This French traveller’s visit in 1789 to the great Thomas Pennant, whose works he had pored over and in whose footsteps he had travelled to Wales, proves a terrible anti-climax, and much less satisfying than his meeting with a rather chattier schoolmaster in Abergele.
Charles-Etienne Coquebert de Montbret (1755-1831) was a young diplomat who travelled through Wales with his Irish-speaking secretary and son, en route to a new job in Dublin in September 1789. In his ‘carnets de voyage’, that remained as unpublished and rather messy papers in the Rouen town library until their publication in 1995 as Voyage de Paris à Dublin (Lyon: Université Saint-Etienne, 1995), Coquebert constantly measures his observations of Wales against those of Thomas Pennant: ‘Pennant dit que….’ ‘Pennant indique…’, ‘Pennant croit que…’; and according to his editor he has used Pennant’s Voyage de Chester à Londres to establish his own travel route from London to Chester (in reverse), and sees Wales though his reading of Pennant: ‘lorsqu’il visite certains sites, il observe avec, interposée à son regard, la vision développée par Pennant’ (p. 22).
His library contained plenty of Pennant: British Zoology (1769), The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell (1796), The History and Antiquity of London (1813), as well as the two books that his travel notes mention at White’s in Fleetstreet, London: Pennant’s tour to Wales [sic.] (1778) and Tour to Chester [sic.] (1783) (though he does not say whether he actually purchased them or just saw them). And he didn’t stop there; there were some 26 books relating to Wales in his library of 632 titles on Britain, including a Bible in Welsh ‘La Bible en gallois (Londres, 1769), two Welsh dictionnaries (namely Evans, Vocabulaire gallois et anglais, 1804, and Owen, Dictionnaire de la langue galloise expliquée en anglais, London), a number of travelogues and some poetry: The Heroic elegies and other pieces of Llywar[ch], translated by M. Owen (London, 1792).
The content of his ‘carnet de voyage’ is quite a mixture. Coquebert was no Romantic traveller: rather he was a professional fact-finder who saw Wales through the eyes of an administrator. He would return to his notes to add detail at a later date, which suggests that they served as his personal data-base of information. For instance an anecdote about Pennant is supplemented a few years later by a paragraph of biographical information on him. The first reference to Pennant comes in Coquebert’s description of Holywell and its numerous mills. Here Pennant is quoted as an authority on how many tonnes of water are supplied per minute: 21 (p. 167), before the story of Saint Winifred is retold with a dose of French scorn at the people’s credulity.
Then comes the most exciting part, for him and for us. 2 ½ miles out of Holywell, Coquebert says, they make a detour to visit ‘Downing, maison de campagne de M. Pennant, auteur de plusieurs voyages intéressants et d’ouvrages d’histoire naturelle’ (p. 168) [Downing, country house of Mr. Pennant, author of a number of interesting tours and works of natural history]. He continues: Pennant is 40 or 50 years old, looks good, as does his son, who had just returned from a tour of France, Switzerland and Italy. Pennant reportedly tells Coquebert that he was preparing a description of London and a catalogue of animals in India, and that he thought that these would be his last works. It is then that things turn to disappointment: Coqubert reports that they did not find at Pennant’s house any collection of natural history as they had hoped. An things go from bad to worse when he claims that they were not made to feel particularly welcome:
‘la reception qu’il nous a faite a été à l’anglaise, c’est-à-dire passablement froide’ (p. 169)[The reception he gave us was in the English style, that is rather frosty].
Coquebert finds it hard to understand that somebody who was himself well travelled, and had occasion to appreciate a good reception, should show such a disinclination to welcome (‘fêter’) travellers who have bothered to make a detour of three miles in order to visit him. He has better luck with a schoolmaster in Abergele, whom he summons one evening and from whom he learns all about Welsh poetry, bards, harps, the Gwyneddigion society in London, and the Eisteddfod. Altogether more satisfying!
To learn more about the travels of Coquebert de Montrbret and other Europeans in Wales, visit the website of ‘European Travellers to Wales 1750-2010’ an AHRC-funded project: etw.bangor.ac.uk