Translation of Issue 52 pages 29-33 Y Tywyddiadur – yn cofnodi tywydd a ffenoleg yng Nghymru (rhan 2)

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Y Tywyddiadur – Recording weather and phenology in Wales (part 2)

Outlined in Part 1 of this series (Natur Cymru 50) were the types of Welsh diary data found in Y Tywyddiadur (“The Weather Record”), which forms part of Llên Natur’s website. Here DUNCAN BROWN and TWM ELIAS present some of the specific topics and case studies that arose from researching almost 90,000 entries in Y Tywyddiadur, highlighting the value of the Welsh evidence as an environmental resource within a wider context.

The past is another country. They do things differently there.

Welsh environmental evidence has existed for at least five centuries. Up until the 16th century sponsored poets included comments on their surroundings in their ballads, elegies and praise poetry. However, comments of environmental worth were included only occasionally, and semi-reliable records with the exact location and dating were even scarcer.

From then until the 19th century, Welsh-medium records of the environment were few and far between. However, keeping records of the Welsh environment through the medium of English was in vogue amongst educated members of the gentry, such as Edward Llwyd (17th century) and Thomas Pennant (18th century), while Morrisiaid Môn (18th century) recorded by letter in both languages.

In Part 1 reference was made to the increasing literacy of the Welsh populace under the influence of Griffith Jones Llanddowror’s travelling schools at the end of the 18th century, followed by Thomas Charles’ Sunday schools during the 19th century. In 19th century diaries we see the Welsh populace’s pride and enthusiasm for writing in their mother tongue, e.g. the diary of William Jones (17 years-old), Penbryn-mawr, Pen-y-groes(1):

18 January 1887: I tried to plough some never-ploughed land in Cae Main well there is not anything of note on my mind tonight, but just putting something down so that I learn to write it is raining hard now well what weather … I have no idea what it will be like tomorrow I’m not a prophet.(translation)

Records of daily weather and seasonal work (phenology) such as the above can provide valuable information about past weather patterns and the lives of ordinary people.

The French Revolution: an environmental phenomenon?
Natural events, if strong enough to influence the economy and lives of ordinary people, can also have an impact on politics and even the course of history. At such times the relationship between the one and the other is evident, but more often it is less so and tends to be ignored by traditional historians. One of the aims of the Llên Natur Project, and Y Tywyddiadur especially, is to attempt to remedy this trend.

Between 6 June 1783 and 7 February 1784 the Icelandic volcano Laki erupted, scattering tons of ash and sulphuric gases over large areas of the northern hemisphere, including western Europe. The ash distorted the weather, turning day to constant night and causing crops to fail, leading to a severe famine. This was one of the factors that sparked the French Revolution in 1789. The diary of Gilbert White of Hampshire contained detailed reports, but how did Laki affect Wales? According to John Grattan(2):

Laki and Wales is terra incognita at the moment. There is reference to a mysterious deadly fever raging in Carmarthenshire at the time the deaths were peaking elsewhere in the UK, but beyond that little is known. The poor weather of the three following years ought to have made life hard for a lot of farmers in Wales. As for the acid impacts ? nothing known as yet ? but no one has really looked – YET.

Y Tywyddiadur includes a poem published on 20 February 1784 (3), a year after the Laki eruption, which pleads with God for respite from the severity of the winter that followed the eruption:

Dy gerydd a gawsom (We have received your rebuke)
Bu Eira’n drwch fel Barn drom (Snow was as thick as heavy Judgement)
Dyrnod am bechod arnom (A battering for our sin)
Attal y dial o Dad byw’r oesoedd (Please withhold the revenge, living God of the ages)

A’th brysur ymweliad (And your speedy visitation)
Un Duw gwir yn dy gariad (One true God in your love)
Dyro’n glir dir ein g[w]lad. (Please bestow clearly on our country’s land)

On 29 November 1785, one of the famous Ladies of Llangollen wrote:
Powell at work in the New garden – digging among the Strawberries and raspberries and planting out 140 little rose trees which We have raised from Berries of Our Garden saved in the year 1783(4)

This is the first piece of evidence that we have of the likely effect of Laki on Wales, and in north Wales too, which is surprising considering that the effects of Laki in England came from the south.

In terms of weather, the 1780s was an exceptional decade. Did the 1788 drought and the harsh winter of 1788-89 have an influence on the riots in France the following year? This winter caused hardship throughout Europe, and a Frost Fair was held on the Thames for the first time for half a century. This was the first year to be recorded as ‘The Year of the Waxwing’ in Britain – probably because of the extreme winter in Scandinavia(4) .

The severe summer drought of 1793 resulted in a ‘Lost Winter’ – another blow to the French populace in the midst of their troubles. According to a report a century later (6), this drought could be felt in Wales:

SEVERE DROUGHT. A century ago, in 1793, a great drought took place, similar to the one that we are having at present. There was heavy rain for the first months of the year, but from April until September the atmosphere remained cloudless. There were only a few drops of rain in five and a half months. The months of May and June were particularly cold, but in July the wind turned and there was unusual warmth. Everything in the eye of the sun was unbearably hot, while men and women often fainted from the heat. At last, on 15th September, there was heavy rain, and the earth revived.

Where did house martins nest before houses had gable-ends?
Interesting topics can often arise from fairly innocent remarks in diaries, such as this from Harry Thomas, Llandudno:

8 June 1916: Misty rain which had fallen during the night soon clears. Walk with Doll & George to the Cross at the foot of Little Orme cliff. Count 20 House Martins [nests it must be assumed] against the cliff.

Do house martins continue to nest on Little Orme? In the above entry, Harry Thomas refers to the ‘Cross’, which is the memorial to the lad Hubert Stone who fell to his death while collecting birds’ eggs on 30 August 1897. The memorial is still there today.

Is it true that Malham Cove in Yorkshire is the only place in Britain where this bird nests on a natural cliff? This was Gareth Pritchard’s question when he sent in a photograph of the Little Orme: “How dependable are Harry Thomas’ facts!” An enormous number of cormorants – hundreds can be seen in this area. There is also hardly any mention of house martins in Marc Berw Hughes and Robin Sandham’s booklet, A Checklist of the Birds of the Great Orme and Little Orem’. However, Harry Thomas was a good naturalist. With such a time gap, every comment must be taken seriously.

Protecting the damp meadows of Cwm Eidda
The fields at Gwernydd Tŷ Uchaf, Padog, Pentrefoelas, or ‘Y Wernydd’ as they are called by the family who farm there, are a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of their rare communities of semi-natural grassland plants. In the diary of the late Mr D.O Jones there are entries describing the traditional management of the fields from 1939 until at least 1954, which throw light on the biological diversity of the site today.

20 May 1939: Peat-cutting in the Wernydd
17 October 1940: closed a gap in the Wernydd wall
12 December 1940: Finished fencing in the Wernydd
16 August 1941: Scythed in the Wernydd
9 September 1941: Shook hay swaths in the Wernydd with a pitchfork
26 February 1942: Burnt old, long coarse grass in the Wernydd
17 April 1945: Measured ditches on the frith and in the Wernydd, … in order to get a ditch grant from the government
April 1955: Ploughed stubble at the bottom of Wern Ganol (translation)

Lari Parc’s study of D.O. Jones’ entries will be on the Llên Natur website in the near future.

The Lynmouth Disaster 15 August 1953
Y Tywyddiadur is a means of sourcing stories that would not otherwise see the light of day.

Thirty-two people were killed when the river Lyn (Exmoor, Devon) broke its banks on 15 August 1953. A Welsh woman Rwth Tomos witnessed the event as a child:

I have a 4 year-old child’s memory of camping near Lynmouth with a group of lecturers (including my father) and some students. The tent where I slept with my two brothers was near the river. We were woken by rain. My big 5 year-old brother and I argued whether we should go to tell someone that water was coming into our tent (we had been given orders by Mam not to leave our beds). Two students came and carried the 3 of us on one bed up the slope towards the main tent. Halfway up they shouted for help and we saw our tent disappearing down the river. I saw my father running towards us. I was afraid that he would be angry that the tent had been lost but he took me in his arms and carried me towards the main tent. The main tent was full of people and my father was speaking to them. He said that he was going down to the village to tell people about the rain. I remember the words “I am only taking volunteers with me” but I could not understand why his voice was so serious.

The next thing that I remember is waking up and finding that the tent was empty apart from Mam and my brothers. She was busy at the table and I asked her what she was doing. She answered that she was making sandwiches for everyone when they returned but that I should go back to sleep as it was the middle of the night. I wondered why people would want food in the middle of the night, before falling asleep again.

The next morning the men were digging ditches around the tents to divert the rainwater away from them. My brothers and I had great fun jumping over them, and nobody got angry with us for being under their feet. Even when my little brother (almost 3 years-old) fell into one of the ditches and had to be pulled out wet and muddy, no one was cross with us.

Later on soldiers arrived. My brothers and I had ‘piggy-back’ races on the soldiers’ backs across the fields where water lay, making the ground too muddy for a Land Rover to come to us. We had lots of fun, and the most amusing thing was seeing Mam being carried across the field by one of the soldiers. Then we realized that Mam and the three of us were going home on the train without my father, who was going to help in the village. We were very disappointed as the holiday had been such fun. I did not realize until years later that a disaster had happened.

Here are the experiences of Welsh diarists of this and the following day:

15th August: Fairly sunny and dry. But by 16th August it had changed to: Tempestuous rain (John Owen Jones, Crowrach, Bwlchtocyn, Llŷn Peninsula) (translation)

15th August (Padog): Sold 25 male lambs in Pentrefoelas sale for 57/= each. Cut the hay in the bottom fields. Mam and Beti stacked two rows in Gefnen Wen. Heat in the morning and rain in the evening. (D.O. Jones – DOJ was In the hay on the 16th, it must have been sunny there) (translation).

The rain arrived in north Wales the following day, according to the Met Office report (7), and diarist ALlJ of Cerrig Gweunydd, Harlech, writes:

15th August: Sunny up to 1.30pm, scattered clouds by midday from NE…heavy thundery shower 4pm…rain 10.30pm (Floods in Lynmouth evening, 9 inches fell on Exmoor in 24 hours).

The above studies draw on the experiences of eyewitnesses. In Part 3 of this series we will be looking at weather events from a meteorological standpoint, showing how information from rural diaries can be interpreted in an astoundingly scientific way.

Duncan Brown was a nature reserve warden with the Countryside Council for Wales and before that with the Nature Conservancy Council. Since retiring he has focused on ways of looking at the natural world through local sources and through a historical perspective. He is the editor of the Llên Natur Project for Cymdeithas Edward Llwyd.

Twm Elias is involved with many environmental / community projects, including Cynefin a Chymuned and Llên Natur. He was formerly a lecturer and course organiser at Plas Tan y Bwlch, the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre.

1. Fferm a Thyddyn 53, (2014). Cymdeithas Hanes Amaeth Cymru.
2. John Grattan, Aberystwyth University. Pers. Comm. 2013.
3. Dafydd Thomas, Waun fawr ai Cant. (Black David from Snowdonia). NLW 6967B ‘Cell Gymysg’.
4. Mavor, Elizabeth (ed.) 1986. A Year with the Ladies of Llangollen. Penguin.
5. Lovegrove, R. et al (1994). Birds in Wales. Poyser.
6. Tarian Y Gweithiwr 13 July 1893 Welsh newspapers Online
7. See the MET Office report: Lynmouth Flood 15 August on