‘Science under difficulties’ was the name given by Thomas to an expedition he undertook with his son Henry on the evening of the 30th September 1893. Henry was then 10 years and 11 months old. It was past mid afternoon before the pair set out, and they returned just before 8.00 pm, soaked through, and in the dark. It was a journey of, in my estimation, at least ten miles.
Saturday the 30th Henry and I left home at a 3:45 o’clock for Cae Howel lane. We had heavy showers on the way, but went on to the gate leading to Maeshir at Bwlch y Fenni. It cleared off when there and had every appearance of keeping fine and as I wished to hunt for boulders on the Aberhirnant side, we pushed on along the mountain road leading to Llangynog over Trwmysarn. I imagine Thomas’ main purpose was his new research on Glacial Drift.
Thomas describes the journey: We found one Arenig boulder near Cae Howel at an altitude above the sea of 1200 feet and again a boulder of the Aran ash where the road gets close to the brook of Nant-cwm-hesgen. That was all the boulders we found in our ramble. There were none in the bed of the upper part of the Brook all along the roadside all the way to the county boundary at Trwn-y-sarn.
It got almost dark at the county boundary and rained cruelly with a breeze of wind. We crossed themoorland on the south side of the hill called Moel-cwm-sarn-llwyd. It was a rough and tumble walk all the way to the Berwyn Road from Bala to Llangynog. We had to pick our way over bogs, through wet heather or rushes in semi- darkness until we got down to Palé Mountain stables, and most thankful we were to reach them in safety. It rained heavily all the way.
When we got to the road we were drenched from the knees downwards and our boots full of water. It didn’t rain much all the way home, but it was weary journey. It was science under difficulties. Henry followed without a murmur all through the worst part of it, and was glad he was with me. We got home a few minutes before 8 o’clock, and after a change of clothes and a wash we felt quite comfortable and enjoyed our supper. Neither of us will forget our experience over the rough bit of mountain between the two roads. Luckily we had waterproof coats.
Thomas instructed the children of his second family well in natural history. He probably had more leisure to do this with the five children born to Frances Harriet, and she too, encouraged by her expert botanist uncle, William Pamplin, was enthusiastic about outdoor pursuits. Only two of their children, the second family, married, and only Henry Ernest had a single child, a son Denys, the inheritor of Thomas’ journals before me.
Henry Ernest, a clergyman, inherited his father’s love of natural science, concentrating on astronomy, an interest which he passed on to Denys. Here they are in about 1940 in the garden of Braunston Rectory with their very impressive telescope.
Sometimes Thomas’ journal demonstrates his narrative ability as with his keen eye and lively writing he records an event. Here we read of the stir caused by (possibly) a nightingale, and of the opportunity this provided for a money-making enterprise for the fortunate locals. Without further comment, I leave you to enjoy the tale.
Saturday the 13th. [May] Mr Armstrong and I went to Llandrillo by the last train and walked from there to Tynycelin near Cynwyd to hear a so-called Nightingale, which has attracted hundreds to hear it every night. I was doubtful about the bird being Nightingale, so got Mr A. to go with me to hear it. We had a warm and dusty walk from Llandrillo, and it was more of a walk than I thought it was. We hardly met anyone all the way after leaving Llandrillo; in fact that people seemed to have gone to bed. When we got to Cynwydfechan we distinctly heard the loud notes of the bird in a little wood close to Tynycelyn, the house of Mr Jones. We got quite excited and after listening for a short time, we walked on until we turned in at the gate leading to Tynycelyn. As we went up a lane, we passed some people listening in the lane to hear the bird.
On arriving at the gate, there was a man there with a lantern to make all who entered the gate pay a penny. On paying, we found ourselves in a little grass field with Tynycelyn House on our left and a small wood to the right. Here was a curious scene; several groups of persons were either standing or squatting all over the field, and about the middle of it were displayed two lanterns where are man had sweets, cakes etc spread out on a canvas on the grass. We walked over to the side of the plantation where the bird sent forth its shrill notes within 3 yards of us. The bird was in a thick bush about a yard from the ground. There was a tall ash tree in the fence close to it, and here’s several people of both sexes were sitting on the grass quietly listening. The bird sent forth very loud notes. It began with three or four no, rather sweet notes, and then went into shrill, shivery notes for a few seconds, and then stopped. After a short interval it went over the same notes again, and repeated them at time after time with short intervals of rest. The notes were something similar to the notes of the wood wren, but much louder.
We went to different parts of the field to hear it – I thought before going that it might possibly be either the sedge warbler or the reed warbler, because both sing at night, but I soon came to the conclusion that it was not a sedge warbler and I did not think it could be a reed warbler. Curious to say, there was a sedge warbler in the same plantation singing in opposition to this so-called nightingale, I was pleased to hear the sedge warbler as a night singer, and it hardly ever ceased. I heard the nightingale when in France, but it was very different song from the present one; but some people who said they had heard a nightingale in England, declared the present bird to be a veritable one. On the other hand several people who had also heard the nightingale in Middlesex, were positive that the Cynwyd bird was not a nightingale. The bird was new to me and it pleased me much to hear it. I was glad I went so as to be certain about the bird if possible, for several so-called nightingales are said to have been heard in Wales. We arrived there about 10.15, left there a few minutes before 11 o’clock.
I made enquiries of the gatekeeper about it, and he said it was first heard on the night of the 24th of April, and attracted the notice of some persons by its louder singing at night. The bird commenced with two or three low plaintive notes which suddenly rose to loud rich notes, then gradually fell to a long drawn twee twee several times repeated and shivery as it were. The same were repeated after an interval of silence without any variation. It usually began to sing at 10 or a little before, and kept on until about midnight.
When we were leaving the field, several young men entered and began tripping one another and playing on tin whistles. Several have told me that it has been very noisy and rough there some nights and that there have been several fights. Many were in drink, for they stayed in the public houses, Cynwyd, until closing time; and when many of them got to the field they could hear nothing but quarrelling and uproar. The Prince of Wales Hotel, Cynwyd, was kept open all night for the accommodation of those who came from a distance. The coach went from Bala several times; bicyclists from various parts; horses and traps from Cerrig-y-Drwidion, etc. The man has had as much as 17 to 18 shillings of a night as gate money. Many of the people were much disappointed when they heard it, for they believe the nightingale was about the best of singing birds, that many were so pleased to say they heard the nightingale sing for once in their lives.
When Mr Armstrong and I were going down the lane to the road we heard some of those in the field join in choral singing as is the usual custom in Wales. They sang as loud as they could for some time and as soon as they stopped, donkey took it up and kept braying loudly for a long time. It is said that there is only a step between the sublime and the ridiculous. The donkey belonged to the man with the sweets. The noise quite drowned the notes of the bird. We had a long and dusty road before us, but we kept trudging on steadily. A wagonette from Bala passed us on its way to Cynwyd; it was crammed with people who were shouting and singing loudly. On getting to Hendwr bridge, we heard a sedge warbler singing at the side of the brook. Several people told me they heard a bird singing in several places near the river as they walked along the railway, from Tynycelyn, and that it was nearly as good as singer as the nightingale, but not as loud. Corncrakes were calling in many of the fields all the way home. We disturbed a white throat near Hendwr in the hedge, and another near Llanwen Cilau; both gave three or four notes and suddenly stopped.
I picked up a glow-worm near Crogen it was very bright, and kept so in an envelope all the way home. It was luminous on the following evening. When near Tydyn Inco, we heard a sandpiper sending forth its shrill notes near the river. We were very glad to get home, for we were rather tired; having walked in all about 11 miles on a dusty road, and the weather was very warm. It was very warm walking for it registered 69 ½° in the shade during the day, and the night temperature was 42 ½ and a half on Sunday morning. There had been 11 ½ hours of sunshine on the Saturday. I got into the house here at 1.35 in the morning, and Frances was very pleased when she heard me come in, for she was anxious about me.
Wednesday the 19th April I received a copy of Bye-Gones 1891-1892 in one volume from Mr Woodall the proprietor. It is a valuable and handsome present and contains contributions from myself.
Occasionally Thomas makes reference to something that reveals more about his activities beyond his employment as Head Gardener at Palé. With the growing addition of archive material online, it is often possible to follow up and view the originals. Similarly with the National Newspaper Archive, it is possible to see reports of events referred to in the Journal.
Copies of Bye-Gones are available online via the National Library of Wales. It seems that Thomas contributed regular weather notes (reproducing those in the journal) and occasional nature notes, also featuring items from the journal.
Sir Henry Beyer Robertson and his wife do not seem to have entertained guests to Palé as frequently as did his father. Suggestions are that income was not as generous as in former days; Thomas had to decrease his garden staff immediately after Henry Robertson’s death in 1888. H. B. Robertson was not involved in national political life as his father had been, and the arrival of two young daughters in a family which would eventually expand to six children kept Lady Roberson busy. However, some guests did arrive, and didn’t escape Thomas’ critical and sometimes judgmental eye.
Saturday the 25th [March] Mr Justice Williams, his wife and daughter came to stay at Palé for the Assizes at Dolgelly in the beginning of the week. Sir Henry as High Sheriff invited them to be his guests.
Sunday the 26th Sir Henry had the Judge and party about with him. The Judge is an elderly gentleman of dark complexion; his wife and daughter much resembled him; being of a gypsy cast of countenance. The lady employed at most of her time this day in winding worsted, knitting, and washing socks or stockings. In the evening Sir H with the Judge, the Sheriff Chaplain and the Judge’s secretary amused themselves by playing billiards until very late. The Rev Dan Edwards (late of Bala) now of [space not filled -ed.] Is the chaplain.
There was no private religious service, nor did any of them go to the church. Rather strange way of spending a Sabbath. It was a very miserable day to go anywhere, for much snow fell during the night with sleet showers all day, which made the roads deep in snow sludge. But such people might have spent Sunday differently.