(c) Andrew Green

ESSAY Mary-Ann Constantine

NWR Issue 106

Coastwalkers & Curious Travellers


I beg to be considered not as a Topographer, but as a curious traveller willing to collect all that a traveller may be supposed to do in his voyage; I am the first that attempted travels at home, therefore earnestly wish for accuracy.
Thomas Pennant to George Ashby, May 1773.


I’ve just read Peter Finch’s Edging the Estuary (2013), not in one go, but, much like the author, in stops and starts, picking up the trail where I’d left off. It follows the Severn Estuary, more or less, from Chepstow to Worms Head, but also takes in parts of the opposite coast down to Lynmouth, with a foray to the islands out in the ‘grey brown water’. Like much travel writing it’s informative and irritating by turns, a mix of devastating juxtapositions, nice sharp phrases, humour, irony and lack of same, authorial self-aggrandizement, misspelt Welsh phrases and endlessly fascinating histories – of ruined churches and ruined pubs, of beautiful civic buildings made over into apartments no-one wants to buy, of tumuli and flyovers, nature reserves, dunes and scrapyards, electricity generating plants, defunct lime kilns and belching factories, fossils, lighthouses, and clifftop tearooms hanging on for dear life. Plenty to see here, and plenty to learn. I enjoyed it, most of the time.

There’s a loose structure – head west, from A to B – but this capacious, ragbag mode of writing place seems peculiarly adapted to the postmodern condition. Coastal routes being notoriously wiggly, and this particular walk taking place just before the opening of the official Wales Coast Path, this is a book full of diversions and dead-ends, back-tracking, going round in circles, with the odd bout of strategic trespassing. No straight lines here.

Finch is also author of the Real Cardiff guidebooks and general editor of that series; and as such he is most associated with the term psychogeography, a way of moving through (usually) urban environments designed to resist the official, municipal, or tourist-approved designated routes. Though its roots (and routes) can be found in the earlier wanderings of De Quincey, Nerval and Walter Benjamin, psychogeography was first theorized in – where else? – fifties Paris, finding its expression in work by the situationists. Guy Debord claimed that

[t]he production of psychogeographical maps [...] can contribute to clarifying certain wanderings that express not subordination to randomness, but total insubordination to habitual influences (influences generally categorized as tourism, that popular drug as repugnant as sports or buying on credit).


Not team players, then… A principal tool of psychogeographers is the dérive, or drift; the process of giving oneself up to encounters with the unexpected. Putting serendipity in charge obliges you to interact with your environment in different ways. Finch is not ‘drifting’ from Chepstow to Worms Head: he has a clear purpose, and a destination. But his walk is presented as a form of anti-tourism, an act of ‘insubordination to habitual influences. Grittier; individual; more real.

The literary landscape of Wales is pretty busy at the moment; creative and academic interest in walking, writing and mapping is rife. From the ‘cultural cartographies’ of various Welsh writers explored by Damian Walford Davies (who has a nice Severn piece of his own) to Mike Parker’s witty and enthusiastic histories of mapping; from the literary tours organized by Literature Wales to artistic engagements with Ceredigion’s historical maps at the Gas Gallery in Aberystwyth; or the ‘Deep Mapping’ project of the late Cliff McLucas, who advocated the radical recovery of the personal and political layers of landscape ‘written out’ of official maps, this is an especially fecund period in Wales for new triangulations of people, places, and texts.

Fecund but also a bit crowded. Which is the fundamental problem with tourism, isn’t it? The old conjugation: I travel, you visit, they are tourists. Literary criticism frequently feels something like travel writing: pioneers hacking through brambles, or crossing deserts, or polar wastes, and producing great books – and then the people following, who tend to stop and admire the same viewpoints, dutifully citing the Ones Who Have Gone Before. And before you know it, we’re all doing the critical equivalent of reading information panels and trying to feel the right things about the right places. At what point does namechecking Guy Debord become the intellectual equivalent of holding your phone up in a crowd for a snapshot of the ‘Mona Lisa’? At what point does ‘Real’ Cardiff/Swansea/Wales become a brand?

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The anxieties emanating from the tangle that is travel, travel writing and authenticity of experience go back a long way. Two centuries ago, Wales was possibly even more crowded with people wandering around and writing about it, though fewer of them would have considered themselves Welsh authors. The late eighteenth century saw a huge rise in travellers to Wales, some from the Continent, but most from the rest of Britain. Among them were artists and writers (most of the major Romantic period authors make it over the border, quite a few of them on foot), but also increasing numbers of the better-off middle classes coming to the coast for their health, or for a change of air. Many tours of Wales were published; many more were not, and hundreds of relatively unknown letters and diaries – little goldmines of anecdote and experience – still survive.

Thomas Pennant (1726–98), the ‘curious traveller’ quoted above, is a key figure here. He was a landowner from Downing, near Holywell in Flintshire, best known as a naturalist, but also an antiquary, historian and entrepreneur with interests in local mining and cotton mills. From the early 1770s, however, following the publication of his accounts of two tours of Scotland, he became widely known as a travel writer. In the late 1770s he undertook a series of journeys around north Wales, often in the company of John Lloyd, the rector of neighbouring Caerwys. His accounts were published together as A Tour in Wales in 1784, and many subsequent tourists used Pennant as their guide.

Quite how they do this, I have yet to work out. Reading Finch while working on Pennant it is hard not to be struck by certain similarities. Many of the things that feel distinctively of our time – that copious jumble of material, the striking juxtapositions, the detours and digressions – are all there already. Pennant is famously omnivorous, and his narrative absorbs everything from brand-new cotton mills and captivating views, to the blighting of lichens at Mynydd Parys copper mines, Roman oil lamps, goats, laborious explications of the coats of arms of important families (he is undoubtedly a snob), miraculous fasting women and remote mountain lakes inhabited by peculiar-looking trout. Though there are whole sections where one feels as if one is riding and walking, and occasionally scrambling up rocks alongside the narrator (Snowdonia, as Jim Perrin has noted, is especially vivid), the Tour, as a travel narrative, is decidedly Shandyesque, grinding to a halt for pages at a time to set out reams of legal matter relating to this abbey, or that stately home; to provide all known documentation about the life and rebellion of Owain Glyndwr, or to speculate on the modus operandi of Flintshire’s Roman lead mines. As a guide book you’d think it would be perfectly maddening; but the citations show that, in their different ways, readers did use Pennant, not always uncritically, to make their way around. They also use him to write with: poems, even novels, set in Wales take their local colour, their historical anecdotes, from this authoritative heap of place-related information.

The other really distinctive feature of Pennant’s tours is their multivocality. These are composite texts, full of other voices, some acknowledged, some buried deep. The citations on the surface are what you’d expect: Camden notes, Gerald of Wales claims, I am reliably informed by Mr Vaughan, Esq.... But snippets and sections of letters from friends, informants and colleagues also get woven anonymously into the text, voices frequently recoverable from a vast local and international network of correspondence. The recovery matters, I think, because it complicates our sense of who the authorial ‘Pennant’ actually is – and this is one of the most fascinating aspects of travel writing as a genre from any period.

James Boswell didn’t think much of Pennant’s many-voiced approach; he accuses him, in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), of having ‘traversed a wide extent of country in such haste, that he could only put together a heap of curt frittered fragments of his own, and afterwards secured supplemental intelligence from parochial ministers.’ The absence of a strong authorial presence, and the reliance on others, detracts from the authority of the text as witness. Johnson himself was much more complimentary, but Boswell was right to notice how in his writings Pennant himself seems to disappear amongst other voices (Finch, in this respect, is rather more Johnsonian). And though he rode or walked every mile of the way, Pennant’s tours only occasionally pause to record the effect of place on him, physically or (even rarer) emotionally. ‘The day proved so excessively hot,’ he writes laconically of the expedition up Snowdon, ‘that my journey cost me the skin of the lower part of my face, before I reached the resting place, after the fatigue of the morning.’

It’s striking how rapidly this reticence changes in the thirty years or so following Pennant. Emotions become a crucial part of the story, and the success of a Welsh or Scottish tour increasingly involves the transport of both bodies and souls. Thoroughly primed by texts – poetry, novels, and above all other tours – but also by the wider availability of topographical and landscape prints, travellers approach the border not only better informed about where to stay and what to see, but with an increasing sense of what is expected of them. Many (especially the women, gratifyingly) fall into raptures and feel faint as soon as they approach the borders; and the ‘Alpine’ mountains of Snowdonia proper are reliably productive of ecstasy.

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‘The view from the hill above Harlech is so stupendous it shook my whole frame,’ wrote Catherine Hutton, who travelled widely and adventurously in the 1790s, with Pennant as her guide (‘no tourist’, she says firmly, ‘except Pennant, has seen Wales’). Hutton’s remarkable writings show how, almost as if to counter the textual saturation of the experience, the authenticity of the travel narrative shifts from external authorities to inner truths. Increasingly, it is the body which acts as a kind of witness to the power of landscape:

The sublimity of the scenes shook my nerves. The only way in which I could contemplate these towering hills, woody glens, and rushing waters, was on my feet. We sent the servant on with the horses, and walked nearly four miles before we reached Mallwyd; chiefly in the rain; always in the mire; but enraptured at every step we took.

Her lively sequence of letters to her brother ends with a passionate tirade against those who travel by coach, at speed, risking little, learning less:
‘To travel post in Wales is to fly [...] Travellers at this rate cannot see Wales [...] To find out all its beauties, a man must travel on foot; or at least on a Welsh Keffil.’

As, indeed, must a woman – which is a much trickier proposition altogether, and one of which Hutton is acutely aware. She would have appreciated Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust (2001), with its analysis of ‘the mind at three miles an hour’, her thoughts on women who walk, and her clear-eyed critique of a car-bound society that seems to have forgotten how to use its legs. I live, not in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but in a small farming community in west Wales; I reckon about half our village would consider it peculiar to walk even a few hundred yards to visit a neighbour.

By the late eighteenth century, real travel, of a kind that engages with a landscape and a culture, was already pitted against a speedy, superficial, and unreal ‘tourism’. And travel, even the ‘real’ variety, was already profoundly mediated by a print culture expanding as rapidly and dizzyingly as our own digital one. As today, this could be perceived as both blessing and curse: a way of enhancing lived experience, or a sort of false reality, a fictional glaze. Virtual living.

Meanwhile, back on the Gwent & Glamorgan coast, proceeding (one would expect no less from a former National Librarian) in an orderly and methodical fashion, section by section, another curious traveller has been taking notes, and pictures. Andrew Green’s ongoing blog of the Wales Coast Path, which officially opened in 2012, combines short evocative accounts of each day’s walking with beautiful photos; he has a nice turn of phrase, quiet humour, and an eye for quirky detail. And on closer inspection, he’s not so orderly either: the walks themselves appear on the blog not as a connected narrative, but as they happen, and getting them lined up from west to east is surprisingly tricky. More entertainingly, the official path itself has a habit of giving up on its walkers, turning them perforce into psychogeographers, as much prey to angry farmers and motorway flyovers as Finch himself. And everybody, it seems, gets thoroughly lost in the magical drifting dunes at Kenfig.

Finch and Green have very different voices, and see either quite different things, or the same things in different lights and weathers. It is striking, too, just how rapidly, between the two accounts, the landscape itself changes – cafés close, building-projects start up and peter out, trees fall, cliffs collapse. One could add to the mix several other recent accounts of the same stretch of coast – Planet’s current Retracing Wales series has authors responding to the Coastal Path in a variety of genres; coast walks, apparently, also make good television (HTV’s Coast to Coast; the BBC’s Coast, S4C’s Llwybr yr Arfordir). As with those earlier travellers’ accounts, these layered, multiple records capture not only the rapid evolution of place, and of responses to place, but the changing forms of the language and images used to express them.

It’s not hard to understand our own preoccupation with edges, in a country of so much coastline, so ravaged by recent storms. As cliffs (‘impermanent’,as Green puts it, ‘as cake’) fall into the sea, today’s coastwalkers will provide the future with deep maps of an extended Cantre’r Gwaelod. (Up the battered west coast, they will say, somewhere under Harlech castle, you can, on a still day, hear the rush of a train heading for Pwllheli along the old drowned line...). I had assumed that Romantic-period curiosity regarding coastal landscapes did not extend much beyond an interest in the resorts themselves, and the odd microcosms of society they supported. But then, serendipitously, I found (in an antique shop) a print of shipwreck near Aberystwyth by William Daniell. It was taken from A Voyage Round Great Britain Undertaken in the Year 1813, in which Daniell’s striking pictures illustrate Richard Ayton’s account of their exploration, on land and on sea, of the entire British coast-line. It is a brilliant read, full of (by now familiar) devastating juxtapositions of the rural and the industrial: a eulogy of the stunning little harbour at Briton Ferry is immediately darkened by Swansea’s poisonous copper-works – ‘a deadly blight on all vegetation’ whose ‘volumes of smoke, thick and pestilential, are seen crawling up the sides of the hills, which are as bare as a turnpike road.’ And, let’s face it, nobody writing today comes even close to beating turn-of-the-century style for deadpan humour (watch those commas):

Some travellers have declared, that all intercourse between the inhabitants of Gower and the adjoining parts of Wales is absolutely interdicted; and others, with a little more moderation, have said, that they will not intermarry, that their customs are distinct, and, particularly, that they wear very different kinds of hats. Nothing to corroborate these assertions fell within the scope of my observation….

All of which goes to prove the universally acknowledged fact that most interesting things have already been thought, said and done by about 1820. Postmodern travellers, should not, however, feel too discouraged: you can, after all, now choose between four different mobile apps (Dérive, Serendipitor, Drift and Random GPS) to help you get lost like a proper psychogeographer. You are encouraged to share your resulting narrative on social media. The last in the list, bafflingly, is designed for drivers: ‘Proceed three blocks and turn right; go through three roundabouts; follow a red car until you lose sight of it; stop to ask a passer-by for directions and take a picture.’ O non, non, non! That won’t do at all. Get out of the bloody car, shed the carapace, and start walking. No matter how well-worn and over-written the route, something will happen to you and you alone; a scent from your childhood, two white horses, a pile of rusting cars, a heron taking off – sudden light falling on a view that shakes your whole frame.


Postscript: This piece is an outrider to a new project, Curious Travellers, Thomas Pennant and Welsh and Scottish Tour (1760-1815), funded by the AHRC and involving researchers from University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies and the University of Glasgow. Over the next four years we’ll be exploring Pennant’s letters, unpicking his tours, and publishing many others. As part of the project we’re asking writers and artists – and geologists, historians, naturalists – to walk sections of Pennant’s Tours and write about it. Look out for their accounts on our Curious Travellers website, and get in touch if you want to take part yourself here


Works cited
[Richard Ayton] and William Daniell, A Voyage Round Great Britain Undertaken in the Year 1813; Damian Walford Davies, Cartographies of Culture: New Geographies of Welsh Writing in English (2012); Peter Finch, Edging the Estuary (2013); Andrew Green, ‘Wales Coastal Path’, gwallter.com; Catherine Hutton, ‘Letters from North Wales’, NLW MS 19079C; ‘Literary Tourism’: literaturewales.org/literary-tourism; ‘Maps and Makers * Mapio/Creu’: celfceredigionart.org; Cliff McLucas, ‘Deep Mapping’: cliffordmclucas.info; Mike Parker, Map Addict, Mapping the Roads; Coast to Coast; Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Wales (1784); Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust (2001).

Mary-Ann Constantine is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, where she works mainly on Romantic-period Welsh literature in both languages. She has also published two collections of short stories, The Breathing (Planet, 2008) and All the Souls (Seren, 2013). She is currently working on a novella set in unreal Cardiff.



       


previous essay: The Phenomenon of the Rain
next essay: A Summer Corridor



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