Michael Faraday watches water fall

September 10, 2021 0 Comments
Thomas Phillips, Michael Faraday (1841-2) (National Portrait Gallery)

In 1819 a brilliant young chemist came to Wales on a walking tour.  He had little money – his family was poor, and he was still technically an apprentice at the age of twenty-seven – so walking was more economical than coach or horseback.  He was eager to see the country, but he had a special interest: finding out about the industrial processes being used in the new iron and copper works.

His name was Michael Faraday.  He had received hardly any formal education, but Sir Humphry Davy had recognised his scientific talent some years before, and employed him as his laboratory assistant.  It was not long before he was extending his scope from chemistry to electricity: two years late he invented the world’s first electric motor.

Faraday had already visited Josiah John Guest’s ironworks at Dowlais and John Henry Vivian’s copperworks in Swansea, and was on his way north, staying at the Lamb and Flag inn at Glynneath.  The Lamb and Flag, which still exists, was an old inn, well-known for its good food and hospitality.  Three years earlier, Taliesin Williams, the son of Iolo Morganwg, had written an English poem while staying there.

On Monday 19 July, with Mr Jenkin Price of the Lamb and Flag as their guide, Faraday and his travelling companion, Edward Magrath, walked from Glynneath to see the waterfall of Henrhyd, on Nant Llech near Coelbren.  Their approach was along the old Roman road from Neath to Coelbren, where he saw the ramparts of the Roman fort.  Further on they ‘suddenly heard the roar of water where we least expected it, and came on the edge of a deep and woody dell’.

Henrhyd falls

The three men go ‘tumbling and slipping and jumping and swinging down the steep sidles of the dingle’.  Thorns and wet branches attack them, they dislodge stones that fall into the chasm below, and before they reach the bottom their boots are soaked and so slippery that they can bear little weight safely.  They’re rewarded by a fine view of the tallest waterfall in south Wales, Henrhyd Falls.

In his journal of the tour Faraday has this to say about the waterfall:

The effect of the wind caused by the descent of the stream was very beautiful. The air carried down by the stream, the more forcibly in consequence of the minute division of the water, being resisted by the surface of the lake beneath, passed off in all directions from the fall, sweeping many of the descending drops with it.  Between us and the fall the drops fell brilliant and steady till within a few inches of the bottom, when receiving a new impulse they flew along horizontally, light and airy as snow.  A mist of minute particles arose from the conflicting waters, and being driven against the rocks by the wind, cloathed them with moisture and created myriads of miniature cascades, which falling on the fragments beneath polished them to a state of extreme slipperiness.

This passage could almost have been written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in one of his notebooks.  It belongs to an age, the first age of romanticism, when an intense poetic feeling for the natural world co-existed, without the slightest hint of conflict, with the notating eye of the scientist.  The falling drops, the minute particles, the miniature cascades and the slippery rocks are carefully examined and recorded – with the minimum of ‘poetic’ language – but Faraday combines them to capture a near-ecstatic moment of time.

After this he retraced his steps, eager to return and see the waterfalls above Pontneddfechan. (He missed the magical path along Nant Llech towards Cwm Tawe, which C and I walked a week ago in our Henrhyd trip in honour of Faraday: underfoot the going was as slippery and treacherous as in his day.)

Batman at Henrhyd

Visitors to Wales in the ‘first tourist age’ often chose attractions to visit on the basis of images they’d seen, or written accounts by their predecessors.  This was as true of Faraday as of other travellers.  Many of the places he sought out – Devil’s Bridge, Cadair Idris and Parys Mountain – were stock destinations on the established tourist routes.  He tells us that the reason he chose Henrhyd and the other falls to visit was that he’d seen pictures of them in the Lamb and Flag.  Nowadays the equivalent stimulus for many visitors to Henrhyd is Christopher Nolan’s Batman film The dark knight rises, in which the falls conceal the Bat Cave.

Faraday, like many scientists of his age, was interested in geology, and his journal makes many references to geological points of interest on his travels through Wales.  But he failed to notice a remarkable feature of Henrhyd.  The discovery was made nineteen years later by the pioneering Swansea-based geologist William Edmond Logan, who had been preparing a detailed geological map of the western coalfield (he later became the first director of the Geological Survey of Canada).  Lewis Weston Dillwyn recorded in his journal on 3 April 1838:

Four large Sigillariae rising vertically through strata of shale and sandstone, as if they had grown on the spot, were this day discovered by my friend, W.E. Logan Esq., in Cwm Llech, near the head of the Swansea valley.

These Carboniferous ‘tree ferns’ were preserved in a bed of shale and sandstone, above a seam of coal.  Logan excavated them and had them moved to the museum of the Swansea Philosophical and Literary Institution; in 1941 they were placed outside the new Museum building built by the Institution, by now called the Royal Institution of South Wales.  They still stand there today: most visitors probably pay them little or no attention.

In 1864 Faraday wrote a letter to Logan recalling their acquaintance and congratulating him on the publication of his geological survey of Canada.  He ends the letter with these sad words:

I am getting somewhat old [he was 72] and my hand refuses to carry the pen over the paper as steadily and freely as it used to do … I wish I knew more of geology than I do, but my memory is gone, and I never had the opportunity of observing in the fields the valleys and the mountains.  I hear of you continually from the men I most value.

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