Page last updated at 08:21 GMT, Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Darwin's help from Welsh journey

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin wrote he "never ceased be be thankful" for the trip

As the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth is marked, an important link with north Wales is highlighted.

A week long geological field trip to Snowdonia helped frame much of the Victorian scientist's approach to his legendary sea voyage on the Beagle.

Darwin, who laid the foundations for the theory of evolution, used knowledge gained in Wales to inform discoveries on his five-year global voyage.

An exhibition exploring the Welsh link is open at National Museum Wales.

Tom Sharpe, senior geology curator at the Cardiff museum, said the Snowdonia trip was "influential" in his ideas on geology, a science which at that time in the 1830s was only just emerging.

The young Darwin left his Shrewsbury home and travelled to north Wales in August, 1831.

Cwm Idwal
Darwin returned to Cwm Idwal in 1842 when he realised the significance of glaciation

He left for Llangollen with the Reverend Adam Sedgewick, one of the leading geologists of the day, and they travelled to Ruthin, Conwy, Bangor and Bethesda.

While in north Wales, Darwin often walked long distances following a route parallel to Sedgwick's, noting the geology as he traversed the country. When they met in the evenings they compared notes on what they saw.

Mr Sharpe said the pair covered a big distance and this helped when, during his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin was in South America and had to travel great distances quickly in the course of his research there.

He was also able to make comparisons like comparing fossils and geology found in the Falklands with the geology he picked up in north Wales.

Darwin himself in his diaries referred to the trip and the importance he placed upon it.

Fossils of corals

In one entry while on the epic trip Darwin wrote "tell him [Sedgwick] I have never ceased to be thankful for that short tour in Wales."

In another entry, while in Uruguay, he wrote: "On the summit there were several small heaps of stones; which evidently had been there for many years. They were like, although on a smaller scale, the heaps so common in the Welsh Mountains."

After a week together on the 1831 trip Darwin and Sedgwick separated.

Darwin continued to Cwm Idwal, a valley high in the mountains of Snowdonia, where he identified igneous rocks and found fossils of corals. He then continued to Capel Curig and examined the rocks of Moel Siabod.

Before returning home, Darwin spent two more days walking 65 kilometres to Barmouth to spend a few days with some university friends. This took him over some very wild country near Ffestiniog and the Rhinog mountains.

Darwin exhibition at the National Museum Wales
The exhibition in Cardiff will remain open for a year

Darwin had been planning to make his own expedition to the Canary Islands but on arriving back in Shrewsbury there was a letter offering him a place on H.M.S. Beagle to survey the coast of South America and return via Australia and South Africa.

Peter Howlett, the curator of the exhibition, explained Darwin returned once more to Cwm Idwal in 1842, the last time he did any serious fieldwork because of ill health.

Eleven years earlier, he had not been able to spot the obvious signs of glaciation in the Snowdonia valley, because at that time theories of a great ice age had not emerged.

"It makes me groan to think I shall never again have the exquisite pleasure of making out some new district, of evolving geological light out of some troubled dark region," Darwin wrote.

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