practice.