A typical geological expedition, 1880

Chain Coral
Chain Coral

Despite the sad circumstances of bereavement that had overtaken both Thomas and the Robertson family, Thomas’ abiding dedication to his all-consuming hobby of geology and palaeontology kept him busy through the summer of 1880.  His diary entry for May 26th – 27th gives a great deal of detail about an expedition accompanied by Mr Shrubsole of the Chester Society of Natural Science.

The 1881 census shows George Shrubsole aged 53 owner of a Chemist’s shop employing an assistant and two boys, living at 50, Northgate Street Chester with his wife Fanny, aged 50 and their sons George, 16, and Alfred, 14.  His assistant William Jones, 22, also lived in the house, and there was a General Servant, Eliza Edwards, aged 27.  George senior had been born in Faversham, Kent, and Fanny in Preston, Lancs.  George Shrubsole was sometime Chairman of the Geological section of the Chester Society, and a Fellow of the Geological Society.

I include a longer extract than usual, demonstrating Thomas’ very lively and quite elegant prose style, particularly the vignette of the confrontation with the irate farmer and the fishermen, both illustrating the slight tension between English and Welsh speakers and the incomprehension of the locals meeting these devoted collectors of the new-found and relatively suspect pursuit of geology and fossil hunting.  The Oxford confrontation between Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce had taken place only 20 years earlier, and the topic was still by no means resolved.

May 26 Wednesday  [1880] I left here on route for Glyn Ceiriog [SJ203382]. I started from here by 5.30 am in a trap to Corwen, where I arrived by 6.30. Left Corwen by the 6.50 train and got to Llangollen by 7.15. I crossed Llangollen Bridge for the first time, and went through the town, which I thought looked very clean and nice. I passed the front of Plasnewydd, well known as the residence where the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ spent their quiet lives. …

From Plasnewydd I had a very steep road to go up; it was almost as steep as the roof of a house. I stopped to rest and look back occasionally over the beautiful vale which was well worth the climb to see. There was the town, snugly nestled by the Dee, withy Castell Dinas Bran towering above the vale, backed up by the wonderful rocks of Eglwyseg.

I got to the top of the hill by the farmhouse of Penlan …I soon began to descend the very steep winding slope leading into the vale of the Ceiriog. My first view of it pleased me very much; it looked like as if the river had no outlet, and I thought it ran the reverse way to what it did until I consulted my map. I got first to the church which is … perched on the steep slope near some straggling houses which forms the village of what is called Llansantffraid Glyn Ceiriog. … About a mile from the church I came to the New Inn, which is situated by the river and at the terminus of the tramway. The New Inn is at the centre of a modern village, and surrounded by slate quarries. 

I was at the New Inn by 9 o’clock where I was to meet Mr. Shrubsole from Chester…… Mr. Shrubsole arrived at 11, so that I was now in my element. We were both very much excited when we met, and I in particular meeting a good friend in a ‘happy valley’ which was new to me, but which I long had wished to see. Mr. Shrubsole had been here before. We were soon equipped with bags and hammers , ready for hard work at fossils, for which we had here met. We crossed Pont-dwl-wern, and turned to the right up the side of the river, along the side of a wood. I was delighted, and in capital trim. Our hammers soon went clink clank and soon we had before us corals, shells, and fragments of Trilobites. I soon saw that we were working in the upper beds of the Bala rocks. We got many interesting things here, then we went upwards, although it was downwards in the beds until we got to a wall where it was built of blocks of limestone. I saw a block with curious white markings on it, and while examining it, I was asking Mr. Shrubsole where he found the chain coral when here before; his answer was that he could not exactly tell. I was particularly anxious to find some of it. I called Mr. Shrubsole’s attention to the markings in the block, which puzzled me as they were new to me. He gave an exulting shout which startled me; and clink clank went his hammer, all I could get out of him was ‘Chain coral!’ which at once made me quite excited. We were at work knocking off chip for chip, which we bagged, while Mr. Shrubsole teased me for not knowing chain coral.

Our fun was soon interrupted by a loud voice, and on looking round we saw a gaunt, tall, ill featured man coming up the road towards us, with quick, long strides, and evidently very excited. He came up almost breathless, and at once shouted, ‘Stop, stop gentlemens! Stop that! Don’t you know gentlemens that you are damaging my wall, you must not do that. I know what you be wantin – you be after the shells.’ I mildly replied thast we were, and that I had come from Bala to examine the Calch llwyd (grey lime) of Glyn Ceiriog, so as to compare it with the Calch llwyd of Bala; and to do that I must try and find some shells, and that I would be sorry to go back to my Bala friends without being able to find any. The Welshman looked at me for a little, then said ‘You be from Bala then. I said ‘Yes’. ‘Well you be talk Welsh’. I answered ‘Je, tipyn bach’ (yes a little). I watched his austere features gradually relax into a smile, then he exclaimed, ‘Oh gentlemens you not be the bad peoples I see come here from Manchester, them be very bad, they be knockin down my walls gentlemens.’ Mr. Shrubsole who watched the drama at once chimed in ‘Yes, the people from Manchester are a rough lot.’ Mr. Jones (as we learned) seemed pleased, and when Mr. Shrubsole added, ‘But we are not all like the Manchester people’ Mr. Jones at once said ‘No I see you be not like them, they be very bad indeed.’ I asked now if I might try for shells, because I wished to be able to tell the Bala people all about Glyn Ceiriog. Mr. Jones quickly answered with great animation, ‘Yes, sir, you get anything you want and go anywhere.’ I asked who was the landlord. Mr. Jones at once said ‘It’s my own land, it’s my freehold, and that place there where you will find an old lime kiln is the freehold of my uncle Richard Jones, and gentlemens, I give you leave to go anywhere you like on my land and on my uncle’s land.’ I thanked him very much and got a deal of information from him as he led us up to a kiln where he formerly burned the lime rock, which is the equivalent of the Bala limestone. He told us that it was 29 years since he had burned any; that about 30 years ago he sent it to the railway viaducts of Llangollen and Chirk to make cement for building, and that it was better than any other lime.

We worked hard near the old kiln and we were quite excited with our finds – beautiful weathered and solid chain corals stared at us; Omphyma, Petraia, and shells were bagged, until our bags and pockets were full. Near the kiln I saw a beautiful patch of the Orchis mascula. About 4 o’clock we returned to the inn well pleased with our bag, and ready for a good substantial meat tea which was soon ready for us.

After tea we put our fossils past, and made ready for another voyage of discovery. We went up the north side of the river. The valley was very narrow, with very steep slopes, covered with young larch plantations, where I could see the turtle doves flying from tree to tree. We got to the thick bed of felstone. This felstone had been quarried and sent to the potteries as ‘china stone’, but it did not answer, so that the works were abandoned. About two miles up we came to a little hamlet near Pont Menbion, at the foot of a little brook called Deirw which comes down a romantic dingle from Nantyr. It came on to rain rather heavy, so that we returned with a few minerals.

We spent the rest of the evening watching the young quarryman playing at football, and in reading.  We made up our plans for the next day’s work, and went to bed on a light supper. I was awoke next morning by a peculiar monotonous noise, and on looking out, I saw that the noise was caused by a heavy rain. I could see the river rushing down red with mud, and in a high flood, while pat, pat, pat went the pouring rain. It was a bad prospect, but I was thankful for the first day’s work, and content as I had the chain coral.

We enjoyed a good breakfast and read the Geological Journal, but still it rained, and the wind sighed through the trees. We next watched the idlers who were taking shelter in doorways, and who were making themselves as happy as they could.  At 12 o’clock the rain ceased gradually, so we sallied forth with our hammers and bags. We went up the wooded slope from Pont-dol-wern until we got to an old lime kiln almost hidden by young larch and brambles. Here I worked eagerly at the upper limestone bed, which was difficult as we could only get pieces here and there. I got several fossils, the most interesting being a beautiful Ischadites, and a Raphistoma, also a poor Orthisena and a nice Philodictya fucoides. From this we went up through the land of Richard Jones to Mynyd Fron-frys [SJ214371], famed for fossils, but we only got common species. We next crossed over to large quarries which are in the Tarannon shale, and which had been at one time extensively worked for slate. On the way I found the ‘Hirnant Grit’ in loose blocks.

We next followed the Oswestry road to near Nant Iorwerth having a fine view down the broad valley which extends along the Ceiriog from the New Inn to Pont Fadog. The sides of the hills are well-wooded and dotted with **** like farm houses. We turned up Nant Iorwerth [SJ364217]to a quarry where we got shells plentiful, among which were several mussels. A little higher in the beds we got to the Bala limestone bed where we got the chain coral Omphyma and Petraia, etc. Our bags were quite full, and even our pockets, so that we had to carry enough, and return to our inn, well pleased.

When crossing the bridge we observed a solitary fisherman fishing a little below the bridge.  Mr. Shrubsole asked him if he had any fish – no answer, but he stared hard at us. I thought he did not understand, so I said to him in Welsh as short as I could pysgod (fish), he shook his head and said ‘Dim’ (no); with the effort he took his line out of the water, and what did we see but a twin with a shoemaker’s waxed thread at the end of it instead of gut, and a monster worm on the hook. I did not wonder at his lack of success. Going up through the village the people stared hard at us from the doors, I could see the heads of the people half out of doors peeping at us. We met our friend John Jones of the previous day who put on the best smile he could, but which was only a hoax grin as he asked us if we had been successful, and he was very much pleased when we answered in the affirmative.

We got packed up, had a substantial tea, settled with the landlord, David Foulkes, and seated ourselves in the tram car. This car is very light, being only covered with canvas, and the same on the sides which can be drawn back at pleasure when fine, so as to have a view of the surrounding countryside. It is drawn by a horse, and runs smoothly along. The tram has a fall all the way from the New Inn all the way to Pont-faen, the terminus. We paid a shilling each for the tram ride. We were but a short time seated when the bugle sounded and off we went down the side of the Ceiriog. At Pont Fadog we picked up a passenger. Pont Fadog is a little hamlet where the tramway crosses the river. A mile or two lower down we passed a church, then we saw where the shale and mountain limestone meets. We next passed along the side of Chirk Castle park, where I saw unusually large elm trees and fine old hawthorns. I was very much pleased to see the viaduct and aqueduct of such fine proportions crossing the valley. When crossing over the splendid viaduct which spans the Dee we got a good view of the aqueduct which carries over the canal, both viaducts being the work of Mr. Robertson my employer. I parted with my friend Mr. Shrubsole at Ruabon, and I arrived home in good spirits and delighted with my trip which was very satisfactory.

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